Cheeki Rafiki yacht director cleared over sailor deaths

The director of a yacht management company responsible for 'Cheeki Rafiki' has been cleared of the manslaughter of four men who died when their vessel capsized in the Atlantic.

The publicity of the court case concerning responsibility for the tragic capsizing of the ‘Cheeki Rafiki’ sent a stir through the marine industry and created heightened awareness of the inherent risks of vessels with defective keels. As a result, Verisona Law’s marine specialist, Tim Reynolds, is acting for an increasing number of clients who have discovered problems with their yacht keels.

In May 2014, ‘Cheeki Rafiki’ had been returning to Southampton from Antigua Sailing Week when it lost its keel 700 miles off Nova Scotia, capsized in the Atlantic Ocean and all four men aboard lost their lives.

Douglas Innes and his Southampton company ‘Stormforce Coaching’ were accused of cost cutting and failing to get the vessel checked before the voyage. The vessel had previously been grounded three times in three years, had an undetected fault with the bolts which held the keel to the hull, both were found guilty of failing to ensure the safety of a boat by a majority of 10-1.

Partly as a result of such a high profile and tragic loss of life, many boat owners have been paying considerably more attention to this vital part of their vessels’ structure, inspecting them for similar problems, with some alarming results. As the news spread of the judicial verdict over the summer, Verisona Law is now receiving increasingly large numbers of enquiries including from concerned owners.

‘We are currently involved in a number of cases where owners have discovered defective keels on their new or recently purchased used vessels,’ says Head of Marine, Tim Reynolds.

Two such cases involve clients who had each purchased their vessels with the benefit of a full professional survey, and in both instances the surveyor failed to spot clear signs of early failures in the all-important internal keel support structure. Having threatening to bring a claim for negligence against one of the marine surveyors concerned, a sensible agreement has been reached and the client is now awaiting settlement of the remaining balance of a six figure compensation claim. By contrast, in the second case, different insurers are resisting all sensible proposals for compensation and repair, making court proceedings increasingly likely.

The other cases relate to the increasingly common problems experienced by owners of comparatively new craft, who are experiencing significant leaking and failure of the keel hull joint.

Tim offers the following tips:

  • use a reputable, qualified and recommended surveyor who is an accredited expert in the construction method involved
  • ask for and take up references and any offer of anonymised previous survey reports
  • carefully check the terms and conditions to ensure that they do not seek to impose a time limit of less than five years on any claims for breach of contract or negligence on the surveyors part, or put some arbitrary financial limit on any claims
  • be prepared to walk away if they try to impose and refuse to delete any of the above
  • be present when the survey is carried out, asking questions
  • read the report and any “let out" clauses carefully.

‘When buying new, either carry out a full pre-delivery inspection yourself or get a surveyor to do so on your behalf so you know that you are getting a boat in good order,’ Tim Reynolds advises. ‘Note and diarise the duration of the warranties, raise any matters of concern with the suppliers immediately and resist any temptation to be fobbed off with common assurances that such matters can be left to be resolved at the end of the season, or are the natural consequences of a grounding event.’

Tim Reynolds is Head of Marine at Verisona Law and can be contacted on 023 9231 2052 or by email to tim.reynolds@verisonalaw.com.  


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