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Skipper’s death could have been avoided, says sheriff

Scott MacAlister
Scott MacAlister

A fisherman who died after his boat sank off the west coast would be alive today if he had heeded his partner’s desperate plea to make a Mayday call earlier, a sheriff has ruled.

Dad-of-three Scott MacAlister, 40, was killed when the prawn trawler Speedwell took in water and submerged near Easdale Island, Argyll, in April 2013.

A fatal accident inquiry at Oban Sheriff Court had heard the boat had almost sunk on two previous occasions in the month prior to the tragedy.

Sheriff Patrick Hughes, who issued his findings yesterday in a 57-page determination, ruled that Mr MacAlister, who was working the boat alone, would most likely have survived had he worn a lifejacket.

The sheriff added: “Both the accident and the death might have been avoided if the vessel’s owner (John Connell) and skipper had ensured that the vessel was in seaworthy condition and, in particular, had ensured that the problem with the aft hatch, which had already caused the vessel to nearly sink on two occasions, had been remedied before the boat went back to sea.”

He said that it could also have been avoided had the vessel had been properly equipped with a functioning bilge alarm and pumps, which would have been able to draw attention to and expel unwanted water from the vessel.

The sheriff added: “The death, though not the accident, might also have been avoided if Mr MacAlister had been wearing a functioning lifejacket [and] if the Mayday call had been made earlier.”

The fisherman made a call from the Speedwell to his partner Victoria McNab at 12.50pm as the vessel was taking in water.

The sheriff said: “On hearing of the boat’s condition, her reaction was to suggest calling the Coastguard.

“Mr MacAlister rejected this. In doing so, he badly underestimated the danger he was in.

“If the Mayday call had been made at that time, boats would have arrived within twenty minutes, i.e. either before the sinking or immediately after it.

“Their presence at that time would not have stopped the boat from sinking but there is at least a lively possibility that they could have got Mr MacAlister off of the vessel in time, or retrieved him from the sea very soon after the loss.”

The sheriff also ruled: “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.

“By the date of the accident the vessel’s flares and smoke signals had passed their expiry date.”

Mr Connell could not be contacted for comment.

‘Disappointed’ with the findings

The father of Scott MacAlister last night said he was “disappointed” at the sheriff’s findings, claiming he had hoped for “more definite conclusions”.

Peter MacAlister, 70, said: “After more than five years I had thought there may have been more solid and damning findings, particularly against the owner.

“However, we have just seen the judgement and will have to take it all in before deciding what action to take next.”

The sheriff had heard that Mr MacAlister had entered into an agreement to fish for prawns using the boat owned by John Connell, who he had met through his previous employment on the ferry between Luing and Seil, which Mr Connell was skipper at the time.

The sheriff concluded: “Mr Connell was not Mr MacAlister’s employer, he had no power over him. In court Mr Connell did not present as a forceful individual, and it was hard to conceive of him pressuring anyone into anything.

“It seems more likely than not that Mr MacAlister, who clearly had a strong work ethic and who also had a large young family to support, was keen to get out and earn money after having been kept from fishing for two weeks by bad weather and the financial dispute.

“Having got through the previous two near-sinkings without too much trouble, and knowing that the problem only manifested in choppy weather, he may have thought that it would be safe to take the boat out on this day. If this was his thinking, he overestimated how favourable the weather would be on this day, and underestimated how important it had been to have had a second person on board to help out on the two previous occasions.”

Mr Connell could not be contacted for comment.

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