Yacht Skipper Convicted Over Tanker Crash

25 October 2013, 11:49 | Updated: 30 March 2016, 13:50

A Royal Navy officer who was in charge of a racing yacht which collided with an oil tanker during Cowes Week has been found guilty of three counts of contravening maritime regulations.

Roland Wilson, a lieutenant in the RN Reserves, was convicted of failing to keep a proper lookout and two counts of impeding the passage of a vessel following a five-day trial at Southampton Magistrates' Court.

The court heard that the 32-year-old was in charge of the 33ft (19.8m) yacht Atalanta of Chester which was in collision with the 869ft (265m) Hanne Knutsen on the first day of the sailing regatta in August 2011 despite the married father-of-one, from Stanley, Perthshire, having seen the tanker from five miles (8km) away.

Footage of the incident, in which one crew member suffered minor head injuries and another abandoned ship, was posted on YouTube and has been viewed more than 900,000 times.

 During the trial, Charles Row, prosecuting, claimed that Wilson, who owned and skippered the yacht, sailed his boat, which had seven other crew members on board, "perilously'' into the path of the 138ft (42m) wide Hanne Knutsen.

Mr Row said Wilson failed to comply with local shipping bylaws which required him to maintain a moving prohibited zone (MPZ) of 1,094 yards (1,000m) in front and 109 yards (100m) either side of a vessel greater than 492ft (150m) long.

Wilson told the court that the tanker had sounded its horn to indicate it was to turn to starboard but then did not carry out the manoeuvre, leaving him in a dangerous position in front of the vessel.

The trial heard that a motor vessel, the Joy C, had lost power and caused the Hanne Knutsen to change its intended course.

Wilson, a physics graduate from Durham University, told the court he joined the Royal Navy in 2006 and left in February this year but still remains a reservist.

At the time of the collision it was the fifth time he had raced at Cowes and he had a flat in the town which overlooked The Solent.

He said he had a short-lived position at financial services company Credit Suisse after he left the Navy until the impending court case came to light.

He is now working on new designs for inflatable boats.

District Judge Anthony Callaway said he respected Wilson and his crew, which included highly-ranked former RN officers, but ruled that the skipper had made the wrong decision and placed his yacht and the tanker in danger.

He said: "I accept that it may have been difficult sailing and difficult manoeuvring but, with the quality of the crew and a sound and undamaged yacht, I have no doubt their abilities were sufficient to sail that yacht, Atalanta of Chester, out of danger and avoid risk to others, in particular the Hanne Knutsen.

"The fact that they did not do so was not the product of lack of skills but the wrong decision at the wrong time of which the skipper must take responsibility.''

He added: "The skipper has the ultimate say and carries responsibility accordingly and that is the position for time immemorial.''

Judge Callaway added: "Fortuitously there was no loss of life. This was a serious incident in itself, the potential for an even greater consequence was apparent.''

Speaking of Wilson and his crew, he said: "The crew were strong, experienced and able and absolutely not arrogant.

"Frankly, I doubt that any other crew in the 2011 regatta or at any other event could have fielded a better team, at least on paper.''

He continued: "This was a serious yacht crewed by serious people in the regatta for a serious purpose and well-equipped in terms of experience and ability to deal with any situation.

"This was not some Saturday afternoon jaunt by some inadequate vessel crewed by the inexperienced and foolhardy who have no business being on the water for their own good and everyone else's.''

Judge Callaway said the accident was not a reason to criticise the Cowes Week event and said any calls to cancel or change it were "unjustified''.

He added: "This collision must be seen in its proper context - this was an isolated incident born of its own circumstances.''

Wilson was fined £2,000 for the offence of failing to keep a proper lookout and £500 for each of the two offences of impeding the passage of a vessel and ordered to pay a £15 surcharge. The maximum penalty was £5,000 on each charge.

But he was ordered to pay the full costs of the prosecution which totalled £100,056.68.

Saying that bringing the case was in the public interest, Mr Row said to Judge Callaway: "As you made clear in your judgment, by the grace of God, there could have been an absolute catastrophe.

"It was a serious incident and it was carefully considered that it was a proper prosecution.''

Judge Callaway said: "There was a public interest in bringing this prosecution. Public interest is a very difficult thing to assess - what one person thinks is in the public interest another person thinks is not.

"Given the nature of the collision, it is quite inevitable that the prosecution obtained substantial input from technical and skilled sources and that of course requires money.''