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GJW Direct 2020

Not Guilty manslaughter verdict returned following the loss of the Cheeki Rafiki

by Maritime & Coastguard Agency 26 Apr 2018 07:13 BST
Cheeki Rafiki - close up of sheared keel bolts © US Navy

On Wednesday at Winchester Crown Court, Yacht Manager Doug Innes was found not guilty on four charges of gross negligence manslaughter.

Andrew Bridge (22) from Surrey, James Male (22) from Hampshire, Steve Warren (52) and Paul Goslin (56), both from Somerset, all died when the Cheeki Rafiki capsized in May 2014 while returning across the Atlantic Ocean to Southampton from Antigua Sailing Week.

Douglas Innes along with his company Stormforce Coaching had denied all charges, but in June 2017, a jury at Winchester Crown Court found him guilty of failing to ensure the vessel was operated in a safe manner under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. However, they failed to reach a verdict on the four charges of gross negligence manslaughter and a retrial was ordered, which began in February this year. Sentencing for the previous guilty verdict is scheduled for 11am on May 11th, 2018.

Mr Innes had been accused of failing to have the yacht properly checked ahead of its voyage and to ensure that its certification was in date for the intended trip. During the voyage, Mr Innes received an urgent email from Andrew Bridge on board the Cheeki Rafiki saying there were problems and water was coming in. He received a second message a little later saying the situation had got worse.

Mr Innes returned home, called the UK Coastguard at Falmouth and emailed the crew suggesting they check the bolts of the keel. The court heard that a number of bolts had failed before the yacht had even left the UK in October 2013 en route to Antigua. It was the failure of those bolts that eventually caused the keel to detach from the yacht when she was in mid-Atlantic more than 700 miles from Nova Scotia in Canada, leading to a catastrophic capsize.

An extensive search and rescue by the US and Canadian Coast Guards was launched for the crew after two personal locator beacons were set off. The yacht was eventually found by a container ship on 17th May, two days after Mr Bridge's urgent email had been received by Mr Innes. No bodies have ever been found. The life raft was found still attached by swimmers from the USS Oscar Austin on 25th May 2014.

Following Wednesday's verdict, Neil Cunningham who was the lead investigator for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, said:

'Today a three-year investigation has come to an end, it has sent a clear message out about the responsibility of those who oversee yachts to make sure they are well maintained and seaworthy.

'Four families had their lives completely devastated when James, Andrew, Steve and Paul were lost at sea. We have made sure right from the start that we have worked with the families and kept them in touch with how the investigation has been going. Our thoughts are still with them through what has been and still is a terribly difficult time.'

Sir Alan Massey, CEO of the MCA, said:

'This was a horrific and tragic incident in which four people lost their lives. And of course, the impact of those losses on their families remains devastating. The Maritime & Coastguard Agency carried out a thorough and extensive three-year investigation into and around the circumstances of the loss of yacht Cheeki Rafiki in May 2014.

'Mr Innes was today acquitted on the gross negligence manslaughter charges by a jury and we respect that decision.

'However, he had been previously convicted for failing to operate the Cheeki Rafiki in a safe manner under the terms of the Merchant Shipping Act.

'The sea can be an extremely hostile place. Make sure your vessel is safe, in strict accordance with its certification, and make sure it's properly maintained and fit to be at sea. You could otherwise find yourself facing serious charges in court.'

Outside Winchester court today a spokesperson for the four families said:

'We have lost our loved ones and our lives have been changed forever. Nothing was ever going to bring Andy, James, Paul and Steve back. They will never be forgotten.

'It is clear from the jury's comments that there is a need to tighten up marine guidance so that the regulations cannot be misinterpreted. This will help to make our seas a safer place... a fitting legacy for our four men.'