The Marine Safety Investigation Unit (MSIU) has released a report following a safety investigation into the loss of life from a tender carrying five passengers to the 60-foot yacht El Pirata off the coast of Gozo, Malta. While El Pirata is smaller in size than our usual coverage range, the investigation raises some important safety concerns that are relevant across the superyacht industry.

El Pirata. Image courtesy of MSIU.

On the evening of 5 May 2013, four adults, one of which was the yacht owner, and one teenager boarded the small tender boat to the pleasure motoryacht El Pirata, which was anchored inside Dwejra Bay, on the western coast of Gozo. The tender boat motored to Xlendi Bay, some two nautical miles off, in relatively good weather conditions, for an evening meal. One yachtsman, who was the previous owner of the yacht and now in charge of navigation, remained on board. He recalled that he had been invited by the owner to join them, however, the yachtsman declined the offer as he preferred to remain behind to tend El Pirata.

“By late evening, the weather conditions had deteriorated substantially,” the report explains. “The wind had by then been blowing consistently from a north-westerly direction for several hours and had increased to a force 5. The five persons boarded the tender boat and headed out of Xlendi Bay in pitch darkness and into rough head seas … the tender did not arrive back at Dwerja Bay. “

"Although the local weather forecast was accurate and reliable, it was either not monitored carefully, misunderstood, or not monitored at all."

Meanwhile, on board El Pirata, concerned about the deteriorating weather and safety of the yacht, the yachtsman decided to start both engines in order to reduce the strain on the anchor cable and to maintain a safe distance from the rocks. “However, at about 0030, he decided to weigh anchor and steam up and down inside of the confined space of Dwerja Bay,” the report continues. “Due to the sea state and darkness of the nearly moonless night, the yachtsman thought it would be too dangerous to attempt to sail out of the bay to the open sea. He was unaware of the actions or predicament of the owner and the rest of the group. Instead, he assumed they would not have attempted to return to the yacht in such harsh weather conditions and were safe somewhere ashore.”

At first light the next day, El Pirata sailed to Xlendi Bay and then continued onward to Mgarr Harbour, where eventually the missing five persons were reported to the local authorities. On 7 May, the bodies of two female adults and the battered, capsized hull of the tender boat, with its outboard engine and other flotsam, were spotted at Fomm ir-Rih, Malta. The body of an adult male was recovered in the South Comino Channel on 8 May and one adult and one teenage remain missing.

Starboard bow and bottom view of the recovered tender. Image courtesy of MSIU.

The safety investigation by the MSIU concluded that the primary cause of the accident was the swamping of the tender boat in adverse weather conditions. Other factors, which may have influenced the dynamics of the events, included lack of experience and appreciation of risk. “In all probability, the yachtsman’s role on board El Pirata was limited to the safe navigation and manoeuvring of the yacht whilst the ‘overall’ safety role was not formalised as one would expect in the case of the role of a skipper as a result of the working context on board,” the report explains. “Although the local weather forecast was accurate and reliable, it was either not monitored carefully, misunderstood, or not monitored at all. The group lacked crucial knowledge of the coast and its potential dangers.” The report makes clear that the conclusions and recommendations made should in no case create presumption of blame or liability.

As a result of the investigation, Transport Malta’s ports and yachting directorate has been recommended to disseminate safety notices to the local and foreign yachtsmen who engage in coastal activities on the: general characteristic of the coastline of the Maltese Islands and potential hazardous areas; quality of VHF and mobile network reception around the coast; importance of life saving equipment and basic navigation principals and seamanship practices. The MSIU have published an extensive report and analysis on the accident, which can be read here.