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The owner of a fishing boat that sank off Easdale with the loss of its skipper Scott MacAlister, refused to allow the wreck to be raised because the grieving father had not asked him ‘nicely’, a fatal accident inquiry heard on Friday.
‘The way he spoke to me, I was not very keen to help him in any way,’ John Connell, 59, told Oban Sheriff Court. ‘If I had been asked politely, nicely and decently, permission would have been granted straight away.’
Mr Connell agreed Mr MacAlister was ‘the author of his own misfortune’, in the fifth day of the inquiry into the sinking of the Speedwell on April 25, 2013, adding he would not have let the boat sail if he knew it was unsafe.
Mr Connell, the former skipper of the Cuan ferry, bought the Speedwell, a cygnus 28ft trawler, for £30,000 in 2008. The court heard a Spanish fisherman Javier Martinez then skippered Speedwell for a period in 2009-10, fishing ‘not very successfully’, Mr Connell said, in Loch Sunart.
‘We had words,’ Mr Connell said, ‘I was not over confident about his abilities.’ Procurator fiscal David Glancy suggested Mr Martinez told him the Speedwell had been taking on water. ‘No,’ he replied.
Mr Glancy asked: ‘Do you remember Mr Martinez saying: ‘Until you fix the boat I am not taking it out?’ Mr Connell replied ‘no’, adding it did not take on water when he retrieved it from Ardnamurchan.
Mr Connell spent £7,000-£8,000 to convert Speedwell into a creel boat. ‘In 2012 the boat has been reconfigured to fish for creels,’ Mr Glancy said: ‘All you needed now was a fleet of creels.’
But Mr Connell said he could not afford to fish for creels. ‘They were very expensive,’ he said, estimating the cost to be £25,000-£30,000. Then in late 2012, he said Scott MacAlister, his former ropeman on the Cuan passenger ferry, approached him to use the Speedwell as a trawler.
Mr Connell spent ‘thousands’ re-rigging it, and work was finished by February 2013, when Scott MacAlister began fishing it as skipper, with Robert Gate as crewman. Over the next two months, Mr Glancy said, the Speedwell was ‘earning and there is a distribution of funds’. But Mr Gate stopped working on the boat.
Earlier Mr Gate told the court of two ‘near sinking’ incidents as the Speedwell returned to Cuan from Loch Buie, when the aft compartment filled with water and had to be bailed by bucket.
‘It is a small community of people,’ Mr Glancy said: ‘Was there ever any report to you of water coming into the aft compartment, not once but twice?’ ‘No,’ Mr Connell replied.
The court heard Mr Connell had bought two submersible pumps, similar to a bilge pump, in November 2012. ‘I imagine Scott asked me,’ he said. He did not know where they were fitted or how many pumps were on-board.
Mr Connell was ‘fairly certain’ he saw a bilge pump in the aft compartment, which he said he did not install, and he did not know if it was wired in and capable of working.
On April 3, three weeks before the boat sank, Mr Connell bought a bilge pump and a float switch, after, he said, he was asked by Scott. ‘Did Scott tell you which bilge pump had packed up and needed to be replaced?’ Mr Glancy asked. ‘No,’ Mr Connell replied.
‘You told us it was in your ability to fit a bilge pump,’ Mr Glancy said: ‘Could Scott fit a bilge pump?’
‘I do not know if he [knew] how a bilge system works,’ Mr Connell replied. The pump was handed to Scott but, he said, ‘it was found in the back of Scott’s pick-up. It had not been installed.’
Mr Connell said two weeks before the sinking, Scott had called to say ‘he was finished’. Mr Connell’s lawyer, Michael Thompson, said: ‘As far as you were concerned your relationship with Scott came to an end. If Scott MacAlister wanted to use the boat without your knowledge, did it require any form of security?’
‘He could just walk in,’ Mr Connell replied.
Mr Glancy said: ‘It seemed no matter what was said in the phone call, normal service resumed with Scott working the boat.’
