A fisherman who drowned at sea after being dragged from his boat when his leg became caught in rope died because he failed to comply with stringent safety practices he would normally have adhered to.
In his determination following a fatal accident inquiry into the death of Cunningsburgh fisherman Neil Smith, Sheriff Philip Mann has stated Mr Smith would not have died had he remained within the wheelhouse of his vessel Breadwinner.
He said the 54-year-old may have left the wheelhouse after suffering from heart failure.
Mr Smith was shooting creels when the incident happened over five miles east of Bressay on 20th January last year.
His right leg became caught in a leader rope attached to a series of creels which had already been shot from the vessel into the sea. He was pulled by the force over the side of the boat.
In his determination, Sheriff Mann stated: “If Mr Smith had exercised, or been able to exercise, the reasonable precaution of remaining in the wheelhouse of the vessel during the shooting of the creels from the vessel the accident which resulted in his being dragged into the sea and being drowned would not have occurred.”
The sheriff said it was “unnecessary” for him to describe creel fishing operations and the dangers attached to them, pointing out that such issues were covered in a MAIB report prior to the inquiry.
“Suffice to say that it is very dangerous for any person to be on the deck of a vessel in the vicinity of the ropes attached to the creels at any time during the operation of shooting the creels into the sea.
“It is especially dangerous to attempt to rectify a situation where the creels and ropes have become fouled during the shooting, as can and does happen.”
He noted that Mr Smith was “very well aware” of the dangers at sea. His attitude to fouled creels, he said, was to let the fouled creels shoot off the boat and to sort the mess out later.
It was understood that his “invariable practice” was to remain in the wheelhouse of the vessel during the entire shooting operation.
The inquiry had explored two possible explanations as to why Mr Smith did leave the wheelhouse.
One was that the gear had become fouled and he left the security of the wheelhouse to sort it out.
But Sheriff Mann said he preferred the evidence of pathologist Dr James Grieve, who told the inquiry he would not have ruled out heart failure.
“Dr Grieve explained that Mr Smith’s heart was found to be somewhat enlarged by virtue of concentric left ventricular hypertrophy, the commonest, recognisable, documented cause of which is raised blood pressure,” the determination continued.
“He explained that people with heart failure will very often try to get into an open space to get fresh air or may feel sick and want the same thing. He could not rule out heart failure and its effects as a possible explanation for Mr Smith leaving the wheelhouse.”
He expressed his sympathy to Mr Smith’s relatives, and paid tribute to their efforts to find Mr Smith’s remains after he went missing.