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Ouzo jury wouldn't buy negligence case

Rejects prosecution’s argument that ferry officer’s failure to act caused the deaths of three British sailors

Rejects prosecution’s argument that ferry officer’s failure to act caused the deaths of three British sailors

The manslaughter case against a ship’s officer in the Aug. 21, 2006, loss of the sailboat Ouzo and her three-man crew in the English Channel centered around a David and Goliath scenario.

Here was a Sailfish 25 sloop, under sail with dim running lights and a radar reflector 6 inches in diameter. Coming toward it in the pitch-black night south of the Isle of Wight was a 580-foot ferry — the largest sailing out of Great Britain — making 19 knots.

It was a confrontation Goliath was bound to win.

But the Ouzo crew still could have survived, the prosecutor told the jury of 12 in Winchester Crown Court in Hampshire. They might still be alive had Michael Hubble, the 61-year-old officer of the watch on the ferry, Pride of Bilbao, done the right thing, the prosecutor argued. Hubble, having seen a small boat at the last minute and turned the ferry sharply, kept steaming ahead when he looked aft and saw a red light and then a white light behind his ship. Over the next three days, the bodies of the three sailors were recovered.

Their deaths, prosecutor Bill Stiles argued, were the result of Hubble’s inaction — a negligence that amounted to manslaughter. If convicted, he would go to jail. The jury disagreed with Stiles, acquitting Hubble in December of all three manslaughter charges. The jurors could not reach a conclusion on three lesser misconduct charges. Stiles says he will not retry Hubble on those charges.

“Their decision surprised me,” Stiles says. “I thought we had a very good case that was well-presented.”

The case rested on the same evidence gathered by the British Marine Accident Investigation Board, whose report concluded that the Pride of Bilbao had sunk Ouzo. The sailboat was never found, despite an extensive search with side-scan sonar by the Royal Navy, Stiles says.

Hubble maintained throughout the six-week trial that while his ship had a close encounter with a small yacht, it was not Ouzo. His defense included testimony from his peers about Hubble’s extensive time at sea and his good reputation, according to published reports. Hubble’s attorney, Richard Barraclough, did not return phone calls and requests for an interview by e-mail.

During the long trial, Stiles brought “about 60-odd different witnesses, mostly professional witnesses,” to make his case that it was Hubble’s ship that sank Ouzo and that it was Hubble’s indifference that doomed the crew. These witnesses included experts on pathology and hypothermia to talk about “how long they [the crew] lasted in the water” wearing inflated life jackets and clothing appropriate for the conditions, he says. Stiles says he brought in experts on tidal systems, hydrodynamics (a professor who explained how the wake of the ferry would affect the sailboat) and climatology. The witnesses included “professional mariners giving their expert opinion on what they would have done in that situation,” says Stiles.

“The defense did pretty much the same,” he says. Defense witnesses “pretty much disagreed on certain aspects of our professional witnesses.”

One problem confronting Stiles’ team was the absence of physical evidence. The Royal Navy’s search was conducted on waters with a rocky bottom, Stiles points out. Ouzo could have slipped into a crevice, he says.

The three yachtsmen on board Ouzo — Rupert Saunders, 36, son of the boat’s owner; and his friends Jason Downer, 35 and James Meaby, 36 — were experienced sailors who all had spent time on the boat. They were making a passage from the boat’s mooring in Bembridge to Dartmouth, where they planned to compete in the annual Royal Regatta. Ouzo, a dark blue 1980 Sailfish 25 with a retractable keel and 12-hp Kubota diesel, had been bought new by Saunders’ family.

When the three friends arrived at the Bembridge harbor Aug. 20, they had missed high tide, and Ouzo, with its keel up, was sitting on the bottom. Their departure was delayed until 8:30 that evening, when the crew headed south under power in the setting sun.

After midnight, Aug. 21, Ouzo was under sail and heading southwest in light west-southwest winds — 4 to 5 knots, gusting to 6 knots —on a course that eventually would converge with that of the Pride of Bilbao. Hubble’s defense attorney argued that at the same time, the tanker Crescent Beaune was traveling on a westerly course in the English Channel that would have caused it to collide with Ouzo at 1:40 a.m.

Stiles, following the logic of the MAIB report, which he was barred from presenting to the jury, argued that Ouzo and the Pride of Bilbao collided at 1:07 a.m. “I think that’s what happened in the end,” Stiles says. “The jury couldn’t be sure it was the Pride of Bilbao that hit Ouzo.”

Stiles says Hubble, who had retired in February 2006 from the ferry line and then was hired as a fill-in officer through an employment agency, is now free to return to his trade.