Trawler skipper jailed over death of Brighton fishermen

Posted On 12 Mar 2021 at 4:31 pm

A trawler skipper has been jailed for a year after three men died when a small fishing boat sank a mile and half from Shoreham Harbour.

David Marr

David Brooks Marr, 55, of Towerhill, Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, was unaware of the sinking but he was found guilty by a jury of breaking shipping rules by not keeping a proper watch.

Two of those who died were from Brighton – Mircea “Mitch” Ilie, 40, of Elm Grove, and his brother-in-law Irinel Popovici, 41, of Barcombe Road.

Mr Ilie, a father of three, ran Mitch and Grandad’s Bike Shop, also in Elm Grove, having taken over the business from the late Stuart Gover.

Another man, Traian Dumitrache, 51, from London, also died, Brighton Crown Court was told.

The only survivor in the fishing party was Mitch Ilie’s good friend Elvis Cojacariu, from London.

David Marr had pleaded not guilty to failing to maintain a proper lookout when his scallop dredger, the Vertrouwen, just missed the smaller boat.

The wash from the Vertrouwen, owned by MacDuff Shellfish, swamped the five-metre fishing boat and it sank in the early hours of Sunday 6 August 2017.

At Brighton Crown Court this afternoon (Friday 12 March) a jury convicted Marr and he was jailed by Judge Christine Laing, the honorary recorder of Brighton and Hove.

He went on trial on Monday (8 March) for a second time after the jury at his first trial had been unable to reach a verdict.

David Richards, prosecuting, said that Mitch had been on the phone speaking to his wife moments before the collision while Marr had been sending a WhatsApp message to a friend.

Mr Richards told the jury that Marr had sent the first mate Iain Clark to bed even though two men should have been keeping watch after dark.

The four men on the fishing boat could see two forward lights as the Vertrouwen approached shortly before 12.25am on a calm, clear and bright night.

They waved their head torches around to try to attract the attention of the bigger vessel which was on auto pilot.

Mr Richards said: “Mitch started the engine and tried to avoid the Vertrouwen by putting the James 2 into a hard 180-degree turn.

“But it was too late – just too late.”

It felt like a collision, he said, although a subsequent investigation found that the two boats did not make contact.

Mr Richards said: “It is clear that Mr Marr was entirely unaware of the James 2.

“It is also clear that the James 2 lacked much of the lighting that it should have had and that it lacked the radar reflective device that it should have had.

“But that doesn’t change the case that Mr Marr wasn’t paying sufficient – if any – attention to keeping a lookout from his wheelhouse.

“If he had, he would have seen the James 2. At or near the time of the collision, Mr Marr was attending to other matters. He was unnecessarily distracted from his duty.”

Mr Richards said: “The four men were shouting. They were signalling. Water was flooding in. Irinel and Mitch tried to bale it out with a bucket.

“Mitch shouted: ‘We’re sinking. Jump into the water.’”

They were not wearing lifejackets. Those they had were out of reach as the boat sank. The men tried to swim for shore.

Mr Cojacariu managed to stay afloat by clinging to a buoy until he was spotted five hours later.

His three friends drowned.

Mr Richards told the jury that the regulations and guidance required that two people should always be on watch during the hours of darkness.

And this was vital as the Vertrouwen left Shoreham because the presence of small recreation fishing vessels was not unusual – and there was a wind farm in the area.

But only Marr was on watch, having sent a colleague to bed.

Marr said in a police interview that he had turned off the forward lights because they affected his vision. But Mr Richards said that the prosecution did not accept this.

  1. BAHTAG Reply

    So let’s hope that the families of the deceased have a good and honourable law firm with which to prevail in a massive money claim against the Public Liability insurers of the Vertrouwen.

    Fortunately subsidiaries of MacDuff Shellfish appear to own numerous fishing vessels (albeit probably mortgaged to a greater or a lesser degree) but if the lawyers threaten MacDuff with getting a Court Order to freeze these assets then that should result in MacDuff’s lenders putting a lot of pressure on the directors of this international firm to dig out enough cash from wherever they’ve got it hidden around the world, so that the trawlers can be released by the bailiffs to go back to sea again?

    Also, given the age of the Vertrouwen’s skipper (mid-50s), and the massive rise in property values in the Peterhead area over the last 30 years or so (due to well-paid people coming in to work on North Sea oil projects), he’s likely to also own significant personal assets to be pursued for?

    Not to criticise the excellent reporting of this tragedy over the years, but this week we’ve not been told to what extent two vital radar issues were put to the Court.

    The importance of these issues is to minimise any reduction of compensation due to a titchy little fibreglass boat (basically a big dinghy with a lid on, called a ‘cabin’) not having a radar-reflector.

    The importance of this is to support a claim for damages + compensation for the bereaved families.

    In all the circumstances of this case there seems to be far less culpability for not having a radar-reflector than there would be for someone killed or injured in a car-crash due to not wearing a seat-belt.

    Because the weather conditions were about as perfect as they can be on a calm summer’s evening, and the victims were not out on the high seas in a storm, they were just outside the mouth of a known and active port (which MacDuff’s scallop dredgers have been using for years, so almost certainly well-known by their skippers?).

    Thus, we’ve already been shown very clear images from Shoreham Port’s own high-tech radar, which showed the victim’s small boat as clearly as in full daylight (so the lack of a radar-reflector is clearly irrelevant to modern radar over a short range in clear weather, surely?).

    Albeit that situation does beg a vital question.

    How can it be that Shoreham Port does not appear to operate a staffed control-tower, to use their super radar, to monitor all booked arrivals and departures of shipping, analogous to Air Traffic Control?

    An alert Port Controller could so easily have radioed the Vertrouwen to ask the skipper if he was aware of the little boat?

    Indeed, in these days of high-tech, where one can look in real-time at the track & position of ships and planes around the world, possibly a warning could have been automatically given to the Vertrouwen (but trawlers the world round are notorious for trying to disable, or to mis-lead automatic position-giving systems!).

    But the biggest clincher, which was reported to us quite a while ago, is that the Vertrouwen had had a new & modern dual-range radar system installed on the Friday just before leaving Shoreham,

    And we’ve been told that the Vertrouwen’s skipper had already set his new radar to long-range whilst he left the Port.

    Had he left it on short-range until a couple of miles into the Channel he’d likely have seen the victim’s boat as clearly 9n his new radar as Shoreham Port’s radar did?

    Whereby the lack of a radar-reflector on the victim’s boat would also have been irrelevant.

    So it feels like a 12-month sentence (probably commuted to 4 months in an open prison?) is far too lenient for such an egregious set of failures by the most senior seafarer on the trawler?

    All good wishes thus go to the widows and their children for a massive compensation award, plus damages on top for the massive emotional pain caused to them.

    Indeed, one hopes that BHCC have also acted generously to support Mitche’s wife and children, with housing and other needs through these difficult years?

    Certainly the wonderful Stewart Gover would have fought like a lion to defend the family’s best interests, if he hadn’t sadly passed-away well before his due time!
    RIP to all.

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