Stormforce owner convicted in Cheeki Rafiki trial
The owner of the yacht Cheeki Rafiki, which was lost at sea in 2014, has been found guilty of failing to ensure the safety of the yacht.
The jury at Winchester Crown Court convicted Douglas Innes, 42, of the charge by a majority of ten-toone and also found his company, Stormforce Coaching Limited, guilty of the same charge. Mr Innes displayed no emotions when the verdict was read out.
The jury was unable, however, to reach a verdict on four charges of manslaughter by gross negligence, and the case will be retried.
The 40ft Beneteau First 40.7 yacht capsized in the North Atlantic, 700 miles from Nova Scotia in May 2014 after losing its keel, resulting in the death of all four crew on board: Andrew Bridge, 22, James Male, 22, Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin, 56.
An extensive search and rescue operation, which saw US and UK government intervention, successfully located the vessel’s hull but did not find any survivors.
The prosecution argued during the trial that Cheeki Rafiki should have been inspected before she left Antigua for the UK as part of her Category 2 MCA coding. Mr Innes failed to have the yacht coded as Category 0, and it later emerged that some of the keel bolts had been broken ‘for some time’ before the yacht left the UK in October 2013, they argued.
The RYA responded to the verdict, saying: ‘Whilst Cheeki Rafiki’s tragic passage was not part of RYA training activity, the delivery was arranged by an RYA-recognised training centre. In light of the court's findings, the RYA suspended recognition of Stormforce Coaching as an RYA Training Centre pending referral to the Training Committee. The RYA also suspended all relevant instructor qualifications held by Mr Innes with immediate effect, pending a tribunal.’
Doug Innes also made a statement, saying: ‘Following the recent verdict in the Cheeki Rafiki trial on Friday 14 July, the RYA understandably suspended our recognition the same day. Without accreditations we are unable to trade and it is with great sadness that I have made the decision for the company to cease trading.’
Gus Lewis, director at Dorade Law, explained the possible sentences: ‘The charge of failing to ensure safety falls under Section 100 of the Merchant Shipping Act and carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. The charge of manslaughter by gross negligence is much harder to prove and the existing conviction is no indication of a conviction for manslaughter.’
Farr Yacht Design president Patrick Shaughnessy, an expert witness in the case, advised sailors talk to their yacht designer: ‘If you have an incident that potentially caused structural damage, contact your yacht designer. Your life, and those of your crew, depend on your decision-making.’
Paul Birch, managing director of Bishop Skinner Marine insurance, added: ‘All boat insurance policies should have a clause in them allowing lifting-out in order to sight the bottom after an event such as grounding, even if there is no damage then found.’
Yachtmaster examiner John Simpson, felt, however, that Mr Innes may be being made a scapegoat: ‘The yachting industry needs to take some blame for building boats that risk this kind of keel loss.’
Cheeki Rafiki had multiple grounding incidents prior to her keel loss and capsize in the Atlantic