Annex to the Report

1. The parties to this Inquiry were: The Board of Trade, represented by C. E. Jauncey, Esq., QC, and Gavin Douglas, Esq., Advocate, instructed by the Treasury Solicitor; The Royal National Life-Boat Institution, represented by K. J. Cameron, Esq., Advocate, instructed by Messrs. Brander & Cruickshank, Advocates, Aberdeen.

2. On the evening of Tuesday, January 20, 1970, the Danish motor fishing vessel Opal S.28, of wood construction and propelled by a 200 hp diesel engine, sailed from Buckie and set a course for the Fladden fishing grounds. At 2000 GMT (all times quoted hereafter are GMT) the Opal was proceeding in an easterly direction at 7 knots, the wind being then about force 6 from the south. At about 22:30 it was discovered that water had gained entry to the hull and that the engine room was flooding. Both main bilge and auxiliary pumps were found to be inoperative. The wind increased in strength, all efforts to pump out the engine room failed and the water continued to rise. Since the main engine would therefore soon be put out of action, the skipper of the Opal reported his position (58°05' North, 01°06' West) and circumstances to Skagen Radio in Denmark at about 05:00 on Tuesday, January 21, and asked if assistance could be obtained from other Danish vessels known to be in the vicinity. He did not make a specific request for assistance, nor did he then consider that his situation and circumstances were perilous. It is important to note that no request was made for the assistance of a life-boat.

3. At 05:01 hours on January 21 Wick Radio received a telex message from Skagen Radio and that the Opal, then in a position 58°05' North, 01°06' West, was making water and needed pump assistance. Skagen Radio enquired whether anything could be arranged. Later, at 05:07, Skagen Radio informed Wick Radio that the Opal was in no immediate danger of sinking. At 05:09 Wick Radio informed Wick Coastguard of the messages received from Skagen Radio, in particular that pump assistance was required. Later at 05:25, Skagen Radio informed Wick Radio that the flooding had increased, that a Danish helicopter on standby could, if necessary, be at the Opal's position in about four hours and enquired if there was any information from the Coastguard. Wick Radio transmitted a PAN signal at 05:37 on R/T and an XXX signal on W/T at 05:41 that the Opal was making water and required pump assistance.

4. Wick Radio informed Wick Coastguard, who in turn relayed the message to Peterhead Coastguard. The latter contacted the Peterhead Hon. Secretary of the R.N.L.I., explained the position and the Hon. Secretary replied that no pump was available but the lifeboat would be launched if required for lifesaving. Peterhead Coastguard contacted Fraserburgh Coastguard who then informed the acting Hon. Secretary of the local R.N.L.I. Branch about the casualty, the language difficulty, the need for a pump and prompt assistance. The Hon. Secretary, Captain Carter, was ill. The acting Hon. Secretary was in fact the coxswain of the Fraserburgh lifeboat. He replied that he would endeavour to obtain a pump and launch. He also telephoned the mechanic Frederick Kirkness and the assistant mechanic John Jackson Buchan. The latter accompanied the coxswain to the lifeboat which was lying afloat in the South Basin because alterations to the boathouse were then in progress. At 06:00 the coxswain fired maroons. The crew assembled. Not unexpectedly, it had proved impossible to obtain a pump and at 06:30 the Fraserburgh lifeboat cast off, picking up James Slessor Buchan on her way out from the main harbour. At 06:38 she reported to the Fraserburgh Coastguard on VHF that she was launched and under way to the casualty. The wind at Fraserburgh was then SSE, Force 6 to 7.

5. While the lifeboat was preparing to depart at 06:08, Skagen Radio informed Wick Radio that the Opal was unable to use her main engine and the water in the engine room was still rising. Two minutes later Skagen Radio reported that the situation now seemed to be critical. At 06:32 Wick Radio sent out a Mayday relay signal that the Opal was in need of immediate assistance and repeated the signal thereafter.

6. Here it should be noted that a Mayday signal is sent out by the vessel in distress. Other vessels and radio stations repeat the message as a Mayday relay. In this particular case no Mayday signal was transmitted.

7. At 08:39 the lifeboat gave her estimated time of arrival at the casualty as 11:00, transmitting to Wick Radio on 2182 kHz since her VHF set had ceased to be effective soon after leaving Fraserburgh. At 08:48 the Russian vessel Victor Kingisepp reported that the Opal was twelve miles distant by her radar.

8. At 08:59 the lifeboat gave her position as twenty-two miles from Fraserburgh. At 09:17 Skagen Radio reported that a Russian ship was alongside the Opal while at 09:30 the Victor Kingisepp stated that she would reach the Opal at 09:50.

