The skipper and fellow crewman of the stricken vessel Diamond were intoxicated by illegal and controlled drugs when the vessel sank last year, killing one of them.
Findings released from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch show the ability of the crew to function was
“significantly impaired” when the two men entered the freezing dark waters near West Burrafirth on 25th March last year.
Skipper Christopher Smith survived the 3am incident, however the 37-year-old’s friend, Leonard Scollay, died as a result of the tragedy.
It happened after the 12.2 metre vessel began taking in water after hitting a rocky outcrop east of Snarra Ness.
Now, an MAIB report has shown both men were “under the influence of illegal and controlled drugs that would have compromised their ability to operate safely, and to react appropriately after the collision.”
It points to an investigation from a forensic pharmacologist who was commissioned to analyse how the quantities of drugs might have affected their decision-making behaviour.
Mr Smith was tested for drugs and alcohol after the accident. The results showed he had a “significant amount of benzodiazepine and morphine in his system”. The skipper was a known user of Class A drugs.
Mr Scollay was also a known user. The report said the 40-year-old had been on morphine. Other substances were in his system “consistent with using heroin”.
It stated the crew’s reaction-times would have been impaired as a result of their drug-use.
“The physiological reaction times of the skipper would have been delayed significantly, and the combination of benzodiazepines and heroin would have diminished any recognition of danger to a level of passivity.
“It is important to note that, given the potential consequences of illegal and controlled drug use, the evidence provided by the skipper has to be treated with caution.
“Leonard had levels of morphine and other chemicals in his system that were consistent with him being an habitual user and this would have had a detrimental effect on his cognitive and motor functions. Leonard’s capacity for survival would have been adversely affected by morphine intoxication.”
The report raises questions about the skipper’s competency. It found Mr Smith had no formal navigation qualification, but had gained experience on various vessels over 20 years, primarily as a deckhand. He had owned and previously operated another boat, so had limited experience as a skipper.
“There are many aspects of this accident that raise questions about the skipper’s competency. Specifically he had taken his vessel to sea, at night, with an untrained and inexperienced crewman who was ill-equipped to operate in such an environment, let alone to survive the sinking of the vessel.
“The Fishing Vessels (Safety Training) Regulations 1989 (as amended) require skippers to ensure that crew members have the appropriate training and qualifications. However, the skipper allowed Leonard to work on the vessel knowing that he was not qualified and had no experience of commercial fishing.”
The incident began to unfold as the vessel approached fishing grounds at the North Shoals 20 miles west of Scalloway.
Mr Smith uncovered a problem in the engine room, and decided to abort the planned fishing trip and return to West Burrafirth.
From the North Shoals, the skipper headed east-north-east, aiming to pass through the Sound of Papa. But as Diamond rounded Snarra Ness, the crew of another fishing boat noticed the <i>Diamond</i> close inshore and to the west of the expected track into West Burrafirth.
A short while later, Diamond hit the obstruction. Mr Smith kept the engine running and headed towards West Burrafirth pier.
Mr Scollay went to the galley area and looked down the ladder into the accommodation space, before reporting back that there was a lot of water below. The skipper told Mr Scollay that they were sinking and had to get ready to abandon the vessel. Mr Scollay then went outside to the Diamond’s aft deck.
Mr Smith broadcast a mayday on VHF Channel 16 and told the coastguard of their plight.
Forty-one seconds after he started the distress message, the skipper said, “we’re going over” and ended the radio transmission.
The skipper joined Leonard at the aft deck, with Diamond down by the bow and nearly vertical. Mr Smith told Mr Scollay to jump into the water and swim for shore. Both men then abandoned the boat and, once in the water, lost contact with one another.
The Aith lifeboat was scrambled as well as the Sumburgh-based coastguard helicopter.
Another fishing boat, Diane Maxwell, attended the scene.
Her crew spotted a life raft, but found it empty. Fourteen minutes later, at 3.34am, the crew found Mr Scollay lying face-down in the water, and not wearing a lifejacket. They took him onboard and attempted CPR. Mr Smith was found a short time later by the lifeboat crew. He was breathing, but cold and disorientated.
The force of the grounding taken on the Diamond’s stern displaced several planks on both sides, particularly the starboard side. Damage caused to the hull allowed the water to flood the hull.
Diamond’s two lifebuoys sank with the vessel because they were too firmly wedged in their stowages to float free. However, the liferaft deployed as designed and its light operated. But neither crewman made it to the liferaft. There was no other buoyant material to cling to.
Mr Scollay’s post mortem report indicated the most likely cause of death was drowning. But a heart-attack due to cold water shock, or hypothermia, was not ruled out.