Inquiry ponders why fisherman who drowned left wheelhouse

A single-handed fisherman who tragically drowned last year would not normally have left the wheelhouse of his boat while shooting creels, his brother told a fatal accident inquiry today. 

Cunningsburgh fisherman Neil Smith, 54, died on 20th January 2011 following an accident on board his boat Bread Winner while fishing around five miles east of Bressay. He became entangled in a rope and was dragged overboard. The 10-metre vessel was found the day after the accident lying partly submerged on rocks at Grif Skerry near Whalsay. 

After the official search was called off two days later, other fishermen and members of his family continued to look for Mr Smith’s body. It was his brother, Rodney Smith of Scousburgh, who discovered the body at sea eight days after the accident occurred. 

Rodney Smith told the inquiry, which lasted around three hours at Lerwick Sheriff Court, that Neil Smith had been “very safety conscious”. His attitude was that if creels were fouled when shooting, it was best to “let them go and sort it out later” rather than risk leaving the wheelhouse.

His body was found after 54 creels had been pulled up, and Mr Smith was on the end of the line with the rope wrapped around his leg. The only way that could have happened, his brother agreed, was for him to have left the wheelhouse. Asked by procurator fiscal Duncan MacKenzie why his brother might have taken that course of action, he replied: “It would be impossible to speculate why.”

The inquiry heard that Mr Smith would only have had around three seconds between finding his leg snagged in the leader rope and being pulled into the bitterly cold sea. 

He did not have a knife readily available to cut himself free, but pathologist Dr James Grieve – who carried out the post-mortem – said he doubted whether that would have made any difference in this case.

Dr Grieve said there was little doubt that Mr Smith had been pitched into the water and died of drowning. It was impossible to pinpoint whether he might have suffered some sort of turn or seizure, which may have prompted him to leave the wheelhouse.

Bill West, of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) which published its own findings relating to the incident last year, also gave evidence. He said going to sea single-handedly was a dangerous line of work, but that the set-up on the Bread Winner would have been safe had Mr Smith stayed in the wheelhouse.

In general he felt that “for a one-manned operation it was well laid out”, though some little things might have been done better. The Bread Winner was “a well-founded vessel of the sort I would have been pleased to own myself”, Mr West said.

“If there were defects [in the operation] it was in Mr Smith leaving the wheelhouse,” he told the inquiry. “If he had remained in the wheelhouse we would not be here today.”

After four witnesses had been called to give evidence, Mr MacKenzie summed up by saying it had always been at the forefront of everybody’s mind that a “good, decent, well-respected man lost his life here”.

 He said Dr Grieve’s evidence had “not totally excluded” the possibility that Mr Smith had been overcome by illness or a turn of some sort. But the reason why he left the wheelhouse was destined to remain “pure speculation”.

Mr MacKenzie said everyone in the courtroom was capable of a moment’s inattention or an error of judgement, and Mr Smith’s occupation was “an inherently unforgiving one in that regard”.

Sheriff Philip Mann said he would provide his determination in writing to the family in the next few days, and expressed his “great sympathy and condolences” for the sad loss of a “good, hard-working and well-respected man”. He added: “It is a great sadness and tragedy that he lost his life.”

The MAIB’s report last year recommended that all single-handed vessels could improve their safety by fitting remote cut-out devices which can stop engines either manually or when the device is taken beyond a certain distance from the boat.


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