Cheeki Rafiki Accident Report Points to Keel Detachment

Official accident report concludes that previous groundings and repairs to keel may have a weakened structure of yacht which capsized with the loss of four crew. As reported by the Guardian.

Published 8 years ago, updated 4 years ago

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The British crew of a yacht lost in the North Atlantic more than 700 miles off Nova Scotia battled to stop water flooding in after the vessel was battered by powerful waves, an official report has revealed.

Two days before the 12m-long Cheeki Rafiki capsized with the loss of its four crew, the skipper reported: “Just hit a big wave hard.” In the final message minutes before contact was lost he said: “This is getting worse.”

The disappearance of the vessel, which was en route from Antigua to the UK, caused diplomatic waves when the American coastguard called off the search and rescue operation after two days.

Following protests from the men’s families and intervention from the British government, the search was resumed and the boat found but there was no sign of any of the four men.

The report from the marine accident investigation branch (MAIB) on Wednesday does not blame the US authorities for their approach, but it does issue a reminder about the dangers of ocean sailing and the need for full planning for emergencies. It suggests that it might have been wiser to steer clear of the wind-whipped area and says search and rescue cannot be relied on so far out to sea in the same way that it can nearer to land.

“Although the conditions prevailing at the time of Cheeki Rafiki’s loss were theoretically within the design parameters of the yacht,” the report says, “it would have been prudent to have taken action to avoid the forecast high winds and rough seas.”

It concludes that previous groundings of the boat and repairs to its keel may have weakened the structure and says similar yachts need to be regularly inspected.

MAIB chief inspector Steve Clinch said: “This has been a challenging investigation. Cheeki Rafiki capsized and inverted, almost certainly as a consequence of its keel becoming detached in adverse weather, in a remote part of the North Atlantic Ocean. Despite two extensive searches, its four crew remain missing and, as the yacht’s hull was not recovered, the causes of this tragic accident will inevitably remain a matter of some speculation.

“I hope that this report will serve as a reminder to all yacht operators, skippers and crews of the particular dangers associated with conducting ocean passages, and the need for comprehensive planning and preparation before undertaking such ventures.

“On long offshore passages, search and rescue support cannot be relied upon in the same way as it is when operating closer to the coast and yachts’ crews need a much higher degree of self-sufficiency in the event of an emergency. Thus the selection and storage of safety and survival equipment need to be very carefully considered before embarking, together with options for contingency planning and self-help in anticipation of problems that could occur during the passage.”

The report describes how Cheeki Rafiki took part in a cross-Atlantic ocean race in December 2013 and competed in Antigua Sailing Week in April 2014.

It set sail for its base port of Southampton on 4 May 2014. On board were skipper Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham in Surrey, as well as crew members Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin, 56, both from Somerset. James Male, 23, from Southampton, was mate.

The voyage was due to take 30 days. At first, its progress was hampered by light winds and the yachts’ management team, Stormforce Coaching, sent the vessel an email on 6 May: “Go north, do not pass go, go north, do not collect £200, go north.”

The wind and waves picked up. On 14 May, Cheeki Rafiki’s skipper, Bridge, emailed base that the vessel had “just hit a big wave hard”. The next day, the crew emailed: “We have been taking on a lot of water yesterday and today. Today seems worse.” By now the boat was being struck by waves of almost 5m high and force seven winds.

Stormforce tried to help, emailing: “Loosen straps for life-raft. Check EPIRB [the distress beacon] and sat phone are accessible etc. Have everything ready in case of worst case.”

A little later Stormforce added: “I have spoken with Falmouth coastguard who will, in turn, talk to the Yanks as you are within their SAR region. They have your sat phone number, email etc. In terms of the leak, you need to focus on 3 things. Finding the leak, reducing the rate of ingress and getting rid of water on board. You are currently in a USA Search and Rescue area but out of range of aircraft. If you had to abandon then merchant vessels would be requested to divert to you.”

Neither of the last two emails reached Cheeki Rafiki. But at 3.30am on 16 May, Stormforce received a satellite call from the boat: “This is getting worse.”

At approximately 4 am, an alert transmitted by the personal locator beacon of Cheeki Rafiki’s skipper triggered the US search and rescue operation. On 17 May at 2 pm, a container ship located the upturned hull of a small boat believed to be Cheeki Rafiki. Adverse weather conditions prevented launching the ship’s lifeboat or rescue boat. The search was called off the next morning.

Following pressure from the missing men’s families, the British government intervened and formally asked the US to relaunch the search.

Aircraft from the American, Canadian and British air forces joined coastguard, navy and nine merchant vessels in the search. On 23 May, a navy helicopter found an upturned hull. A swimmer identified it as Cheeki Rafiki and confirmed that its life raft was still on board in its usual stowage position. The second search was terminated.

On what might have caused the vessel to sink, the report says: “A combined effect of previous groundings and subsequent repairs to its keel and matrix had possibly weakened the vessel’s structure where the keel was attached to the hull. It is also possible that one or more keel bolts had deteriorated.”

The yacht’s operator, Stormforce, has made changes to its internal policies and has taken a number of actions aimed at preventing a recurrence, the report says. The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency has undertaken to work with the Royal Yachting Association to clarify the requirements for the storage of inflatable life rafts, and the Royal Yachting Association has drafted enhancements to its sea survival handbook relating to the possibility of a keel failure.

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  1. November 20, 2018 at 3:49 AM
    Data Entry1 says:

    7 October 2016: Douglas Innes, director of yachting management company Stormforce Coaching Ltd, has been charged with four counts of manslaughter by gross negligence following the capsize of the yacht Cheeki Rafiki in 2014.