Joanna C tragedy: company to pay £100k after ‘highly modified vessel’ sank off East Sussex coast, causing deaths of two men

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A fishing company must pay more than £100,000 after a highly modified vessel capsized off the coast of Newhaven, causing the deaths of two men onboard.

Crew members Robert Morley, Adam Harper and David Bickerstaff were onboard the Joanna C fishing boat, owned by Laura D Fishing, when it sank on November 21, 2020. Out of the three, Mr Bickerstaff was the only survivor and was pulled from the water by lifeboat crews after clinging to a lifebuoy.

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Mark Cam, senior investigator with the MCA’s Regulatory Compliance Investigations Team (RCIT), said: “This is a tragic reminder that modifications to vessels should be planned and their effects on the vessel’s stability properly investigated using appropriate professionals. Companies are responsible for providing a safe place of work for their employees, wherever that may be. The court has found that Laura D Fishing Ltd. did not take all reasonable steps to operate the Joanna C in a safe manner and this led to the deaths of Adam and Robert.”

Robert Morley, 38, from Pembrokeshire, died when the Joanna C fishing boat sank on November 21, 2020Robert Morley, 38, from Pembrokeshire, died when the Joanna C fishing boat sank on November 21, 2020
Robert Morley, 38, from Pembrokeshire, died when the Joanna C fishing boat sank on November 21, 2020

The MCA said the Joanna C’s gear snagged on the seabed in November 2020 and the vessel’s lack of stability meant it could not recover, which caused it to sink rapidly. The MCA said the vessel had undergone a major refit in 2019, which included the addition of a whaleback, the extension of the wheelhouse and fitting raised bulwarks. The MCA said these modifications and others affected Joanna C’s stability. They added that vessel modifications ‘should only be carried out following consultation with, and approval of, the MCA, as outlined in Marine Shipping Notice (MSN) 1871 Amendment 1’.

The MCA reported that West Hampshire Magistrates Court on Friday, July 5, heard that ‘extensive changes’ made to Joanna C, which were not approved by the MCA, made it ‘significantly non-compliant with the minimum standards of stability’. But the MCA said the vessel continued commercial operations ‘without considering the impact and risks’ of the modifications.

The MCA said Laura D Fishing Ltd was fined £36,000, and ordered to pay £69,284 in costs, as well as a £190 surcharge.

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Adam Harper, 26, died when the Joanna C fishing boat sank on November 21, 2020Adam Harper, 26, died when the Joanna C fishing boat sank on November 21, 2020
Adam Harper, 26, died when the Joanna C fishing boat sank on November 21, 2020

The MCA is now reminding vessel owners that vessels must meet required safety standards despite any changes made. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch has issued a Safety Flyer to the sector to highlight the causal factors and safety lessons learned.

The Sussex Express reported in November 2020 that the body of Mr Harper, 26, from Brixham, Devon, was found days after the vessel capsized. Another body was pulled from the sea a month later off De la Warr Parade, Bexhill, on December 14. Police confirmed on February 18, 2021, that this body had been formally identified as Mr Morley, who was 38 and from Pembrokeshire.