9. At 10:06 the Victor Kingisepp reported that she was near the casualty but that two Russian vessels and two smaller, unidentified vessels, were standing by the Opal. This had been reported by a Shackleton aircraft to Wick Radio at 09:50. At 10:19 Wick Radio transmitted another Mayday relay signal reporting that the Russian vessels were alongside the Opal and attempting to take her in tow. No signal was transmitted directly to the lifeboat giving this information or the information received earlier that a helicopter had removed one of the crew from the Opal but that the three others were remaining on board. At about 10:30 Wick Radio passed a message to Peterhead Coastguard that a Russian vessel was taking the Opal in tow with other Russian vessels escorting. Again this information was not relayed direct to the lifeboat. At 10:55 the lifeboat gave her position as thirty-six miles NE by E of Fraserburgh and stated that a large vessel was visible ahead. This was almost certainly the Sarma

10. At 11:04 she reported she was approaching the Opal, adding at 11:14 that the latter was under tow by a Russian trawler on a course heading into the wind This was the last message received from the lifeboat At this time the wind's strength was force 8 to 9 SSE. The Opal was being towed by the Russian trawler JWA on a 330 feet towline, with other vessels in the vicinity. The waves can be taken as averaging about 15 or 16 feet in height with occasional waves of twice this height. The Opal was being towed approximately head on to wind, i.e. on a SSE course at a speed of approximately 2 to 3 knots.

11. In these circumstances the lifeboat approached the Opal from the West, altered course to starboard and reduced speed until she was on the Opal's port beam and on a parallel course. The coxswain was heard by Jackson Buchan to say that he would go ahead of the Opal in order to read the name or number of the towing vessel. The evidence appears to indicate that he either had increased speed or was increasing speed when the lifeboat was struck by a very large breaking wave fine on her port bow and was overwhelmed by that wave. It appears that the bow was lifted high into the air and the vessel capsized bow over stern with some transverse inclination to starboard, and lay capsized, with her starboard side visible to those aboard the Opal and the Sarma.

12. The nature of the capsize as described by Jackson Buchan, the sole survivor, is at variance with the descriptions of eye-witnesses, notably two members of the Opal crew and crew members of the Russian ships. Photographs taken from the Sarma appear to corroborate the descriptions given by these eyewitnesses. The Court was favourably impressed by the manner in which Jackson Buchan gave his evidence, but in the violent motions of the capsize he was not ideally placed for observation of all that occurred.

13. The Russian trawler No. 612 JWA continued on her course with the Opal in tow while the lifeboat floated bottom upwards. The sole survivor Jackson Buchan swam to, and contrived to scramble aboard, the capsized lifeboat. In about 20 minutes' time he was picked up by one of the Russian trawlers, No. 4467, and despite his ordeal maintained liaison between the rescuing vessels and the shore. Simultaneously the Victor Kingisepp approached the scene and her crew made strenuous efforts, at considerable personal risk, to right the lifeboat and thus rescue any survivors trapped therein. The lifeboat was eventually righted at 14:31 but the four members of the crew trapped within the boat were dead. The fifth member, Frederick Kirkness, was not found, despite sea and air searches for his body.

14. The Victor Kingisepp took the upturned lifeboat in tow and proceeded towards Buckie. Next day the bodies were transferred to the Buckie lifeboat. The Duchess of Kent was handed over to the Buckie lifeboat and towed into Buckie harbour at about 17:40 on January 22nd. The Opal had been towed to Macduff by a Russian vessel and was brought into Macduff harbour by the Alexander Watt, a fishing vessel.

15. This completes the account of the main events before and after the capsize of the Fraserburgh lifeboat, the ill-fated The Duchess of Kent.

16. The Duchess of Kent was a Watson class lifeboat built in 1954 of dimensions 46 feet 9 inches overall by 12 feet 9 inches beam over planking and 6 feet 1 inch depth, of wood construction. The displacement when fully equipped was about 23 tons, with approximate draughts of 3 feet 4 inches forward and 4 feet 5 inches aft. The arrangement and equipment were similar to those of the other vessels of her class which had an excellent record of service. The Court was informed by several witnesses that the handling characteristics of the Watson class lifeboats differed greatly from those of fishing vessels. This fact may be explained by the tunnel screws and the single rudder.

