Coroner recommends compulsory EPIRBs following Returner investigation

The Coroner’s Court of Western Australia has recommended that AMSA should make float free EPIRBs that deploy automatically when immersed in water mandatory on all new and existing vessels following an inquest into the tragic deaths of Mason Carter, Murray Turner and Chad Fairley, who died following the sinking of the prawn trawler Returner in 2015.

On July 6, 2015, the vessel left Point Samson with Murray Turner, Chad Fairley and Mason Carter on board. The three men were intending to head to Nickol Bay for a trawling trip and were scheduled to arrive back in Point Samson on July 15.

The last contact with the vessel and its crew was shortly before 02:00 on July 11. On July 15, when the vessel did not arrive at the boat harbour as scheduled, Water Police were advised and an extensive air, land and sea search was commenced. The vessel was eventually located and the body of Murray Turner was found on board. The bodies of Chad Fairley and Mason Carter were not found and no sign of them was discovered.

The inquest canvassed the reasons why the vessel sank, which focused upon the refurbishment of the Returner by Mr Turner, as well as the possible contributing environmental factors.

Mr Turner purchased a 13-metre fishing boat in October 2014 and it was described as being in poor condition and in need of repair at the time of purchase. The fishing boat was located in Mandurah when it was purchased and Mr Turner steamed the fishing boat up to Geraldton between October 2014 and January 2015.  Mr Turner then berthed the boat at the Geraldton fishing Boat Harbour.

Over the next four months he refurbished the vessel to suit his requirements to fish for prawns, as he intended to use it as a prawn trawler along the northern coastline from Dampier to Port Hedland. Modifications were completed by a number of different tradespeople, with Mr Turner being responsible for overseeing the works in their entirety.

After completing the modifications on the Returner it underwent two survey processes while still in Geraldton. One was conducted for insurance purposes by a private company and the other was conducted via the DoT, on behalf of AMSA.

On May 8, 2015, Mr Turner steamed the Returner from Geraldton to Carnarvon and then onto Point Samson, where the Returner was berthed at Johns Creek Boat Harbour on May 24. It was reported the Returner had travelled through some heavy winds to get to Carnarvon and there had been problems with the autopilot, but the vessel arrived without incident.  The Returner was prepared for trawling in depths of two metres and up to six metres of water. Some sea trials were performed and the vessel was thought to perform satisfactory, although some concerns were raised about the booms.

The Returner returned to the boat harbour on June 3 and just before midnight on June 6 the Returner left the boat harbour with the intention of going trawling. The Returner arrived back in the harbour two weeks later on June 21, and although little is known about what occurred during the two week period, according to the coroner it appears to have passed without major incident.

On June 26 the Returner left the harbour to trawl for prawns off the coast of Dampier, and returned on July 2 with no significant issues.On July 6 the Returner left the boat harbour in Point Samson with Mr Turner, Mr Mason and Mr Fairley on board.

The last communication with the vessel was made with a text message conversation between 12:50 and 01:32 on July 11. A witness who was camping 45 km south of Port Samson gave evidence that on the night of July 11 the weather was bad and at 01:38 she saw a trawler off the coast of Cleaverville when she was checking outside her caravan. This witness did not see the vessel again when she looked out to sea around 04:00 to 05:00.

On the afternoon of July 15, notification was received by officers based at the Water Police of the Returner’s disappearance. Police immediately coordinated an air and shoreline search around the last known ALC position of the Returner.

On July 29 a police vessel identified the missing vessel Returner which was submerged in approximately 10 metres of water 20 kilometres from Nickol Bay, Karratha, and was approximately 1.9 nautical miles from its last known position. On July 31 police divers confirmed the vessel to be the Returner and on August 1 police divers recovered Mr Turner’s body which was located inside the accommodation quarters of the vessel. No other persons were located on board or in the surrounding debris field. On August 17, a commercial salvage operator was contracted to raise the Returner for examination.

The coroner found Murray Allan Turner died on or about July 11 as a result of immersion and the deaths of Mason Laurence Carter and Chad Alan Fairley have been established beyond all reasonable doubt and their deaths occurred on or about July 11 in sea off Nickol Bay, Dampier as a result of unascertained cause.

As well as a call for mandatory float free EPIRBS, the coroner recommended that AMSA end the grandfathering of safety standards for existing vessels, and give guidance to accredited surveyors to remind them of the importance of independently verifying key information when assessing a vessel’s stability, given the critical importance of the stability of a vessel in allowing a vessel to operate safely.

Additionally, the coroner recommended that WA Fisheries give guidance to its staff that, in addition to the regulatory aspect to the VMS, there is an important secondary safety aspect that they have a responsibility to facilitate as part of their duties. “Staff should prioritise communicating with a vessel that has issued an LAC alert that cannot be resolved and if the relevant staff are unsuccessful in contacting the vessel or ascertaining its whereabouts within four hours of becoming aware of the alert, they should notify Water Police of the relevant circumstances and provide any relevant information that is available from the VMS to aid police in determining whether, and where, a search should be commenced,” noted the coroner.

“In addition, I recommend that, moving forward, fisheries should consider ways in which the VMS can be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and if a practical means can be found, they should be resourced accordingly.”

Finally, the coroner stressed the need to improve the safety culture on commercial fishing vessels, recommending that AMSA and Worksafe in Western Australia should promote and encourage the wearing of life jackets.


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