Fisherman Scott MacAlister died five minutes from safety

The trawler sunk off Easdale Island. Picture: Creative Commons
The trawler sunk off Easdale Island. Picture: Creative Commons

Skipper Scott MacAlister died only five minutes from safety when his trawler Speedwell sunk off Easdale, his father told the seventh day of a fatal accident inquiry in Oban.

But police didn’t listen to local fishermen in the search, he said, wasting precious time and money looking in the wrong spot.

Peter MacAlister, 70, a fisherman of 50 years, thanked everyone who joined the efforts to rescue his son.

‘All the local fishermen have helped in their own way,’ he said.

Around 20 vessels answered Scott’s mayday at 1.06pm on April 25, 2013, including the CalMac ferry Lord of the Isles, but the official search was terminated the next day, with no sign of the Speedwell or Scott.

The MacAlister family’s advocate Lewis Kennedy recalled Mr Alastair Davidson, a retired DI at Oban Police Office, had earlier ‘accepted the police got it wrong: they were searching in the wrong place’.

Mr MacAlister said: ‘That was for the whole period of the search. We found the boat within a few feet. We found some oil absorption pads. We knew they were on the boat.

‘They did not consult people and felt they knew better. There were hundreds of years of experience. There were 28 boats on the sea. There were plenty of people who could have told them. I do not know what they did to be in charge of the search. If they had asked any of the fishermen they would have told them where to look.’

On June 7 the Speedwell was located 83m deep, 400 yards to the south of Insh, and 700m away from sanctuary at the jetty in the Easdale Channel.

‘It would only have taken a few minutes,’ Mr MacAlister said: ‘It would have been five minutes away.’

Mr Kennedy asked Peter MacAlister why he continues his plea to raise the Speedwell from the seabed.

‘Scott could still be on the boat,’ he replied.

‘The boat has not been properly searched. There is a good chance he is there. There were 28 boats on the sea that day and he was not seen. If he had been on the surface he would have been found. I think he would have been washed into the forepeak. He could not have escaped.’

Peter MacAlister and a volunteer diver from Seil, Graeme Bruce, planned three dives to inspect the Speedwell’s wreck.

But their attempts were aborted after the first dive when owner John Connell withheld his consent.

‘He did so because you were rude to him?’ the family’s advocate Lewis Kennedy asked at the FAI.

‘I asked him why he did not want us to lift the boat, because at the end of the day he would get his boat back. He repeated the same thing: “Do not touch my boat.” Then he put the phone down.’

Last Friday (June 8) Mr Connell told Oban Sheriff Court he had assumed he would be paying, since it was his vessel.

‘There is no cost involved,’ Mr MacAlister said: ‘There was no conversation about it. I could not see a reason other than self-protection. I wanted to get the boat back for an inspection.’

However, Mr Connell later gave his consent, in January this year.

‘We had been told John Connell no longer had control of the vessel,’ Mr MacAlister said. ‘This was the only way to know what really happened to the Speedwell. It has taken us five years to find out this information.

‘I think it did flood through the hatch, but I feel it would also flood through the drains associated with the hatch,’ he said, describing an experiment where they found two small 19mm pipes filled a hatch with water in one hour 47 minutes.

On Monday the court heard from naval architect Ian Paton, 57, of Parkol Marine Engineering, York, who said the sinking of the Speedwell could be explained by water entering the hold hatch.

Procurator fiscal David Glancy asked: ‘Given that hull damage is something that can realistically be excluded, what would you attribute the loss of the vessel?’

Mr Paton said: ‘It must have been the hatch.’

The factors leading to Mr Paton’s conclusion were the facts that there were two near sinking episodes in the past; because he could hear the engine still running in the mayday call; and because Mr MacAlister changed course to Easdale.

Mr Paton said: ‘It’s progressively getting worse because the boat is getting lower,’ before adding: ‘I would estimate that you are looking at about a tonne of water in the aft compartment hold and the boat is in serious difficulty.’

In the absence of either a bilge pump or an ad hoc arrangement with a length of hose, would the only option be a bucket, asked Mr Glancy. ‘Yes,’ replied Mr Paton.

The court also heard evidence from Javier Martinez, 43, the Speedwell’s skipper in November and December 2009.

A joint minute agreed by the parties’ lawyers stated: ‘He immediately encountered problems.

‘He had difficulty controlling the boat. The stern felt heavy. The boat was not steering properly. The sea was choppy and the boat was slowing down. He went aft and opened the aft hatch, and found a substantial quantity of water in the aft compartment. He discovered the bilge pump did not work, so pumped the water out manually.’

For a second time Mr Martinez discovered water in the aft hatch, which he bailed, while Speedwell was moored in Loch Sunart.

‘He contacted John Connell and reported this.’

Giving Mr Martinez a lift home in Fort William, Mr Connell told him they would have to do something about the boat. The Speedwell returned to Cuan, where Mr Martinez next saw it.

‘He checked the aft compartment and observed water there, though not in the same quantity. Mr Martinez advised Mr Connell that he would not work on the boat until it was fixed.’

Mr Martinez was never contacted by Mr Connell and never again worked on Speedwell.

‘Mr Martinez never saw any life jackets on the vessel. He had his own life jacket which he had brought with him. The opinion of Mr Martinez was that during the period he was working on Speedwell, it was not in a condition whereby it could be used for fishing.’

All parties extended their condolences to Scott MacAlister’s family, and Mr Glancy thanked them for their assistance and dignified behaviour, and the boat’s owner John Connell for his candid cooperation.

The inquiry will continue on June 25.