17. The class was re-engined and this particular vessel was so altered in 1965, the third of its class to be modified in this way. After new engines of greater power but lighter weight had been installed and minor alterations made to the wheelhouse, an inclining experiment was made. The results were found to differ appreciably from those of the vessels already re-engined. Unfortunately, the tests were not repeated. The Court is satisfied that the re-engining and alterations had a minor and insignificant effect upon the vessel's stability and the disaster cannot in any way be attributed to effects arising from the re-engining, which did not impair the transverse stability and caused only a slight change in trim. The latter had been commented on unfavourably by one member of the crew; the coxswain made no complaint, although a coxswain at another station refused to operate a similar re-engined vessel.

18. The Court was informed that after the disaster the hydrostatic and stability calculations for this class of lifeboat were repeated ab initio by the Board of Trade technical officers who investigated the lifeboat capsize. It was then found that the original calculations, for which the R.N.L.I. consultants were responsible, were in error. Various other checks upon the calculations were effected by the most modern methods and the Board of Trade results were confirmed. The principal errors in calculation related to displacement and the position of the metacentre. Again the Court emphasises that these errors did not contribute to the disaster, but the R.N.L.I. will have noted this experience for future reference. The Court takes this opportunity to stress the importance of accuracy in such calculations and the necessity for extreme care in the conduct and analysis of the results of inclining experiments. This applies, of course, to all vessels. An inclining experiment is made to find the vertical position of the vessel's centre of gravity. Great care and elaborate precautions are needed to ensure the necessary accuracy since the angles of heel must of necessity be small.

19. The structure and organisation of the R.N.L.I. were explained to the Court. Briefly, in each locality where a lifeboat is stationed there is a station branch controlled by a local committee, elected by all annual subscribers.

20. The Hon. Secretary of the station branch is the local officer responsible for the management of the branch. He is normally the launching authority and it is his responsibility to decide when the lifeboat should be launched. This decision is taken on the basis of information supplied to him by the local Coastguard and in consultation with the coxswain. The R.N.L.I. regulations stipulate that it is undesirable for the Hon. Secretary to go out in a lifeboat since he should remain on shore in contact with the various authorities and sources of information and hence enabled to give information, advice or instructions to the coxswain who is in command of the lifeboat while it is at sea.

21. The Coastguard regulations provide for close co-operation between the Coastguard and the R.N.L.I. The local R.N.L.I. Hon. Secretary must be informed when a vessel is in distress in the vicinity and the regulations provide for communication with the lifeboat through the shore stations. The lifeboat is in communication with the local Coastguard station, which is responsible for maintaining contact with the Hon. Secretary.

22. The Coastguards' duties in relation to the R.N.L.I. are advisory only. They pass on information and can make recommendations, but the executive decision as to launching remains the prerogative of the local Hon. Secretary. In the present case the Hon. Secretary, Captain Carter, the Fraserburgh Harbour Master, was ill. He had appointed the Assistant Harbour Master to be Acting Hon. Secretary. Since the Assistant Harbour Master was the lifeboat coxswain, The Duchess of Kent went to sea in the absence of any R.N.L.I. official to co-ordinate efforts or relay information to the lifeboat. This was unfortunate. The Court was informed that from the experience of this disaster, the R.N.L.I. has already taken steps to provide for any such contingency in the future. It should be made clear that when the lifeboat is at sea the coxswain is in command but must act in co-operation with the launching authority.

23. It may be argued that between 10:00 and 10:30 the lifeboat, then about 8 miles from the Opal, might have been recalled. The Court thinks this unlikely. Even if the coxswain knew that Russian vessels were standing by and that one ship was attempting to take the Opal in tow, he could not assume that the tow would be successfully accomplished, nor could he ignore the possibility that the Opal might founder. In the absence of more definite information the lifeboat could not have been recalled.

24. The problem of communications in any rescue operation is never simple. In the present case there was first the language difficulty. When the skipper of the Opal contacted Skagen Radio by R/T the message had to be translated into English and sent to Wick Coast Radio Station by telex. Wick C.R.S. then passed the message by direct telephone to Wick Coastguard who passed the same message by telex to Peterhead Coastguard. The latter contacted the Hon. Secretary R.N.L.I. Peterhead by telephone and after confirming that no pump was available he communicated with Fraserburgh Coastguard by VHF and passed the Opal message requesting pump assistance. Fraserburgh Coastguard telephoned the acting Hon. Secretary R.N.L.I. who was also the coxswain of the Fraserburgh lifeboat and received the reply: " Will launch as soon as possible. Will try to get pump." This complicated inter-communication system was re-enacted in reverse (excluding Peterhead R.N.L.I.) to inform Opal that the Fraserburgh lifeboat was being launched and attempts being made to obtain a pump.

