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Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 21:05 GMT 22:05 UK
Deadly Harvester: transcript
Havester Frontling Scotland graphic
Seven crew died on the sunken Harvester
This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Deadly Harvester programme which was broadcast on 10 October.

Reporter, Euan McIIwraith: On 11 January seven young crew on the Solway Harvester headed for shelter in the Isle of Man.

It was one of the worst nights of the winter. And at 5.40pm the skipper contacted her sister ship, the Tobrach-N, to say he was making for port.

Twenty minutes later, an emergency distress signal from the Harvester was detected by the RAF.

A full scale search was launched, including search and rescue helicopters from RAF Valley in North Wales.

News Bulletin: "Hope is fading for the seven-man crew of the Scottish trawler lost in the Irish Sea off the Isle of Man. The Kirkcudbright registered Solway Harvester...."

Reporter: But by morning it was clear that all seven of the young crew had perished, victims of the most dangerous job in Britain.

The sinking sent shock waves throughout the industry, and left the community of Whithorn devastated. But the deaths came as no surprise for some who were closely involved with the Solway Harvester.

Andrew Breen: It was very, very scary. I always thought to myself that this boat could go down.

Michael Walker: I spoke to one of the boys on the boat when it sank, a couple of weeks before it did sink, and I asked him how my old boat was getting on.

And he said it would be fine if he didn't need to empty the hold with a bucket.

Reporter: The Harvester sank twelve miles south-east of Isle of Man within their territorial waters.

Yet another tragedy adding to the death toll of 223 fishermen lost in the decade to 1999.

Many of those deaths remain unexplained. In the UK Government policy is to leave the boat on the sea bed, and to declare the wreck a sea grave. But, the Manx Government lifted the boat and took it to port, determined to discover the truth.

So, what happened that night?

Well, in the wake of the raising of the Harvester some answers are beginning to emerge.

And, tonight, Frontline Scotland can reveal that the parent company of the Harvester had been involved in a whole catalogue of disasters over the last 15 years - four boats, 15 lives lost, and none of the wrecks raised by the UK Government to find out what happened.

If they had then, perhaps, the seven men who served on this boat would still be alive today.

The Manx Government are still in the process of investigating the incident.

But, tonight, Frontline Scotland asks: 'Should the owners of the Solway Harvester face charges of manslaughter?'

The Solway Harvester was built eight years ago for Jack Robinson Trawlers based in Grimsby. Before the Harvester sank eight fishermen had already been lost at sea on the company's boats.

In 1987 The Anmara was heading back to port. The sea was rough, but nothing she hadn't encountered before. According to the parents of skipper, David Barratt, their son was an experienced and well-respected fisherman.

He'd already had one lucky escape when the vessel nearly sank. But this time his luck, and that of his two-man crew, had run out, leaving his parents distraught.

Margaret Barratt: We didn't go to bed. We just sat here, didn't we?

Jack Barratt: Ehem....

Mrs Barratt: .... all night. And then the next morning about 5am we heard the Nimrods go, we heard the helicopter go, the rockets went, so we knew they were still searching.

Then eventually, David was found, you see, at the bottom of the cliffs at Filey.

Reporter: The Anmara had just come out of a major re-fit, including the installation of a bigger and more powerful engine.

But the investigation into her sinking concluded she'd been the victim of a freak wave.

Mr Barratt: I don't believe in a million years that it was a freak wave. I cannot see that at all. I should say a boat of its standard should be able to battle against a freak wave.

Mrs Barratt: I just couldn't understand why a boat, after a re-fit should just go down like that.

Reporter: And David's parents aren't the only ones with unanswered questions.

Fisherman Peter Murray was David's brother-in-law, and he's convinced the fitting of a bigger engine had affected the stability of the boat, making it vulnerable in a wild sea.

Peter Murray: Well, I just think because of the stability of the boat she's rolled over because she's been top heavy.

Reporter: If that's true, what does that say about the company that let her go to sea?

Mr Murray: Well, company itself are cutting corners. It's about time something was done about it.

Reporter: Frontline has discovered the results of those stability tests which are carried out to show how far a boat can tip to one side before sinking. The Anmara fell below the minimum standard for stability. She was at sea in an unstable condition.

Mr Murray: The people who own the company, who own the boats, they don't......they go to bed every night.... nothing to worry about. It's the families that suffer, the people..... the people..... the family at sea.....

Reporter: But, the tragic history of Jack Robinson Trawlers goes back even further than the Anmara.

