Yacht Manager Aquited of Manslaughter Charges

April 25, 2018

Yachting Journal

The director of a yacht management firm was cleared of manslaughter charges bought on by the death of four sailors in 2014.

Four U.K. men – two in their twenties and two in their fifties – were killed when the 40-foot Cheeki Rafiki capsized in the Atlantic in May 2014 while returning across the Atlantic Ocean to Southampton from Antigua. The sailors’ bodies were never recovered.

Yacht manager Doug Innes, who 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, has been found not guilty on four charges of gross negligence manslaughter today at Winchester Crown Court.

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 May 11, 2018.

During the voyage, Innes received an urgent email from one of the men on board the Cheeki Rafiki stating there were problems and water was coming in. He received a second message a little later saying the situation had got worse.

Innes returned home, called the U.K. 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 U.K. 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 U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards was launched for the crew after two personal locator beacons were set off. The yacht was eventually found by a containership on May 17, two days after the urgent email had been received by Innes. No bodies have ever been found. The life raft was found still attached by swimmers from the USS Oscar Austin on May 25, 2014.

Following today’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.”

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, “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.”

Alan MasseyAntiguaAtlantic Ocean