Doug Innes, boss of Stormforce Coaching, has been found not guilty of manslaughter - but the Cheeki Rafiki trial has raised questions about safety advice following groundings

Douglas Innes, whose company Stormforce Coaching managed the Beneteau 40.7 Cheeki Rafiki, has today been cleared of manslaughter by gross negligence. Cheeki Rafiki capsized mid-Atlantic in 2014, leading to the deaths of four men.

Innes was charged with four charges of manslaughter by gross negligence following the deaths of Andrew Bridge, 22, James Male, also 22, Steve Warren 52, and Paul Goslin 56, all of whom were lost at sea when Cheeki Rafiki’s keel ripped off on the return delivery from Antigua to Southampton in May 2014.

Andrew Bridge, 22, James Male, 22, Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin 56 were all lost at sea when the Cheeki Rafiki capsized

The acquittals bring to a close four years of proceedings by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) who sought two failed prosecutions. After a six week trial in 2017, Innes was found guilty of failing to ensure the vessel was operated in a safe manner, contrary to section 100 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the manslaughter charges. Innes awaits sentencing on the Merchant Shipping charges.

This year a second, lengthy retrial saw the jury reach a verdict of not guilty on 25 April.

Having observed stretches of both the trial and the retrial in Winchester Crown Court, it is clear to me that there are no winners in this case. Certainly the families of Andrew Bridge, James Male, Steve Warren and Paul Goslin have gone through months of listening to conflicting accounts of the events leading up to their loved ones’ deaths, repeated again and again.

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The case has brought no clarity on many of the issues raised in it. A single line of the Maritime Guidance Note 280, on whether coding authorities should be notified in the event of a grounding, was subject to very different interpretations by expert witnesses called by opposing sides.

The advice specifies that the authority should be notified ‘in cases where the vessel suffers major damage…’ or ‘minor damage, detrimental to the safety of the vessel’.

Four years after the Cheeki Rafiki capsized, there is no updated advice on whether every grounding should be reported, or whether owners of non-coded yachts should haul out, inspect or survey after every grounding, no matter how light.

In an unusual move, the jury requested permission to comment on the maritime guidance note, telling the judge it was “deeply concerned” about it, and hoped it would be reviewed and tightened to help improve safety.

The case highlighted the loopholes in coding legislation that require a yacht to be Category 0 coded – with higher level safety equipment – for commercial offshore sailing, but not for trans-ocean racing, or deliveries.

It brought to light the fact that some of the MCA’s own legislation did not have statutory force. Defence counsel Karim Khalil QC said in his closing speech that the regulatory bodies oversaw “a chaotic system of conflicting advice” that was “hopelessly muddled”.

Khalil added: “The MCA has been misleading the yachting community for 14 years, because they have been asserting that MGM280 has been in statutory force. They are wrong.”

Maritime and Coastguard Agency Chief Executive Sir Alan Massey speaks outside Winchester Crown Court

Reacting to today’s verdict, Alan Massey, CEO of the MCA, said: “This was a horrific and tragic incident in which four people lost their lives.  And of course, the impact of those losses on their families remains devastating.  The Maritime & Coastguard Agency carried out a thorough and extensive three-year investigation into and around the circumstances of the loss of yacht Cheeki Rafiki in May 2014.

“The sea can be an extremely hostile place. Make sure your vessel is safe, in strict accordance with its certification, and make sure it’s properly maintained and fit to be at sea.  You could otherwise find yourself facing serious charges in court.’

Cheeki Rafiki - Stormforce Coaching

Cheeki Rafiki racing in the UK

Regarding the jury’s comments about the MGN280 guidance note, he was quoted on Press Association as adding: “They have made some recommendations. We are going to follow those up. Of course, if we need to review or even amend the terms of that guidance notice, we will.

“[We need to] look and ask ourselves ‘is there enough legal force in these regulations as they stand to be able to follow through cases of non-compliance?’”

Outside Winchester court today a spokesperson for the four families said:“We have lost our loved ones and our lives have been changed forever.  Nothing was ever going to bring Andy, James, Paul and Steve back.  They will never be forgotten.

“It is clear from the jury’s comments that there is a need to tighten up marine guidance so that the regulations cannot be misinterpreted.  This will help to make our seas a safer place…a fitting legacy for our four men.”

Douglas Innes. PA Photos

Listening to the evidence, it was striking how every incident the prosecution used to suggest that Innes was slapdash or unprofessional – the meetings in the pub, the delivery miles advertised for free, the bucket of cola to clean rusty tools – sounded damning read out in the coldness of a courtroom, but are entirely unsurprising to anyone in the sailing industry.

Most haunting were the final emails sent from the boat, informal and jokey, but revealing the danger the crew was in: “Why is my rum floating? James just hit a bit [sic] wave hard and it fixed the stereo.”

Four years on, there is much greater awareness of the danger of keel failures, but the industry – both operators and legislators – also needs to establish exactly what is best practice when it comes to surveying and coding to keep yachts seaworthy.