The jury has retired to consider its verdict in the trial of Douglas Innes, who is charged with manslaughter by gross negligence after the Beneteau 40.7 Cheeki Rafiki capsized mid-Atlantic in 2014 causing the deaths of four men

The jury in the trial of Douglas Innes, the former boss of Stormforce Coaching that managed the Beneteau 40.7 Cheeki Rafiki, which capsized mid-Atlantic in 2014 causing the deaths of four men, has retired to consider its verdict this afternoon.

Innes is charged with four counts of manslaughter by gross negligence following the deaths of Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham, Surrey, James Male, also 22, from Romsey, Hampshire, Steve Warren 52, and Paul Goslin 56, both from Somerset, who were all lost at sea.

In a lengthy retrial at Winchester Crown Court, the jury heard how Cheeki Rafiki capsized after losing her keel on the return delivery from Antigua Sailing Week in May 2014.

In his summing up of the evidence the judge, Mr Justice Teare, said the prosecution alleged that Douglas Innes twice breached his duty of care to the men onboard, in failing to have the yacht surveyed at some point before it departed Antigua for Southampton on 4 May 2014, and that he failed to give appropriate weather routing and passage planning assistance to the yacht from 12 May until contact was lost on 15 May.

Expert witnesses had been called to give their opinion of whether the keel failure might have been caused by previous groundings and a subsequent debonding of the keel matrix from the hull, and if any such internal damage would have been picked up during surveys or coding inspections.

The court was shown photographs taken by an underwater diver, Sam Connolly, showing damage to Cheeki Rafiki’s keel in 2007 and 2008, which was incurred before Stormforce Coaching took over management of the yacht in 2011. Douglas Innes was only made aware of the images in 2016 after Connolly heard media coverage of the criminal case and made contact with Innes.

The photographs showed damage to the keel’s leading edge, and a crack to the keel-hull join in 2007, which were subsequently repaired. Photographs taken in 2008 show gouges to the front of the keel, described as “looking as if the yacht had hit a gravel bank”.

The court heard that Cheeki Rafiki had also grounded in 2011, hitting Ryde Sands on a training day. Among the witnesses on board there was disagreement whether the yacht was doing 2.5-3 knots through a tack, or 5-6 knots.

There were two further groundings in 2013, one being what was described by witnesses as a “very soft impact” when the yacht touched the mud bottom while motoring out of Shamrock Quay at 1-2 knots. The second was after a corporate race day when the engine had failed to start so the yacht was sailed up Lymington River and the Beneteau 40.7 again touched the mud. This was also described as a “low speed, light touch”, although the yacht had to be towed off the mud and back to Shamrock Quay due to the engine failure.

Cheeki Rafiki second pics

Photographs of the upturned hull of Cheeki Rafiki

Neither of the 2013 groundings, which occurred after Cheeki Rafiki was coded to Category 2 for commercial work, were reported to the coding authorities or surveyed following the groundings. The MCA guidance states that groundings should be reported ‘In the case of major groundings… or minor groundings that are detrimental to the safety of the yacht’. There was disagreement as to how that should be interpreted, and whether every grounding should be reported.

The court heard that in 2012 a second yacht managed by Stormforce Coaching, Jedi Knight, had its keel removed and repairs made to cracking around the keel-hull join by Stormforce Coaching staff, in conjunction with Willet Marine. This repair was also not reported to the certifying authority, and Justice Teare said that Douglas Innes accepted that it should have been.

The court heard that Cheeki Rafiki’s Category 2 coding had lapsed before Antigua Sailing Week in 2014 because Stormforce Coaching had failed to arrange for her mid-term inspection in March of that year. Innes had refunded customers for the training days before the Antigua regatta, with guests instead spending two to three days sailing on the yacht ‘as friends’, before going on to compete at Antigua Sailing Week (racing is permitted for commercial vessels out of code under the ISAF Special Regulations) where Cheeki Rafiki won her class.