In February 1985 the Kirkcudbright-based boat, the Mhari-L with a crew of five, was fishing for scallops off the Isle of Man when she suddenly disappeared with the loss of all five crew.

The official Government investigation was damning. The Mhari-L was operating without a fishing vessel certificate, refused due to questions over the boat's stability.

The vessel didn't have a radio licence. Neither did the crew. And, most damning of all, the report concluded that lives might have been saved if the boat had carried up-to-date life rafts.

In 1997 the ownership of Jack Robinson Trawlers changed hands.

Richard Gidney rose from being a lowly fisherman to the managing director after buying the company, effectively making him the owner of the Solway Harvester, which he used to skipper.

Mr Gidney runs his fleet from Kirkcudbright, and it's a flourishing business. He's a major employers, and his scallop catches support scores of jobs at the nearby processing factory, an important employer in the job-starved south-west.

He's successful and he's powerful.

One of the problems facing any investigation into what really happened to the Solway Harvester is a wall of silence that tends to surround any fishing community.

They simply don't want to air their dirty washing in public. But, here in Kirkcudbright feelings are running so strong about the way whole thing's been handled that that wall of silence is beginning to crack.

Michael Walker and Andrew Breen both served on the Solway Harvester. They claim that equipment was regularly swapped between company boats to pass Department of Trade and Industry inspections.

Andrew Breen: I remember anchors being swapped from boat to boat for DTI's because I was on there when they had the DTI, and the anchors were borrowed off other boats and sent back again.

Reporter: Not every boat had an anchor?

Mr Breen: No, they passed it about to pass the DTI.

Reporter: Did you come across that?

Michael Walker: Yeh, I have in the past, yes, on Mr Gidney's boats, and we took the anchor off the Solway Harvester and put it on the St Aman so it could get through its DTI.

Reporter: Did anybody bat an eyelid at that point?

Mr Walker: No, it was commonplace.

Mr Breen: You'd lose your job.... you can't complain.

Chris Thomson: It's like if you want to sell your car, swapping tyres, taking good tyres off a good car and putting them on an old car to make it pass its test.

Things like that do go on, like taking life jackets off that boat and put them on this boat, so that when the inspector comes they're aboard. And then when he goes, put them back.

And it does happen. I've been guilty of it myself in the past being a crew member, you know. We've not got enough life jackets, go and ask such and such for a loan of a life jacket, you know..... because basically if your boat gets detained you're not making money.

I'm not saying it's right. It's a thing that should be looked into more.

Reporter: We've been told that it wasn't unheard of for equipment to be swapped between boats to pass that test, like anchors, medical chests, life jackets......

Richard Gidney: It's simply not true. All these things have got serial numbers attached to them which the MCA check on.

You're talking about things that only cost.... they cost very little money on the whole scale of things, it's just not something that's done.....

Reporter: But fishermen we've spoken to claim anchors don't have serial numbers, and that life jackets are simply counted - a fact confirmed by the inspectors themselves.

Then on 11th January the Solway Harvester sank with the loss of seven men. In the weeks following the sinking maritime and coast-guard agency officials carried out a spot check on all Jack Robinson Trawlers boats.

The catalogue of faults they discovered on two boats - The Karianda and the St Keverne - make disturbing reading. They found vital hatches could leak allowing water into the boat.

To compound the danger an alarm warning of rising water levels in the hold was defective, which would have alerted the crew if a pump had failed.

A defect which was potentially life-threatening. Both boats were banned from sailing until the faults were rectified.

Eventually, the vessels were allowed back to sea. Then in August disaster struck, once again, for Jack Robinson Trawlers.

News Bulletin: "Three fishermen have been rescued after their vessel developed an electrical fault and sank fifteen miles east of Stonehaven. The crew of The Karianda were plucked from a dinghy and taking to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary by helicopter....."

Leigh Shields: Eh, the electrics cut out, just so suddenly, and the skipper just knew there was something wrong straight away and rushed down stairs into the engine room, and it was full of water.

So the skipper shouted up to us and told us to get the life jackets and the life raft ready. From there we got up on to the wheel house roof, took the life raft down, and put it on the side of the boat, and by that time she was going under, the water was over the side.

Reporter: How did you feel as all that was happening?

Leigh Shields: I thought that was it, I thought that was me gone at the time. Three minutes and it was down, so quick.

Reporter: What happened when you first got an indication there was a helicopter on the way?

