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The owner and skipper of a commercially-operated rowing boat has received a 12-month suspended sentence after a 21-year-old crew member was lost overboard during a world record attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The owner, Simon Chalk, pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the safe operation of his vessel. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency conducted a lengthy investigation into the incident which led to the charges under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
The victim, Michael Johnson, was one of eight crew members on board the 10.8-meter-long Toby Wallace when he was swept overboard by a large wave just after midnight on February 14, 2016, while attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a record 32 days. The seven rowers remaining on board were unable to stop the boat and they eventually lost sight of the victim.
The court heard that the crew had hardly any training, they weren’t required to have sea survival training, and they had only minimal time to familiarize themselves with the vessel. There was also no safety briefing on board about equipment, including personal floatation devices and beacons.
An MCA investigation completed in 2017 found that the victim was not even wearing a lifejacket or personal locator beacon (PLB) when he was lost overboard, and he drifted away because he wasn’t tethered. In fact, the investigation found that crew routinely did not wear lifejackets or use tethers.
Chalk was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for 12 months.
The MCA’s investigation report highlighted the fact that commercially operated ocean rowing boats aren’t regulated and have no set minimum safety standards. The agency recommended that the governing body for ocean rowing in England, British Rowing, and the coastguard aimed at improving the governance of UK-registered ocean rowing boats and ensuring minimum safety standards for commercial boats.
It also recommended that the rowing boat’s operator, Oceanus Rowing Ltd, to improve the safety of its boats on ocean crossings in the future.
The MCA’s investigation found that two days prior to the man overboard incident, four people on board another one of the company’s boats had to be rescued by a merchant ship after sustaining damage in rough seas in the Atlantic Ocean.
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