25. Confusion may arise due to the use of different time systems by the various sources of information, e.g. GMT, BST and CET. The language difficulty is obvious. As in this case, there may be many independent sources of information which have to be relayed through various links using different forms of communication. All this introduces both delay and risk of error, and points to the need for some type of central co-ordinating authority to collect and assess the available information and so determine the appropriate rescue service in the particular case. Such a central station should, of course, be fully equipped with all the latest means of communication.

26. A statement that it was reasonable to assume that the lifeboat coxswain was listening in to the various radio telephone conversations relevant to the Opal was made several times during the enquiry. The Court does not consider the assumption a reasonable one. It must be remembered that the coxswain is conning his vessel under conditions of stormy weather and extreme discomfort. There is much to engage his attention and important messages to him should be sent directly to and acknowledged by him.

27. Founded in 1824, the R.N.L.I. has a long and honourable record of saving life at sea. Furthermore, it has accumulated a wealth of experience in the design, construction, maintenance and operation of lifeboats. During comparatively recent years new means of rendering aid to yachts, fishing craft and ships have become available. For example, aircraft can drop inflatable rubber life-rafts and helicopters can winch up survivors if weather conditions permit. Lifeboats, however, must be available for rescue in inshore waters and at some considerable distance from shore. The R.N.L.I. already has in service new types of high speed craft for inshore work, but it appears to the Court that too much is expected of the majority of lifeboats. Most of those now in service are designed for work both close inshore and further afield. Their shallow draught entails tunnel screws and the corresponding hull forms have comparatively poor resistance and propulsion qualities. Even in the case of restricted draught vessels, less resistful hulls could be designed and propelled by screws in nozzles (hence protected against beaching damage). For what may be termed deep sea work, craft of greater size and displacement are desirable if lifeboats are to survive the frequent, severe North Sea storm conditions. Authoritative evidence was given of waves of 60 feet height accurately measured not far from the locality where The Duchess of Kent was capsized. In the district around Peterhead one such large lifeboat could be available for distant work, with smaller boats for inshore rescues.

28. The Court was informed that the R.N.L.I. policy was to build all future craft of the self righting type. The Court has not sufficient information at its disposal to comment on this policy but it suggests that with the present advances in knowledge of sea states and the research facilities available, the properties of comparable self righting and other types of lifeboat are suitable subjects for research.

29. Much expert knowledge, experience and research facilities are available in Government establishments, notably the National Physical Laboratory, the Admiralty Experiment Works at Haslar and the Board of Trade. The R.N.L.I. might with advantage co-operate with such bodies on technical problems.

30. The Duchess of Kent was well equipped and in a seaworthy condition when she sailed on her last mission. No vessel can be guaranteed to survive all possible sea conditions and this lifeboat was unfortunate to encounter a very large wave which over-whelmed her. No blame for the disaster can be attributed to her coxswain and crew or to the R.N.L.I. The Court emphasises that lifeboat rescue operations are and will always be, extremely hazardous.

31. The Court has heard proposals that limits be placed on the use of 46 feet 9 inches Watson type lifeboats in such sea conditions as those in which The Duchess of Kent capsized. The Court considers that it is impossible in practice to formulate such limitations, as there is an infinite variety of combinations of wind, sea and tide in any given locality. Decisions as to launching are best entrusted to the judgment of experienced seamen on the spot.

32. At the conclusion of the hearing Counsel for the R.N.L.I. moved that his clients be found entitled to their expenses, amounting to 1200 guineas, from the Board of Trade. In the ordinary way the Court would not grant such a motion, since the Board of Trade were fully justified in ordering this Inquiry, and were bound to call the R.N.L.I., as the owners of the vessel involved. In this instance, however, the R.N.L.I. happen to be a charitable body dependent for their existence upon public subscriptions, and the Board of Trade, while not assenting to the motion, very fairly did not oppose it, intimating that they preferred to leave the matter to the discretion of the Court. In these exceptional circumstances the Court has reached the conclusion that their discretion would be best exercised if an award was made to the R.N.L.I. of one half of the expenses claimed by them.

33. The Court records its appreciation of the strenuous efforts made by the Russian ships in life-saving and salvage of the lifeboat, and in making available photographs and statements from eye-witnesses, and it notes with appreciation the ready response to the call for assistance by various other vessels and aircraft. The Court tenders its sympathy and condolences to the relatives of the men who gave their lives so unselfishly and courageously.

Questions and Answers

The Court's answers to the Questions submitted by the Board of Trade are as follows:

Q. 1. By whom was the Fraserburgh Lifeboat The Duchess of Kent owned at the time of her capsizing?
A. The Royal National Life-Boat Institution, London.

