An investigation into the sinking of a fishing vessel off Harris last year, with the loss of one of its crew members, found that the cause of the incident was a failure to detect flooding in the fish hold as a result of an alarm being disconnected.
At 3pm on Thursday 21st February, 2013, Stornoway coastguard received a “mayday” message from the skipper of the ‘Achieve’ — a 10-metre creel boat which operated out of Leverburgh.
At the time of the incident, the vessel was heading back to port having lifted three fleets of creels. She was six nautical miles north-west of Taransay in “turbulent” seas and a force four south-easterly wind.
She also experienced a significant “slam” when near the small island of Gasker.
The vessel had a slight starboard list and was down by the stern. When it worsened, the skipper asked for the creels to be moved. However, the vessel only “settled further down by the stern and the sea washed onto the deck”.
The crew then donned their lifejackets and started throwing the creels overboard. The skipper ran to the engine room and started the wash pump to take suction from the fish hold.
By the time he came back on deck, the starboard quarter of the boat was under water. The skipper made a “mayday” call over VHF radio but did not state the vessel’s position. He and another crewman took to the liferaft and a third, Norman MacLeod, jumped into the water.
The connecting rope to the liferaft had snagged on the vessel’s mast and with the engine still running the boat went round in circles. The skipper eventually managed to cut the liferaft free.
After freeing from the boat, they made their way to Mr MacLeod and he was taken aboard the liferaft suffering from hypothermia. It is estimated that he was in the water for around 20 minutes.
The Stornoway coastguard helicopter airlifted the three men to the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway where, despite resuscitation attempts, Mr MacLeod, who was 46, was pronounced dead. His heart was not in a healthy condition.
A report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch found that the rescue attempt was delayed by 45 minutes after the vessel’s name was misheard as ‘Accord’, and no position was given.
It found that the skipper had not deployed an automatic distress system by the press of a button, which would have taken three seconds and which would have stated the boat’s correct name and position. His “mayday” message took eight seconds.
The report said: “Although the cause of flooding cannot be determined with certainty, it is considered most likely that, when the vessel experienced a heavy slam off Gasker, a hull plank under the waterline was sprung which allowed water to flood into the fish hold.
“Although the forward bilge alarm was functional, it did not operate during the accident as all the water accumulated aft due to the vessel’s stern trim. As the bilge alarm in the fish hold was disconnected, the crew did not receive any warning of the flooding.
“The bilge pump was set to operate in automatic mode. As there were no running lights or alarms to indicate that the pump was working, the crew would not have been alerted to the flooding in the aft fish hold.”
It added: “Although the vessel’s DSC enabled VHF radio and the MOB (man overboard) Guardian system had distress call buttons capable of transmitting vessel details and position, neither was used to send out a ‘Mayday’ call. The ‘Mayday’ call transmitted by the skipper over VHF channel 16 was incomplete and resulted in the rescue efforts being delayed by more than 45 minutes.”
The MAIB have now issued a safety leaflet on the use of the Digital Selective Calling distress system.