Alexander McLaughlin of Luing, Scott MacAlister’s former skipper, described him as ‘an experienced fisherman’ and ‘very hard working’. ‘I never had any problems with his work,’ he said.
A week before the Speedwell sank, Scott had asked the diver to help remove a 16mm creel rope wrapped around its propeller and shaft ‘a couple of times’, which he cut at the blades, leaving no damage. ‘I did not mark it,’ he said.
Around 1pm on April 25, minutes before the Speedwell sank, Mr Connell said Scott left a message on his landline answering machine, saying only: ‘John.’ Mr Connell, who was away that day, explained: ‘I had access to the ferry and I could be of assistance.’
After Scott’s mayday, his school friend Mr McLaughlin was on the sea searching ‘within 20 minutes’, describing its state as ‘moderate’, and the weather ‘rough’. ‘I followed the diesel leak until I could see where the diesel was coming to the surface,’ he said, locating the site where the wreck was eventually found.
Mr Thompson asked Mr McLaughlin who would be responsible for a boat taken out to sea. ‘It is joint, between the owner and the skipper,’ he answered. ‘The skipper should be keeping the owner abreast of issues on the boat.’
Mr Connell agreed Scott had been the Speedwell’s ‘manager’. His lawyer, Michael Thompson, said: ‘He [Scott] fixes up the boat but the deal is 50:50 after expenses. Who does the maintenance to bring it up to standard?’ Mr Connell replied ‘Scott MacAlister’ or an engineer.
‘On April 25 the boat was lost,’ Mr Glancy told Mr Connell: ‘Did you reflect on any thing or things that might have caused the boat to go down.’
‘Yes,’ Mr Connell replied, ‘but I am not an expert.’
Within a fortnight of the sinking, Mr Connell said Scott’s father Peter MacAlister had asked for his consent to lift the boat from the seabed. ‘It was not so much a request, more a demand,’ Mr Connell said. ‘The man was understandably upset. But the way he spoke to me, I was not very keen to help him in any way.’
‘Had permission been given, they might have got to the bottom of what caused it to go down to the bottom,’ Mr Glancy said: ‘Your position had the effect of frustrating that. Your position was ‘no’.’
‘I did not have the money to lift the boat,’ Mr Connell said. ‘If I had been asked politely, nicely and decently, permission would have been granted straight away.’
The MacAlister family’s advocate, Lewis Kennedy, said: ‘You were not prepared to give consent for the boat to be lifted because of the way you were asked. Do you think there were more things at stake than taking umbrage?’
Mr Connell replied: ‘I believe I said I could not afford to raise the boat.’
‘He never asked you for money,’ Mr Kennedy said. ‘He was not remotely rude. He suggested the boat had to be lifted. He said you would have to move quickly.’
Mr Connell said: ‘I assumed if it was my vessel I would be paying.’
‘Why did you assume this?’ Mr Kennedy asked: ‘Did you phone a friend?’
‘I do not know,’ Mr Connell replied.
‘Was it in your interest to leave the boat at the bottom?’ Mr Kennedy asked. ‘No,’ Mr Connell replied.
His lawyer, Mr Thompson, asked: ‘Has it not been made clear you now have no objection to the boat being lifted?’ ‘Yes,’ Mr Connell replied.
Mr Kennedy said Mr Connell had refused to attend an interview under caution with the MCA. ‘I do not understand what you are talking about,’ Mr Connell replied: ‘I have no knowledge of being asked by the MCA for anything.’
Mr Connell’s lawyer Mr Thomson asked: ‘You know there has been an MAIB investigation. Did you provide material for the investigation?’
‘Yes,’ replied Mr Connell: ‘Everything they requested.’
The MacAlisters’ advocate, Mr Kennedy, asked Mr Connell: ‘You have heard about people borrowing safety equipment just for a safety inspection. If an owner were strapped for cash there might be a temptation. Did you borrow the equipment for the inspection?’ ‘No,’ Mr Connell replied.
