Pentland Ferries captain 'almost certainly fell asleep' in Orkney incident injuring 41 - here are the findings

Catamaran Alfred and nearly all vehicles aboard damaged in 2022 incident

The master of a ferry that hit rocks off Orkney, injuring 41 people, “almost certainly fell asleep” and regularly sailed very close to the coast, an official investigation has concluded.

Ten of the casualties suffered serious injuries, with CCTV showing many of the passengers and crew “violently thrown to the deck” or “somersaulting over benches”.

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The captain of the Pentland Ferries catamaran Alfred “allowed the ferry to swing towards land” in the incident off Swona island on July 5, 2022, the UK Department for Transport’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) reported. The operator said the master had since resigned.

Alfred off Troon in April while on charter to CalMac. (Photo by John Devlin/The Scotsman)Alfred off Troon in April while on charter to CalMac. (Photo by John Devlin/The Scotsman)
Alfred off Troon in April while on charter to CalMac. (Photo by John Devlin/The Scotsman)

A law firm criticised both the “avoidable failures” and Pentland Ferries for failing to apologise to the victims.

A total of 36 passengers and five crew were injured. The report said their number and severity “was almost certainly increased because they were not warned to brace for impact” before the collision.

It said: “There was no opportunity to instruct everyone on board to brace for impact due to the master focusing on manoeuvring the vessel to prevent the grounding and the absence of a lookout on the bridge to assist him.” Almost all the 37 vehicles aboard were damaged because they had not been secured properly, along with the ferry’s port bulbous bow.

Digby Brown Solicitors is understood to have helped four of the injured secure a total of £50,000 compensation in out-of-court settlements.

It said they had suffered a “shocking ordeal”, with injuries including a fractured shoulder, sprains and soft tissue damage.

Mark Gibson, a partner at the law firm, said: “As the MAIB report confirmed, this incident was the result of a catalogue of avoidable failures and it is a real shame that Pentland Ferries has stopped short of apologising to those affected.

“When it comes to keeping people safe, especially on marine vessels, it is simply not enough to heed warnings in hindsight - management have a legal duty to conduct risk assessments, address issues and prevent accidents happening in the first place.”

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“Our clients suffered meaningful injuries and losses after this incident. Some lost earnings after being left temporarily unable to work, while others incurred additional costs like medical treatment, so recovering compensation helps remedy these losses.”

The ferry is now on charter to CalMac to help address its vessel shortage, and is operating between Troon and Brodick on Arran.

The MAIB said the ferry grounded while travelling at 13 knots (15mph) because the master had been unable to prevent the collision after “almost certainly” falling asleep for just over one minute, during which time it had swung towards the coast. No one was acting as lookout.

He had returned to work that day after only five hours’ sleep and was on his first day back after three weeks’ leave.

The ferry, carrying 84 passengers, including 15 children, and 13 crew, had been travelling between Gills Bay in Caithness and St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney when the crash happened about 2pm. A total of 42 passengers were rescued by lifeboat before the ferry re-floated on the rising tide.

Investigators also found the emergency response following the crash did not follow the safety video shown to passengers “because the vessel’s procedures and weekly drills had not adequately prepared the crew for the emergency”. A MAIB report into the Orkney incident highlighted “key safety issues” as the 84m-long ferry routinely passing too close to land, fatigue leading to loss of awareness at a critical point in the vessel’s passage and lack of assurance that procedures were being followed.

It recommended to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that passage plans were available during inspections/surveys and guidance was issued to ferry operators over the need to secure heavy objects. The MAIB said UK domestic ferries’ exemption from carrying voyage data recorders should be reviewed.

The location of the incident. (Photo by MAIB)The location of the incident. (Photo by MAIB)
The location of the incident. (Photo by MAIB)

The branch also called on Pentland Ferries to ensure it recorded passenger details and injuries after such incidents.

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Andrew Moll, chief inspector of marine accidents, said: “Lots of safety action has been taken as a result of this accident and I am encouraged by the actions taken by Pentland Ferries to address the issues raised in this report. However, this accident offers a wider opportunity for lessons to be learned across the maritime industry.

"Alfred’s master routinely operated very close to the coast, leaving little margin for error when they found themselves in an unsafe situation.

“Regardless of the type of vessel you are operating, it is critical that a safe passage plan is made and that it is followed. Always allow sufficient sea room to enable action to be taken in good time if things are not going to plan.

"On the afternoon of July 5, 2022, the master almost certainly fell asleep and allowed the ferry to swing towards land. Crew should always be sufficiently well rested when coming on duty.

"Finally, this case highlights the importance of management assuring themselves that plans and procedures they have put in place are actually being followed.

“If you have management oversight of a vessel or maritime operation, ask yourself - ‘do I know that our crews and front-line staff are following our procedures, and are our plans fit for purpose in a real-life emergency situation?’”

The report said it was unclear why the master sailed so close to the shore, which was not the most direct route.

It said: “It is probable he wanted to show the passengers the scenery. Further, having completed over 20,000 crossings of the Pentland Firth without serious incident, it is likely that he had become desensitised to the associated risks of passing so close to navigational danger - a significant area of non-conformity that had not been identified during the vessel’s many surveys, audits and inspections.”

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Pentland Ferries managing director Helen Inkster, said: “We very much welcome the publication of the MAIB report and continue to digest its contents. We stand by the premise of the report, which is not to assign blame or liability, but rather to ensure future accidents across the marine industry are prevented.

“While we will never be complacent, we are satisfied that all the actions that could be taken by Pentland Ferries to ensure passenger safety have already been taken. We will always ensure that our vessels have detailed procedural plans, the right people, and rigorous training regimes in place.”

Orkney-based Highlands and Islands Scottish Conservatives MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said: “This incident could have been a lot worse, and while I understand some changes have been made already, Pentland Ferries and other stakeholders must accept and implement the recommendations of the report.

“It is vital that action is taken to ensure accidents don't happen in the first place, but when they do happen, the correct procedures are followed to ensure the safety of passengers and crew.”



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