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S/Y Cheeki Rafiki incident was no accident

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By Capt. E.S. Geary

At the moment, the loss of the 40-foot (12m) Beneteau S/Y Cheeki Rafiki is viewed and has been reported as an unfortunate accident. It wasn’t an accident.

The tragic death of the four crew and loss of the yacht in mid-May was a result of third-party incompetence and negligence, and it was preventable. Those who were responsible and negligent in the proper care and maintenance of the vessel should be identified and held accountable to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.

Having recently dealt with a number of claims on behalf London underwriters with similar deficiencies I believe the cause of this tragedy is obvious.

The skipper’s first message reported the yacht was taking on water and requested the owners permission to divert to the Azores. He didn’t report striking anything. It’s apparent that the ingress of water reported by the skipper began as the keel bolts lost integrity.

The keel bolts were loose and leaking water as evidenced by the rust stains on the apertures, which could have resulted from corrosion or metal fatigue. Their ultimate failure allowed the keel to separate from the hull.

Tightened keel bolts don’t fail; loose ones do.

When total failure occurred, the keel fell free, causing the superficial damage to the hull laminates amidships. The verification of the laminate damage, limited to the hull/keel join (amidships), is displayed in photos taken of the capsized vessel.

With a locator beacon on the hull it could be recovered, but the keel will never be found. Unless it loses its buoyancy, the hull will continue in the prevailing currents toward Ireland and could, if necessary in subsequent litigation, be salvaged.

There’s no evidence to support the theory that some have speculated that the keel may have struck a semi-submerged object such as a container. With no impact damage to the hull there is no basis to support this theory.

However, whether the keel struck anything is irrelevant considering the rusted, undamaged apertures of the forward and aft keel bolts. Their clean separation indicates the keel bolts were structurally unsound.

During the 640nm voyage north, the approximately 3,500 kg keel was only partially held against the flat hull surface by the defective keel bolts, which initially allowed to keel to move with a limited ingress of water. Unknown to the crew because of the sea state and parametric rolling that would have aggravated and accelerated ultimate failure, the keel would have experienced a slow swinging motion before it eventually dropped from the hull.

The inverted hull of the Cheeki Rafiki was found and the photo silently speaks volumes in confirming the keel bolt failure that led to the loss of the keel — and the immediate rise of the vertical center of gravity — that resulted in the immediate capsizing of the vessel.

The crew were experienced sailors so they would have been wearing life-vests, safety lines and, in that area of the Atlantic, probably also TPAs (thermal suits). When the keel parted from the hull at night in the turbulent seas and fierce winds, the four-man crew would have had little time to avoid being dragged under by the sails and/or standing rigging when the immediate change of the VCG caused the hull to roll.

It’s possible but, sadly, I doubt if the bodies will ever be recovered.

Having recently completed a survey with a similar problem, the life-raft didn’t inflate because the painter was improperly secured. If a life-raft painter line is loose or was improperly secured the life-raft won’t activate, can’t deploy and goes down with the vessel, which is exactly what happened in this case.

This tragedy should not have happened. Through no fault of the crew, the Cheeki Rafiki was sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition, and those responsible should be held accountable. The families of the victims have a right to know of the unseaworthiness and that their loved ones paid a terrible price and died because of the gross negligence of others.

Capt. E. S. Geary is a chartered surveyor in the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London and qualified in admiralty and maritime. He is also an MCA Code of Compliance Inspector (SCV). Contact him at shipsurveyor@msn.com.Comments on this essay are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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