Page last updated at 15:56 GMT, Thursday, 13 December 2007

Yacht deaths trial clears seaman

Michael Hubble
Michael Hubble denied causing death through negligence

A car ferry officer has been cleared of all charges relating to the deaths of three yachtsmen in the English Channel.

Michael Hubble, 62, of Kent, was the officer of the watch in charge of P&O's Pride of Bilbao when it was involved in a close encounter with a yacht.

Mr Hubble was cleared of manslaughter, but jurors could not reach verdicts on charges of endangering the men's lives under the Merchant Shipping Act.

The men died when the Ouzo was lost off the Isle of Wight on 21 August 2006.

The bodies of James Meaby, 36, Rupert Saunders, 36, and Jason Downer, 35, were found later.

The judge instructed that "not guilty" verdicts be recorded on the charges the jury could not reach verdicts on.

There will be no retrial.

Each of us has been devastated by the death of a much-loved family member who gave us so much pleasure and enjoyment
Statement from the sailors' families

Mr Hubble, from Capel-le-Ferne, Folkestone, was in charge of the 37,500-tonne Pride of Bilbao on the night Ouzo disappeared.

At about 0107 BST, the ferry was involved in a close encounter with a yacht, but Mr Hubble always maintained it was not Ouzo and that the boat sailed away safely.

In a statement, the sailors' families said: "Each worked hard in their employment to reach a time when they were each just beginning to reap the benefits of their hard work.

"They enjoyed life to the full, they worked hard and played hard.

"They were safety conscious sailors - safety first, safety second, safety third.

"Each of us has been devastated by the death of a much-loved family member who gave us so much pleasure and enjoyment."

Mr Hubble said: "The families of the men have my deepest sympathy but the demise of those men was nothing to do with me, or any action of mine or the Pride of Bilbao."

'Excellent' officer

Mr Hubble's solicitor, Kerry King, said: "There are no winners in a trial like this. Mr Hubble can now get on with his life but we have to be mindful in our celebrations for the families of the three men who died."

Mr Hubble was described as an experienced seaman who had been awarded commendations twice for stepping in to avert danger at sea.

He had more than 40 years' experience at sea - many of them on ferries.

Captain Alastair McFadyen had handed over control of the ship to Mr Hubble about 30 minutes before the incident with a yacht.

The Coastguard helicopter search and rescue operation for Ouzo off the Isle of Wight

He told the court he had confidence in his second officer and described him as "excellent".

During the trial, jurors were told by the defence team that experts from South Tyneside College calculated Ouzo was close to a 3,000-ton coastal tanker called Crescent Beaune at 0140 BST on 21 August.

A report into Ouzo's disappearance by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch (MAIB), published in April, was not shown to the jury.

The MAIB investigates all maritime accidents but does not apportion blame, and therefore its report could not be used as part of any prosecution.

It concluded Ouzo was almost certainly affected by a collision or near-collision with a large vessel.

It also said it was of the "firm opinion" that Ouzo was the yacht involved in the close encounter with Pride of Bilbao.

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