Q. 2. When, where and by whom was The Duchess of Kent built?
A. 1954. East Cowes, I.O.W. Messrs. Groves and Guttridge Ltd. Re-engined and certain modifications effected in 1965 by Herd and McKenzie of Buckie.

Q. 3.(a) When did The Duchess of Kent leave Fraserburgh on her last voyage? (b) Who were the crew of The Duchess of Kent?

A.(a) At about 06:38 GMT on January 21, 1970. (b) John Crawford Stephen, coxswain Frederick Alexander Kirkness, mechanic John (known as "Jackson") Buchan, assistant mechanic William Hadden, crew member James Runcieman Slessor Buchan, crew member James Buchan, crew member.

Q. 4. What lifejackets did The Duchess of Kent carry?
A. Eleven lifejackets.

Q. 5.(a) Was The Duchess of Kent a suitable vessel for the conditions in which she was required to operate? (b) Was The Duchess of Kent seaworthy in all respects when she sailed on her last voyage? (c) Had the stability of The Duchess of Kent been adversely affected by the installation of new engines and other modifications in 1965? (d) If so, did this have any bearing on the casualty?
A.(a) No, but see Annex. (b) Yes. (c) Only to a minor degree (see Annex). (d) No.

Q. 6. Had the crew received proper instructions regarding the wearing of lifejackets?
A. Yes.

Q. 7. Had the crew received any, or any adequate, training in escaping from an overturned vessel?
A. No.

Q. 8. Were the decisions of the coxswain of The Duchess of Kent: (a) to launch and proceed to the assistance of the motor vessel Opal;
(b) having reached the scene of the casualty, and found the Opal in tow, to escort her to port, (1) in accordance with the recognised procedure of and instructions to R.N.L.I. lifeboats, and (2) if so, correct?
A.(a) The decision to launch and proceed to the assistance of the motor vessel Opal was in accordance with the recognised procedure of and instructions to R.N.L.I. lifeboats and correct. (b) The decision to escort the Opal to port on having reached the scene of the casualty and having found her in tow, was in accordance with the recognised procedure of and instructions to R.N.L.I. lifeboats and correct.

Q. 9. Was The Duchess of Kent correctly handled from the time of approaching the Opal until she capsized?
A. Yes.

Q. 10. What was the state of the weather, wind and sea at the time when and in the area where The Duchess of Kent capsized?
A. Gale force winds, force 8 to 9 SSE, confused and breaking seas.

Q. 11.(a) Was adequate information passed to the coxswain of The Duchess of Kent about the situation of the Opal and the rescue efforts of other vessels in the vicinity? (b) Was there adequate co-ordination between the various rescue services on shore and the vessels proceeding to the assistance of the Opal? (c) Was there adequate shore control of the Lifeboat after she was launched?

A.(a) No but see Annex to this Report. (b) The co-ordination between the various rescue services on shore, other vessels and The Duchess of Kent cannot be described as entirely adequate. (c) No.

Q. 12. When and where did The Duchess of Kent capsize?
A. At about 11:17 GMT on January 21, 1970 in a position approximately 58.07'N, 01.07'W.

Q. 13. What was the cause of the capsizing?
A. The lifeboat was overwhelmed by a breaking wave of approximately 30 to 40 feet in height.

Q. 14. What attempts were made and by whom: (a) to save the lives of the crew. (b) to save The Duchess of Kent?
A.(a) Strenuous efforts were made by the crew of the Russian vessel Victor Kingisepp at considerable risk to themselves. The sole survivor, John (Jackson) Buchan was rescued from the up-turned hull by the crew of the Russian trawler 4467. (b) Crew members of the Russian vessel Victor Kingisepp attempted to right the lifeboat, in an effort to release any survivors trapped therein. The lifeboat was righted but the four members of the crew in the boat were found to be dead. The lifeboat was then towed to Buckie by a Russian vessel.

Q. 15.(a) How many members of the crew lost their lives? (b) How many bodies were recovered and how many crew members are missing?
(c) Were lifejackets attached to the bodies? (d) Was the missing crew member wearing a lifejacket at the time of the capsizing?

A.(a) Five members of the crew. (b) Four bodies were recovered. One is missing, that of Kirkness. (c) Yes. (d) No.

Q. 16. What search and rescue operations were put into effect for the missing crew member?
A. A search was made by both sea and air but his body was never found.

Q. 17.(a) Was the capsizing of The Duchess of Kent caused or contributed to by the wrongful act or default of any person or persons and, if so, whom? (b) Was the loss of her crew caused or contributed to by the wrongful act or default of any person or persons and, if so, whom?
A.(a) No. (b) No.

F. W. F. O'BRIEN, Judge


Dd. 501241 K10 12/70


 

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