FAI DETERMINATION SUMMARIES
Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAIs) are held following a death in the workplace or in cases which give rise to reasonable suspicion. They are usually held in the sheriff court, but may be held in other premises when appropriate. Summaries provide the main findings in order to assist understanding and may be published in cases where there is wider public interest. They do not form part of the reasons for the findings.
Sinking of the Louisa
Mar 2, 2022
The FAI held before Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle determined that Paul Alliston, of Claitir, Lewis, Martin Johnstone, of Halkirk, Thurso, and Christopher Morrison, of Stornoway, Lewis, drowned in the early hours of 9 April 2016 when the fishing boat Louisa sank in Mingulay Bay in the Outer Hebrides after the boat’s hold flooded.
Paul Alliston was the skipper of the four crew aboard the Louisa which had sailed from Uig, Skye. The crew had been fishing for about 20 hours a day and anchored 200 metres from shore to eat and sleep. In the early hours of the Saturday morning, 9 April 2016, the men awoke suddenly to discover that the vessel was down by the head and foundering bow first. They activated a radio beacon with their position and, collecting life jackets, began to launch the liferaft. However, a CO2 inflation cylinder failed and the liferaft did not inflate. The radio alert was detected and was transferred through a number of sites to the search and rescue based in Stornoway. There they were unable to contact the Louisa, and it took time to establish the boat’s exact location. Once this was done, the Barra lifeboat and a helicopter from Stornoway were launched. The lifeboat arrived at Mingulay Bay in just over 30 minutes. There, the rescuers discovered the skipper and Christopher Morrison unresponsive near the uninflated liferaft. Two of the Louisa crew had tried to swim to land. One had made it safely to rocks and was rescued by the helicopter, but the body of Martin Johnstone was recovered 50 metres from shore.
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the Department for Transport concluded that the boat had probably sunk after water entered the hold from the deck wash hose, but could not say so conclusively. Their evidence stated that when the crew went for their meal the wash pump was probably running and that the hose flailed around the deck and eventually became wedged between bait boxes, which allowed water to spray against the open hatch cover and fall into the hold. However this was disputed by an expert who said that the hose had shortened due to wear and tear and could not extend into the hold. Based on the evidence, the FAI could not reach a decision on the cause of flooding.
In his Determination, Sheriff Principal Pyle said: “The cause of the crew being in the sea without being able to survive was directly due to the failure of the liferaft to inflate … If the crew had been able to climb aboard an inflated liferaft they almost certainly would have survived, given that the general weather and sea conditions were benign.”
The liferaft, which was on hire by the boat’s owners, did not inflate after an employee from subcontractors Thameside Fire Protection failed to fill a CO2 cylinder with gas during the last service. Other cylinders had been filled on the relevant date, making this a company failure for not having a safe work system in place. The company ceased this line of business immediately after the accident.
In turn, the owners of the Louisa ought to have serviced the liferaft annually. This would have involved replacements, including a replacement cylinder. Sheriff Principal Pyle called on all owners of fishing vessels to closely follow the set rules on maintenance.
Added to the liferaft failure was that of the lifebelts. The men were found face down in the sea when the belts failed to hold them in a position where they might have been able to breathe. However there was no evidence that a better design would have saved their lives. It is hoped that the international rules on how this type of belt is manufactured will solve this problem.
The Sheriff Principal commended the Barra lifeboat crew for their efforts, while also recording that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had made changes to update and enhance its response to satellite distress beacon alerts. This included improved computers and the immediate mobilisation of search and rescue without exact location information, in expectation that more accurate details would follow.
Regulations around working hours have now been extended to include the type of fishing carried out by the crew of the Louisa. The Determination called for the industry to monitor compliance with these regulations.
Sheriff Principal Pyle expressed his sincere condolences to the families and to the friends of the deceased men.
The full Determination published on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website is the only authoritative document.