Weak Keel Blamed For Yacht Disaster Which Killed Romsey Sailor

29 April 2015, 07:09

An official report has found a structural weakness after repairs may have been to blame for a yacht disaster which claimed the lives of a Romsey sailor and his three crew mates.

22-year-old James Male was heading back to Southampton from Antigua last year.

Previous groundings and subsequent repairs to the Cheeki Rafiki may have caused the weakening at the point where the keel was attached to the hull, the report added.

One or more keel bolts on the yacht may have deteriorated and it was ``probable that the crew were fatigued and their performance was impaired accordingly'', the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report also said.

But MAIB concluded:  ``In the absence of survivors and material evidence, the causes of the accident remain a matter of some speculation.''

The four men lost in the May 2014 disaster were captain Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham, Surrey, and crew members James Male, 22, from Romsey; Steve Warren, 52, from Bridgwater, Somerset;  and Paul Goslin, 56, from West Camel, Somerset.

They had been taking part in a regatta in Antigua and were sailing back to Southampton when their vessel capsized approximately 720 miles east-south-east of Nova Scotia in Canada on 16 May.

The MAIB report said that at about 4.05am, an alert transmitted by the personal locator beacon of Cheeki Rafiki's skipper triggered a major search for the yacht involving US Coastguard aircraft and surface vessels.

The next afternoon,  the upturned hull of a small boat was located. However, adverse weather conditions prevented a closer inspection and the search was terminated on the morning of 18 May.

The next day , following a formal request from the UK Government, a second search was started. On the afternoon of 23 May, the upturned hull of a yacht was located and identified as being that of Cheeki Rafiki.

On investigation, it was confirmed that the vessel's liferaft was still on board in its usual stowage position. With no persons having been found, the second search was terminated in the early hours of 24 May. Cheeki Rafiki's hull was not recovered and is assumed to have sunk.

Today's report said:

``In the absence of survivors and material evidence, the causes of the accident remain a matter of some speculation.

``However, it is concluded that Cheeki Rafiki capsized and inverted following a detachment of its keel. In the absence of any apparent damage to the hull or rudder other than that directly associated with keel detachment, it is unlikely that the vessel had struck a submerged object.

``Instead, a combined effect of previous groundings and subsequent repairs to its keel and matrix (or lining) had possibly weakened the vessel's structure where the keel was attached to the hull.''

The MAIB went on: ``It is also possible that one or more keel bolts had deteriorated. A consequential loss of strength may have allowed movement of the keel, which would have been exacerbated by increased transverse loading through sailing in worsening sea conditions.''

The report said the yacht's operator, Stormforce Coaching Ltd, had made changes to its internal policies and had taken a number of actions aimed at preventing a recurrence.

Also, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) had undertaken to work with the Royal Yachting Association to clarify the requirements for the stowage of inflatable liferafts on such vessels, and the Royal Yachting Association has drafted enhancements to its Sea Survival Handbook relating to the possibility of a keel failure.

The MAIB made a recommendation to the British Marine Federation to co-operate with certifying authorities, manufacturers and repairers with the aim of developing best practice industry-wide guidance on the inspection and repair of yachts where a glass reinforced plastic matrix and hull have been bonded together.

A recommendation has also been made to the MCA to provide more-explicit guidance about circumstances under which commercial certification for small vessels is required, and when it is not.

Further recommendations have been made to sport governing bodies with regard to issuing operational guidance to both the commercial and pleasure sectors of the yachting community aimed at raising awareness of the potential damage caused by any grounding, and the factors to be taken into consideration when planning ocean passages.