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Tragedy of Mevagissey fisherman death sparks lifejacket warning

By Cornish Guardian  |  Posted: January 11, 2013

  • RECOVERED: The Heather Anne ashore after being dredged up.

  • Ian Thomas.

  • The Heather Anne being re-floated.

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A MEVAGISSEY fisherman who died when his boat capsized off the Cornish coast was not wearing a lifejacket when it sank, a report into the accident has revealed.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), part of the Department of Transport, yesterday published its report into the death of Ian Thomas who died aged 50 on December 20, 2011.

The MAIB said that his chances of survival would have "dramatically increased" had he been wearing a lifejacket.

The organisation now recommends that urgent steps are taken to ensure all fishermen wear lifejackets while out on deck.

The 35ft Heather Anne sank off the Roseland Peninsula during an evening fishing trip for pilchards.

Skippered by Robert Hunkin, the boat set out from Mevagissey at 3.20pm, with Mr Hunkin's 16-year-old also on board.

The report said they spotted a "super-catch" – a massive shoal of pilchards at about 5pm.

After hauling in as much as they could – an estimated 10.5 tonnes – they radioed nearby vessel, the Lauren Kate, to share what was left in their net.

Mr Hunkin's son was then transferred to another nearby boat, which headed towards Mevagissey.

Once a portion of the haul was on board, skipper Mr Hunkin set the Heather Anne on autopilot, bound for Mevagissey.

But the boat was so heavily laden with fish, it sat low in the water and the choppy sea made steering difficult. They had to take manual control of the boat but it began to roll.

"Heather Anne continued to roll until capsizing and corkscrewing under the water," the report said.

In its conclusions, the report stated: "Heather Anne was operating with a very low reserve of stability and it would have taken only a very small change in the vessel's condition to cause her to capsize.

"Since built in 1971, Heather Anne had been extensively modified. The modifications had significantly increased her displacement, raised her centre of gravity and reduced her freeboard."

After the boat capsized, Mr Hunkin and Mr Thomas soon surfaced and Mr Hunkin helped him stay afloat. Suddenly entering sea water at a temperature of about 10C, Ian was likely to have experienced shock to some degree when first immersed.

"Such a shock can cause a person to gasp and inhale water. However, despite not being a strong swimmer, Ian was able to surface. Although the skipper then tried to support him until Lauren Kate arrived, it would have been extremely difficult for the skipper to keep Ian's mouth clear of the water.

"Neither of the men was wearing a lifejacket, and it would have been difficult for even the best of swimmers to cope in the sea and wind conditions experienced.

"Given the relatively small length of time Ian spent in the water, there is little doubt that his chances of survival would have been dramatically increased if he had been wearing one of the lifejackets carried onboard Heather Anne."

Both were winched from the water by fishermen on the Lauren Kate, after the boat was spotted sinking in Gerrans Bay, near Nare Head.

But Mr Thomas showed no signs of life, so they began CPR. Lauren Kate's skipper sent out a mayday call, which was received by Brixham coastguard.

Lifeboats and a Royal Navy rescue helicopter were sent out and Mr Thomas, who had worked in the South West as a fisherman for about 35 years, was airlifted to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Treliske, Truro.

As a result of the incident, the MAIB has made a recommendation to the Maritime and Costguard Agency (MCA) to support continuing efforts which seek to ensure all fishermen wear lifejackets when working on the open deck.

Since being built in 1971, Heather Anne had changed ownership several times and been extensively modified.

As a result, with an estimated 10.5 tonnes onboard at the time she capsized, the boat was sitting very low in the water, with only a few centimetres of the freeboard above the sea.

The MAIB also recommended that the MCA introduce a requirement for under 15m vessels to carry EPIRBs (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons).

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  • shagrats  |  January 11 2013, 2:25PM

    Firstly my condolences to the family and friends. A tragic story. Secondly why was there no safety gear ?. I work in an indusrty where you can not step out the door without the full set of PPE (personal protection equipment). This reeks of people just not following the rules, even the most basic comon sense rules and with tragic consequences. Thirdly I have head some stories about catch sizes and how the fishermen get around the quotas in Meva (not just meva mind you) and from what I hear this was an accident waiting to happen. That boat would have been rated for a specific catch size and by the sounds of it the guys were way over that limit. There are so many lessons to be lerarned from this incident, so hopefully it may change the attitude of the others who think they ignore basic saftey regulations. RIP Mr T

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