Mistakes and misunderstandings lead to sinking of French boat in Devon harbour

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AN investigation into the sinking of a French fishing boat in Dartmouth says mistakes were made all round.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch inquiry was into the grounding of the two fishing vessels Saint Christophe and Sagittaire which resulted in the flooding and sinking of the Christophe on March 10.

Dartmouth offered refuge to the fishing boats during stormy conditions when Brixham Harbour was full.

The investigation concluded the South Embankment had limitations for the vessels at low water however there were no procedures in place for the use of the berth.

The MAIB report identified failings from Dart Harbour and also from the crews and skippers.

Dart Harbour says it accepts the findings and is acting on recommendations.

Steve Clinch, Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, said: “This accident happened as a result of a misunderstanding of communication between people of two different nationalities who could not speak each other’s language.

“The MAIB investigation found that Saint Christophe had been directed to moor on a berth where the hazard of grounding had already been identified by the port authority, but that this risk was not effectively communicated to the skipper.

“The sole reliance on hand gestures, and assumption of understanding by the port authority staff, the skipper and the crew of Saint Christophe, led to further safety checks not being made.

“Further, the investigation found that the watertight integrity of Saint Christophe had been compromised, by some doors and hatches being lashed open, or permanently disabled. This meant that it was impossible for the boat to remain watertight, and inevitably contributed to its sinking and loss once it had grounded and rolled over.”


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A harbour spokesman said: “Although Dart Harbour staff did their best, there was less than total clarity in communications between the French speaking crews of the vessels and the English speaking DHNA staff.

“The report notes that Dart Harbour should have taken steps to ensure the skippers understood the limitations of South Embankment; in addition, the report states the skippers should not have allowed the port officers to depart until they had a clear understanding of the minimum depth to be expected.”

She added: “Dart Harbour is proud to have been of assistance to the fishing boats but is now introducing technologies to enable staff to clearly communicate in any of the likely languages that might be required.

“The harbour guide will include detailed information in four key languages (Dutch, French, German and Spanish).”

In addition, Dart Harbour has made arrangements with the Britannia Royal Naval College regarding the use of Admiralty Jetty as emergency or additional berthing for vessels up to 60m in length with a draft of up to 8m.

The report also says the skippers were ill prepared to use the south coast harbours.

In addition, had the Christophe’s skipper secured openings and rig pumps before heading ashore, the vessel may not have been lost.

Board chairman Neil Hockaday said: “DHNA accepts the critical comments.

“In addition we will update the Hydrographic Office Admiralty Sailing Directions with information about the use of South Embankment.

“Dart Harbour has volunteered itself to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for a Port Marine Safety Code Health Check in 2017.”

He added that the board is satisfied the deputy harbour master correctly consulted and escalated issues arising from the events as they unfolded to the harbour master in accordance with policies and procedures.

Mr Hockaday concluded: “It’s important to remember that the French crews were safely rescued due to the swift response of the emergency services, Maritime and Coastguard Agency and harbour authority staff and pollution was minimal.”


  • Saint Christophe 1 listed heavily at the South Embankment Quay berth because it was allowed to ground on a steeply sloping bed of compacted mud and silt as the tide fell.
  • Saint Christophe 1 flooded and became a constructive total loss because many of its watertight openings had either been disabled or left open and it rolled past the point at which downflooding would occur.
  • The DHM should have taken steps to assure himself that the skipper of Saint Christophe 1 understood the limitations of the berth at South Embankment Quay.
  • The skippers should not have allowed the port officers to depart until they had a clear understanding of the times and heights of high and low water and the minimum depth to be expected alongside.
  • The skippers of Saint Christophe, Sagittaire and Maranatha were ill-prepared to use the UK south-coast harbours as ports of refuge despite a period of poor weather being forecast.
  • The DHNA had identified taking the ground at South Embankment Quay on a falling tide as a potential hazard. There were, however, no harbour procedures or method statements to give effect to the control measures identified in the DHNA’s risk assessment for the use of berths at the quay.
  • Had Saint Christophe’s skipper been able to close the watertight openings and rig pumps before the crew climbed ashore to evacuate the vessel, it is possible that Saint Christophe would not have been lost.
  • The swift response of the emergency services, MCA and harbour authority staff ensured the crew were safely rescued and the risk of widespread pollution was minimised.
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