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A fatal accident inquiry into the death of Luing skipper Scott MacAlister, who drowned when the trawler Speedwell sank off Easdale five years ago, has recommended lifejackets should be compulsory for all fisherman working on open decks.
The inquiry into the death of the 40-year-old father of three, headed by Sheriff Patrick Hughes at Oban Sheriff Court in June, heard evidence from search and rescue crews, investigators, Mr MacAlister’s father Peter, former crew and the Speedwell’s owner John Connell.
Sheriff Hughes published his findings on Friday August 31, beginning: ‘Scott MacAlister died in the Firth of Lorne, at a point approximately two cables, or 400 yards, south of Insh Island, on April 25 2013 at approximately 1.08pm.
‘The cause of death was drowning. The accident which resulted in the death was the sinking of a fishing vessel, the Speedwell, of which Mr MacAlister was skipper and sole occupant.
‘The sinking was caused by the vessel’s aft compartment becoming flooded by seawater coming in through the aft deck hatch, which was not secure or watertight. The increasing weight of this water, combined with a loss of stability due to the ‘free surface effect’ of the water’s movement inside the vessel’s aft compartment, caused the boat to sink.’
The accident and Mr MacAlister’s death might have been avoided, Sheriff Hughes ruled, ‘if the vessel’s owner and skipper had ensured that the vessel was in seaworthy condition’.
In particular, he added, if they had ensured ‘the problem with the aft hatch, which had already caused the vessel to nearly sink on two occasions in the four weeks prior to 25 April 2013, had been remedied before the boat went back to sea [and] the vessel had been properly equipped with a functioning bilge alarm and bilge pumps, able to draw attention to and expel unwanted water from the vessel’.
Finally, Mr MacAlister’s death would have been avoided ‘if Mr MacAlister, knowing that these precautions had not been taken, had chosen not to take the boat to sea that day’, ‘if Mr MacAlister had been wearing a functioning lifejacket’ and ‘if the Mayday call had been made earlier’.
Sheriff Hughes continued: ‘The vessel’s owner and skipper had inadequate regard to the requirements of health and safety. In the four years prior to the accident, no attempts were made to have any of the lifesaving equipment suitably maintained or serviced in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions.
‘Nor in that period were any checks carried out to confirm whether any of it was capable of working. No health and safety risk assessments were carried out in that period. By the date of the accident the vessel’s flares and smoke signals had passed their expiry date.
‘On the day of the accident, the boat was operated single-crewed when the autopilot was not functioning. This meant that when the boat began taking on water, any effort to manually bale out water from the aft compartment required Mr MacAlister to leave the wheel and go aft. The vessel’s lack of steering would then lead it to turn and present its whole length to the waves, exacerbating both the loss of stability and the flooding.’
Sheriff Hughes recommended that the current code of practice – ‘that all crew working on the open decks of fishing vessels at sea or in categorised waters wear Personal Flotation Devices (ie lifejackets or buoyancy aids)’ – be replaced with a mandatory requirement to that effect’.
In his final comments, he expressed his condolences to the friends and family of Mr MacAlister. He said: ‘It was clear from the evidence that Scott MacAlister was well-liked and respected within his community.
‘In managing to bring a sinking vessel, in challenging weather, across the Firth of Lorne from Loch Buie to within mere minutes of safety at Easdale, he showed himself to be a seaman of impressive skill and determination.’
Sheriff Hughes added that even when faced with terrible danger, Mr MacAlister displayed great courage by ‘retaining the presence of mind to give clear and informative details to the Coastguard’.
He also recognised the ‘impressive display of generosity and community spirit that was shown by so many people, businesses and institutions at that difficult time’.
He gave particular recognition to diver Graeme Bruce who, on four occasions, risked his own life by diving to depths that ‘police and even military divers could not reach’.
Sheriff Hughes said: ‘He did this to help a grieving family with whom he had had no prior connection. His actions showed altruism in the purest form.’