Leigh Shields: I just.... I ripped the flap open, I was shouting, things like that.... just pleased that we'd actually been rescued. Very lucky, very lucky. But I think if it was more rough they would have.... we wouldn't have been here.

Lorna Marsters (Leigh's mother): I did think the worst, I did think of.... the Solway Harvester..... seven men that never came back from sea.

Leigh Sheilds: We filled up with water a week before we actually did sink..... we filled up with water, we were fishing off Aberdeen, and we filled up with water, we actually did think we were going to sink then.

But we managed to get the bilge pump working. We were swimming about in water trying to get to the bilges and things like that, it was.....

Reporter: Did that not terrify you?

Leigh Shields: To think of it, it does really.... why we all stuck on that boat for so long. You could have called that a sunken boat even though it was floating. Where it is now is where it belongs.

Reporter: Chris Thomson served as the skipper of The Karianda, and her sinking came as no surprise.

Chris Thomson: If any boat would have went down at sea that would have been the one that was to go.

Reporter: Why?

Chris Thomson: Well, just the.... everybody's general attitude about the Karianda that worked on it, and the Kirkcudbright term is it's a heap. But my main concern was always with the electrics, you know.

I used to dread night time coming. I mean I didn't have it that long, but the time I did have it night time would come you'd put the deck lights on and your equipment would go off in the wheel house.

It was constantly blowing fuses. You'd switch one thing on something else would go off. You couldn't have everything working at the same time, and night time was the worst.

If the Karianda was to fill up with water quickly, and you had to pump the fish room out, well it's electrically controlled, you know. If there's been a massive power failure there's no pump... it's obvious what's going to happen.

Richard Gidney: She'd had a few problems prior to her sinking which we were in the process of getting repaired.

Reporter: What was the problem?

Richard Gidney: To be honest, I don't specifically have..... one was a generator that had a problem, and the skipper was dealing with it at the time.

Reporter: So there wasn't a long history or catalogue of electrical faults?

Richard Gidney: No, not a long history, no.

Reporter: Investigations into the sinking of the Karianda are continuing. And the real reasons for its sinking remain unclear. And, as long as she remains on the sea bed off Aberdeen then, perhaps, we'll never know.

Certainly, the Government have no plans to raise the wreck.

But, back on the Isle of Man it's a different story. The Manx police are building up a picture of what life was like on the Solway Harvester. And, for former crew members it was a frightening experience.

Andrew Breen: Generally you can stay dry most of the week on the other boats if you're an experienced fisherman.

But there was no chance of doing that on the Harvester, because there was always water about the boat.

The mid decks were constantly awash with water, at four inches of water all the time. It would build on that, it would go up to at least a foot.

Michael Walker: You sometimes grabbed a hold of the pipes and lifted yourself off the decks so you didn't get your feet wet. In wild weather it was probably one of the worst boats to be on in wild weather.

Andrew Breen: It was very, very scary. I always thought to myself that this boat could go down.

Reporter: Part of the problem lay with the scuppers, or drain holes, which line both sides of the hull. In high seas the waves would pour through them swamping the inner deck.

And pumps for the deck hoses made the situation even worse. They were pumping water whenever the engine was running continually flooding the deck.

Michael Walker: The pumps for the water on the side of the boat, they were all seized on, which meant when you started the boat up there was water running, it was like... you couldn't switch them off no matter how you tried, the water just ran about the deck.....

Chris Thomson: .....and the only time the engine...... the pump will stop is if actually the pump does break itself, or the engine stops.

Reporter: Does that mean the hoses have got to be over the side whenever the engine's running?

Chris Thomson: Yeh, you'd have to have them through the scuppers.

Reporter: Potentially quite dangerous though if they weren't over the side.

Chris Thomson: It could be if one of the hoses was left somewhere.

Reporter: That's just what happened to the Tobrach-N, the identical sister to the Harvester.

A hose was left running into the hold un-noticed, the boat filled with water and badly leaned over to one side.

The crew rushed to put on life jackets and prepared to abandon ship. Once again the emergency services were scrambled.

The RAF managed to lower a pump to the crew avoiding possible disaster. The Tobrach-N went back to harbour, escorted by the Solway Harvester.

There was no official inquiry. A harrowing escape but it could shed important light into what happened to the Solway Harvester. We've already heard she was a very wet boat, and from fact released by the Marine Accident Investigation Board into the sinking we know that a vital piece of safety equipment was missing from the wreck - a hatch, or a scuttle cover.