In his summing up of the evidence given by expert witness yacht inspectors and surveyors, Teare explained that the mid-term inspection is an in-water check designed to ensure all the equipment for a Cat 2 coding is in order.

The court heard that the mid-term inspection is not a structural survey and that inspectors are not required to, or advised to, carry tools or undertake tap-testing or torque adjustments of keel bolts during the inspection. The mid-term inspection may be carried out by an authorised person who is not a qualified surveyor, and there is a reasonable amount of variance between how different coding inspectors would conduct the survey.

Cheeki Rafiki - Stormforce Coaching

Cheeki Rafiki competing in the Round the Island Race in the UK

Cheeki Rafiki’s return delivery trip from Antigua to the UK was understood to be a non-commercial voyage, with the four crew contributing to food costs only. Details of emails between Innes and staff at the MCA were read out in court explaining how that decision was arrived at.

The court heard that one member of the delivery crew, James Murphy, decided not to take part in the delivery after arriving in Antigua. Justice Teare recounted how in evidence he had initially spoken highly of Stormforce Coaching, saying that Cheeki Rafiki was “kept in a pristine condition”.

But Teare recounted how later in evidence Murphy said that he was “not happy with the yacht’s overall condition”, specifying a leaking forward hatch, a loose starboard stanchion, and sun-damaged jackstays. Murphy had criticised Doug Innes as “not professional with his drinking” and said he “had a gut feeling” about the yacht.

Other customers of Stormforce Coaching also gave evidence. Justice Teare recalled Simon Marshall, who joined Cheeki Rafiki for Antigua Sailing Week, saying the yacht was “in tip-top condition”.

For the defence, Karim Khalil QC said that the prosecution had been “throwing mud in the hope that some of it might stick”.

In his closing speech yesterday he stated that there was conflicting evidence from expert witnesses and nobody could be sure why the keel failure had occurred.

He said the regulatory bodies oversaw “a chaotic system of conflicting advice” that was “hopelessly muddled” on issues such as whether every grounding should be reported.

The MGN 280 standard applied to small commercial vessels is a marine guidance note which was drafted to go before Parliament but never became statutory legislation. Khalil said: “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.”

He added, “Hundreds of ARC yachts are sailed back by owners or pro crew. That’s how it’s done, and yet Doug Innes is criticised for doing what everybody else in the yachting community was doing.”

Cheeki Rafiki update 20-5-14

Screen shots taken during the search and rescue effort to find Cheeki Rafiki on 20 May 2014

Regarding the second alleged breach of duty, the court heard different approaches to routeing and passage planning for a east-bound transatlantic. Justice Teare summed up the evidence from Simon Rowell, a highly experience meteorologist who had provided weather routeing for Cheeki Rafiki’s out-bound Atlantic crossing with the 2013 ARC.

In his evidence Rowell had told the court that 48-hour forecasts for the 14 to 16 of May 2014 showed two low pressure systems potentially joining and moving towards Cheeki Rafiki’s position, with significant wave heights forecast to build from 3.5m to 5.5m and wind speeds building from Force 6 to gusting Force 9. He said if he had been routeing the yacht he would have advised it take a south-south-easterly course to get away from the area of low pressure.

In his summing up of Doug Innes’ evidence Justice Teare said that Innes accepted Rowell’s advice to go south for a better angle to the waves was “good seamanship”.

On 15 May the yacht sent an email to Doug Innes with the subject heading ‘Urgent’ which read:

“We have been taking on a lot of water yesterday and today. Today seems worse I think stbd water tank has split so that it is drained checked hull and seacocks for damade [sic] but cant see any. I will go for a swim when weather improves in about 24 hours we are currently monitoring the situation horta is 900 miles away our position is Position 38deg 38 N, 048 deg 59W, thoughts from your end I will check emails in 2 hours.”

Justice Teare said that Doug Innes agreed that the email showed that the crew of Cheeki Rafiki was “oblivious to what they were sailing into”.

The case continues.