Alcohol partial cause of deckhand drowning: MAIB

The November 2017 death of deckhand Robert Montgomery, 36, on fishing vessel Illustris was at least partly a result of alcohol, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has found/

In its report into the death, MAIB noted that Montgomery had spent the afternoon and evening ashore and had only just returned to the vessel. His fall was not witnessed and he was not missed until the following day. The post-mortem examination report indicated a probable cause of death as drowning, with a contribution of acute alcohol toxicity.

Illustris was berthed outboard of fishing vessel Northern Quest at the time of the accident, at Royal Quays Marina in North Shields. The deck lights of both vessels were on; the wind was light and the weather was clear and dry. However, the decks and guardrails of both vessels were damp from earlier showers. The air temperature was between 3 and 4 degrees Centigrade and the sea temperature was approximately 10°C.

To get to Illustris her crew needed to board Northern Quest from the quayside, either by climbing down a vertical ladder set into the quay wall or stepping across the gap between the quay wall and the vessel, depending on the height of tide, and then climbing over the vessel’s shelter deck guardrails. To cross from Northern Quest to Illustris, the crew had to climb over Northern Quest’s guardrails, step across the gap between the two vessels and then climb up the steps set into Illustris’s side and over its shelter deck guardrails.

Northern Quest’s skipper had walked with Montgomery along the quayside to Northern Quest, and then stayed on the quay while he watched the victim board Northern Quest. He saw Montgomery cross the deck, board Illustris, cross its shelter deck and, at 22:36, turn out of sight behind Illustris’s wheelhouse. Northern Quest’s skipper then walked back up the quay. At 22:46, Montgomery’s mobile phone signal disconnected from its network.

Montgomery was a former Royal Marine and had completed training in personal survival techniques, fire prevention and fire-fighting, first-aid and personal safety and social responsibilities in 2012, when he was employed as a maritime security officer. However, he had not completed the mandatory fishing safety awareness training course. At the time of the accident, he was wearing casual clothing and walking shoes. He was described as being physically fit, but was known to be a heavy drinker of alcohol. That night he had an altercation in a pub, and fell twice on his way back to the Illustris, cutting his head as a result of one of the falls. However, there was no evidence to indicate that either of his falls earlier in the evening contributed to the accident.

The UK driving limit for alcohol 80 mg per 100 ml of blood. Montgomery’s BAC at the time of the post-mortem examination was 346 mg per 100 ml of blood.

Illustris had a crew of six, comprising the skipper, mate and four deckhands, two of whom lived on board for the duration of their 10-month contracts.

MAIB said that:

        the deckhand’s high level of alcohol in his bloodstream was likely to have impacted his perception of risk, his reaction time and his co-ordination. As the deckhand’s fall was not witnessed a prompt rescue was impossible.

        living on board a fishing vessel carried additional risks when it came to the consumption of alcohol

        while limited alcohol consumption might be acceptable in port, there was a need to ensure that it did not compromise the safety of crew returning to their vessel’s living quarters after an evening ashore.

MAIB noted that the Illustris risk assessment for boarding and leaving the vessel did not include a control measure requiring the wearing of a PFD. The listed control measures did include “Try not to disembark alone.” However, said MAIB, the discretionary nature of the measure and its restrictive scope rendered it of limited value.

MAIB said that “there is a compelling need for owners and skippers to take firm action to ensure that the recreational consumption of alcohol does not compromise the safety of those crews who are required to return to their vessels after a night ashore.”

Illustris’ owner, Sagittarius Fishing, was recommended to take account of the hazards associated with crew members proceeding to and from shore for recreational activities and to establish a formal drug and alcohol policy. NAIB noted that Sagittarius had taken a number of actions, including the introduction of zero tolerance for alcohol consumption.

MAIB has brought to the attention of the Fishing Industry Safety Group the causes and circumstances of this accident, as well as the rising number of fatalities where alcohol consumption was a contributing factor to fishermen falling overboard while returning to their vessels.