And that missing cover may have been crucial in sealing the fate of the crew of the Harvester on that night in January.

Ian Winkle, from Glasgow University, is a naval architect, and a leading specialist on shipping disasters. He's studied the information that we've collected.

Ian Winkle: You should never have exposed openings on water tight decks in storm conditions. One of the first rules of seamanship is to make sure that all your hatches are properly secured before you are hit by a storm.

There was a scuttle of some sort in this area on the port side close to the side of the vessel which had its cover missing.

This would be a hole fifteen to eighteen inches diameter in the deck, so any water washing around that area of the deck would then find its way into the hold.

Reporter: At the time of the sinking speculation was rife that the disaster was due to a collision with a container of a ship.

Speculation heightened by the obvious damage to the bow of the Harvester. But according to Ian Winkle the collision theory is wrong.

Ian Winkle: Well, from the evidence of the large dent in the bow it would seem that it hit the bottom bow first.

The way in which that happened would be that she would be bouncing around on the surface, rolling, pitching.

She'd be filling up with water, as she filled up with water the bow would go deeper and deeper. At some point the flooding rate is relatively rapid, she would then start to plunge, rather like the Titanic, hit the bottom, and then roll on to her side.

Reporter: The bodies from the Harvester were recovered before the boat was raised. None were found in the wheel house. Two of the men were found on deck, another was found in the fish hold, while four other were in their bunks.

Information that seems to suggest some of the crew were suddenly aware of a problem and were in the act of trying to put it right before she sank. Could they have been trying to get the bilge pump to work, because with water pouring into the fish hold the bilge pump becomes a lifesaver, pumping water from the lowest part of the boat over the side.

Working flat out it should keep the boat afloat. But the Solway Harvester had a history of pump failure.

Andrew Breen: Well I worked in the hold myself, that was part of my job. And sometimes you'd go down the hold and there'd be two and three feet of water. There'd be three or four times a day we'd have problems with the bilges.

It was forever blocking up, with just rubbish out of the hold. There was times when we couldn't get to it because the weather was too rough.

Michael Walker: A clogged up pump just means that the pump's not working, so in heavy weather you'd be filling up with water all the time.

The last time I saw the Solway Harvester was just before New Year. We were sitting in the harbour, it came in, and they tied up next to us.

I got the stern rope, tied it up and had a chat with Wesley, asking him how my old boat was getting on. And he said it would be fine if he didn't need to empty the hold with a bucket.

Reporter: A bucket?

Michael Walker:A bucket.

Reporter: What did that say to you?

Michael Walker: It said that the bilges weren't working. That's what I took it to mean. A pump will shift a lot of water, a bucket only shifts a gallon.

Reporter: How would you have felt about sailing on a boat where you had to empty the hold with a bucket?

Michael Walker: I just wouldn't sail on a boat that you had to empty with a bucket. The pump's there for a purpose. If it's not working you should fix it.

Reporter: Mr Gidney denies all these allegations, and denies he's responsible for the condition of the boat.

Who is responsible, are you responsible or the skipper?

Richard Gidney: Well, I would say that possibly the owner should take more responsibility, and I certainly do do all that I can, you know.

But at the end of the day the skipper is the master in charge of the vessel. And even if I went to see on the vessel, as the owner, I would still have to be..... I would be subordinate to the master of the boat. So, eh, it's up to the crew to ensure that all these things are done.

Reporter: We spoke to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, who disagree. They say the owner is also responsible.

The interim report into the sinking found that annual lifeboat checks had been ignored since September 1996.

Besides a missing hatch cover the report also found that four of the young crew had not had compulsory basic training.

When a boat sinks an exclusion zone is put around it to both protect the sea grave and to ensure evidence remains undisturbed before an investigation. No one is allowed to enter.

One of the most disturbing incidents in the whole mystery surrounding the Solway Harvester involves a deliberate trawling of this boat by its sister ship, the Solway Ranger.

We've been told that the Solway Ranger, over a period of three days, repeatedly trawled back and forward over this boat when it was still a sea grave, and in a restricted area. But why?

We've spoken to crew members of the Ranger who claim they were there to make the wreck look as though it had been the victim of a collision at sea. Another allegation denied by Richard Gidney.

Richard Gidney: That boat was there because there was good fishing, and also to see if they could get any clues as to what had happened.

Certain equipment was dredged..... brought to the surface in the nets of the boat.......

Reporter: But they did bring up the radar mast from the Solway Harvester....