Mr Kennedy asked: ‘There was no evidence of life jackets being found in the flotsam and jetsam, and none were found on the wreck. Are you sure there were life jackets on board?’ Mr Connell responded: ‘There were certainly life jackets there the last time I was on the Speedwell.’
Mr Kennedy said: ‘If a bilge pump is not working, it may not be known a bilge pump is not working. That is why it is important to service bilge pumps.
‘After the safety inspections in 2009, was there any safety inspection, even on an ad hoc basis? Is that anything that ever occurred to you?’ Mr Connell replied: ‘No comment.’
Mr Kennedy asked: ‘You are exercising your right to remain silent?’ ‘No comment,’ answered Mr Connell.
Mr Kennedy added: ‘It would really have been appropriate to instruct an electrician to fit the bilge pump.’ ‘No comment,’ Mr Connell replied.
‘You also said it did not have an auto-pilot,’ Mr Kennedy said.
‘It did not have a working one,’ Mr Connell replied: ‘It never worked.’
‘That could be a serious potential problem on a single-handed boat,’ Mr Kennedy said. If a person were distracted by an emergency such as the boat taking on water, he said, they could easily lose control of the steering.
‘I do not know,’ Mr Connell said. ‘Everyone would like the best possible boat. It is not always possible. It is a costly item, yes.’
‘Was it ever insured?’ Mr Kennedy asked. ‘No,’ replied Mr Connell.
Mr Kennedy continued: ‘One of the first outlays you should make before putting it out to sea was to insure it.’ ‘No comment,’ Mr Connell replied.
Mr Kennedy said: ‘There is no good reason for it not to be insured, especially if you are employing people.’ Mr Connell gave no response.
Mr Thompson asked his client: ‘Have you ever refused to buy something for the boat when asked?’ ‘No,’ Mr Connell replied.
‘If Scott had asked you for life jackets, would you have done that?’ Mr Thompson asked. ‘Yes,’ replied Mr Connell.
‘If you were told this thing that costs £40,000 was sinking, what would you have done?’ Mr Thomson asked. ‘Rectified it,’ Mr Connell said.
Mr Thompson said: ‘If the boat was unseaworthy, he chose to go out in it. He is the author of his own misfortune. Do you agree?’ ‘Yes,’ Mr Connell replied, agreeing he would not have let the boat sail if he had known it was in an unsafe condition.
Mr Glancy, the fiscal, put to Mr Connell: ‘By the time we get to April, the boat has cost you £40,000. The return on your investment was less than £5,000. The more the boat sailed, the bigger the catch, the bigger the return. Was there any pressure that was ever applied?’
‘No,’ Mr Connell replied.
Mr Connell agreed the Speedwell’s life raft was at least five years old and the flare and smoke packs had ‘effectively expired’. ‘The annual self-certifications were not done,’ Mr Glancy said.
‘I did not know they needed to be done,’ Mr Connell replied. He could check life jackets himself, he said: ‘As far as I was concerned they were good life jackets.’ He said he saw them ‘on the shelf next to the computer hard drive’.
‘You cannot say whether the bilge pump in the aft room was operating,’ Mr Glancy said. ‘There was no visit to the boat, no spot check. Are you aware of the phrase absentee landlord? You are really not having much to do with it at all.’
Mr Connell replied: ‘If Scott wanted something done to it, all he had to do was ask.’
‘When Scott asked you to buy a bilge pump, you bought a bilge pump,’ Mr Glancy said. ‘Do you accept there may well have been areas where you could have been more proactive looking at aspects of safety on that boat?’
‘At that time I was going through a very difficult time,’ Mr Connell said: ‘I was suffering from depression. So yes, I could have done.’
Mr Glancy concluded: ‘On their own each of these may not mean much, but they can be greater that the sum of their parts. You have to accept that whole. It cost you dear in financial terms: in excess of £40,000 has gone forever. Other people paid a heavy toll on the Speedwell.’
The inquiry continues.