Jury considering its verdict in Cheeki Rafiki manslaughter by gross negligence case after the Beneteau 40.7 lost its keel and capsized in 2014

The jury in the trial of Douglas Innes and Stormforce Coaching, operators of the yacht Cheeki Rafiki that capsized mid-Atlantic in 2014 leading to the loss of four crew members, has retired to consider its verdict.

After more than a day of summing up from the judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, the jury at Winchester Crown Court has retired to consider the evidence in the complex month-long trial relating to the deaths of Andrew Bridge, 22, James Male, 22, Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin, 56. All four died when the Beneteau 40.7 Cheeki Rafiki capsized mid-Atlantic on a return trip from Antigua Sailing Week to Southampton in May 2014.

Doug Innes, 42, the director of Stormforce Coaching Limited, denies four counts of manslaughter by gross negligence.

Innes and Stormforce Coaching also deny two further charges of failing to ensure the vessel was operated in a safe manner between 18 March 2013 and 18 May 2014, contrary to section 100 Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

The trial, which opened in early June, has heard from expert witnesses explaining maritime surveying and coding practices, yacht construction methods, navigation and passage planning, and composite debonding and metal corrosion processes.

Cheeki Rafiki - Stormforce Coaching

Cheeki Rafiki racing in the Solent during a previous season

Mr Justice Dingemans explained to jurors on Monday, 10 July that the prosecution was required to prove that Doug Innes owed the crew a duty of care, and that he had breached that duty of care by his actions or omissions. The prosecution was also required to prove that any breach of duty contributed to the deaths of the crew, and that negligence was “not just serious but a gross departure” from the standard of a reasonably competent and prudent managing agent.

In his summing up of the prosecution case the judge said that Innes had breached his duty of care by failing to have the yacht inspected or surveyed before she set out on the Atlantic crossing.

The prosecution case is that the yacht should have been inspected as part of her ‘mid-term’, or three-year inspection for Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) Category 2 charter coding [which lapsed before the yacht left Antigua], and that the yacht should have been surveyed after groundings that occurred in 2011 and 2013.

The prosecution say that a reasonably competent and prudent managing agent would have had Cheeki Rafiki surveyed because of the yacht’s background and future planned use, including the transatlantic return crossing.

The prosecution say Innes failed to have the yacht coded as Category 0, which does not restrict where a commercial vessel may operate. The yacht had previously been coded under Category 2, which requires the vessel to remain within 60 miles of a safe haven when operating commercially.

The prosecution say that if the yacht had been coded as Category 0, she would have been surveyed before departure and would have carried a higher specification of safety equipment, including ‘float free’ liferafts, which deploy automatically.

In summing up the defence case Mr Justice Dingemans said that Innes did not have a duty to have the yacht surveyed before the Atlantic crossing because the mid-term inspection was only required if the yacht continued commercial operations.

The defence say that Innes complied with the coding law by refunding guests who had paid for training days before Antigua Sailing Week, and that the yacht was not engaged on a commercial voyage on its return transatlantic crossing in May 2014 and so did not require Category 0 coding.

The defence say that under the coding regulations the yacht was not required to be surveyed after groundings unless they had caused major damage, or minor damage which compromised the safety of the vessel.

Capsized 3

Photo: US Coast Guard

The judge later recapped evidence given about groundings during the trial, some of which took place before Stormforce began managing the yacht in 2011 and had resulted in repairs to the yacht’s keel and internal structure.

Three further groundings took place between 2011, when the Cheeki Rafiki was last surveyed for Stormforce Coaching, and 2013.

In 2011 the yacht hit Ryde Sands on a training day. Among the witnesses who gave evidence there was disagreement whether the yacht was going at around 2.5-3 knots through a tack, or at 5-6 knots. The court heard how the keel bolts were inspected for cracking afterwards and that the yacht was lifted out ten days later.

One incident in 2013 was described as a low speed touch to the mud in Shamrock Quay, and another the same year as a minor grounding when the yacht drifted in Lymington River after the engine failed. The defence say that a reasonably competent and prudent managing agent would not have had the yacht surveyed after any of the three later incidents.

The prosecution say that the yacht was not structurally sound and safe before leaving Antigua, that the keel matrix had begun debonding from the hull, and that the keel bolts, particularly bolt nine [the furthest aft full-size bolt] had failed.

The defence states that these points are impossible to prove as the yacht could not be recovered. They also state that a mid-term inspection would have inspected equipment only, and is not a structural survey.

The court heard briefly about the victims. Douglas Innes had described skipper Andrew Bridge, 22, as one of the best sailors he had sailed with, and had spoken at Andrew Bridge’s memorial service.

James Male, also 22, was an intern at Stormforce Coaching, working almost seven days a week for no wages. He was described as being very excited about the Atlantic crossing, which he hoped would count towards his Yachtmaster certificate.

Paul Gosling, 56, was a dental surgeon who was married with two children from a previous marriage. He was described as an experienced sailor whose previous passages had included a crossing from Norway to Scotland, and the court heard that he came across as a nice and unassuming man.

Steven Warren, 52, had two daughters and a step-daughter, and was described as a loving man whose passion was sailing. He was best friends with the Gosling family and had worked as an electrical design engineer.

The jury retired on Tuesday, 11 July.