Richard Gidney: They brought up certain parts from it, yeh, but we knew.... they were a mile or two away, I think it was, two miles, I think.

Reporter: Two miles away?

Richard Gidney: Yes.

Reporter: Were you fishing or were they trying to find wreckage from the boat?

Richard Gidney: They were fishing.

Reporter: But accidentally found wreckage.

Richard Gidney: They were fishing in the area and they came across the equipment.

Reporter: Because we've been told they dredged deliberately across the wreck.

Richard Gidney: No.

Ian Winkle: I can see no practical way in which it would find its way two or three miles away. I don't expect any of the components to float. I would expect them all to sink.

It's extremely difficult to understand how a radar system can become detached from the mast unless the mast breaks off. If the mast was there I don't see why the radar shouldn't have been there as well.

Reporter: The dredging of the Harvester is still being investigated by the Manx police, and at the moment this twist to the tale remains a mystery.

The coroner on the Isle of Man is still collating information and his report could be due early next year.

A report that might never have surfaced had circumstances been different.

If the Solway Harvester had gone down just a few miles further offshore then the chances are the secrets of that sinking would still be on the seabed, because the British Government doesn't want to raise wrecks.

But the Manx Government did. So we've come to meet the Chief Minister at the House of Keys to find out why.

Donald Gelling (Chief Minister): Well, if it was any other accident of a bus going off the mountain road, or a car, or whatever, we would investigate that in the same way as if an aeroplane unfortunately came down, so, therefore, why should be not investigate a ship or a fishing boat. To me it's the same thing.

Reporter: The Isle of Man Government say they felt under pressure from Westminster over their decision to raise the wreck, and so creating a costly precedent. But, it was a cost the Isle of Man felt duty bound to pay.

Donald Gelling: I think basically they were concerned that we were, in fact, doing, as I say, what we were doing, but it was within our jurisdiction.

So, therefore, what we did was within our power and we said from the very start that we would report whatever we found.

Reporter: The Department of Environment Transport and the Regions is responsible for the investigation of all accidents at sea in the UK.

And it sticks to its position - boats should be left on the sea bed.

Keith Hill (Shipping Minister): Where it's possible to identify the causes of the sinking, primary with underwater survey techniques, then that is our preferred approach.

But, of course, what we have to bear in mind are the issues of safety in terms of the raising of the wrecks, and also the issues of costs.

Reporter: But a seabed video survey can't always reveal details of pump or alarm failure. For that you need to raise the wreck.

Donald Gelling: There are many answers, I think, that we give, because we have been able to get all the answers to this particular tragedy. But I would suggest that if there is wrong that has been done and blame is to be borne by someone, I'm quite sure that that will be the case.

Richard Gidney: I've just looked very carefully for six months. I've been trying to figure out myself what's happened, and what we can do to improve things. To be perfectly honest I haven't come up with an awful lot that we can do. If I felt responsible for it at all I wouldn't be here.

I've looked at myself very carefully since it. Some of the men on that boat were close friends to me, and it's been a very difficult time for me.

Michael Walker: Safety, safety was the last thing..... the last concern of his.

If it packed in they would get it sorted, they wouldn't maintain anything. You don't sort it 'till it's absolutely broken. This is the way of fishing..... he worked these fishing boats.....

Chris Thomson: He must be doing something, or not doing something, if his boats keep going down.

Reporter: How do you feel about that?

Chris Thomson: I feel.... I feel angry, angry at him personally, because it is..... he is the managing director of that company, they are his boats.

And a lot of people say it's down to the skipper, it's down to the crew. It's actually...... In my eyes it's down to him at the end. He has got to make sure that his skippers, or his crew are looking after that boat.

And it's strange..... one company, a lot of lives, a lot of boats. It needs to be looked into.

Reporter: The official report into the sinking of the Solway Harvester isn't due for some weeks. But at least there will be a report, and possibly charges brought.

If it had been left to the British Government it would have been a very different result. But is the sinking of the Solway Harvester the end of the story? Will more fishing boats find out in the future? And will more lives be lost at sea?

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Trawler sinking
The unfolding of the Solway Harvester story
See also:

10 Oct 00 | Scotland
Fresh doubts over Harvester safety
14 Aug 00 | Scotland
Solway Harvester sister vessel sinks
22 Feb 00 | Scotland
Trawler probe finds safety flaws
09 Feb 00 | Scotland
Harvester crewmen laid to rest
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