HC Deb 21 June 1971 vol 819 cc987-91

Dame Joan Vickers (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will make a statement in regard to the accident in connection with the Royal Navy Open Sailing Boats Race which sailed from Plymouth on Friday, June 18th.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Peter Kirk)

The House will already know of the sailing accident which occurred during the Plymouth to Fowey Race last Friday which resulted in the tragic death of two young naval ratings. Also three Officers and 16 ratings were admitted to hospital. All but five have now been discharged and the condition of the remainder is satisfactory.

The circumstances were as follows. The race is traditionally held at this time of the year to coincide with the Fowey Yacht Club Regatta. It is organised and conducted by the Royal Navy to give naval personnel experience in sailing and the opportunity to meet local people on a sporting occasion. Civilian maritime organisations also take part.

Having taken account of the weather forecast for the Plymouth area and conditions prevailing on Friday morning it was judged safe for the race to begin at 10 a.m. Some 40 boats took part. They were escorted by eight vessels all equipped with radio, some of which were in communication with the Flag Officer Plymouth's Headquarters.

Unfortunately, when the race was well under way the weather rapidly deteriorated into Force 6 to 7 gale conditions. The Escort Commander took action to round up competitors, who were by this time widely dispersed, and to bring them back to harbour. The escort force was augmented by a further eight naval ships, the Plymouth and Fowey lifeboats and R.N. and R.A.F. aircraft. The race was formally cancelled at 1.30 p.m. Unfortunately, two of the whalers participating capsized and four of the craft in the race went ashore along the coast at Whitesand Bay. The remainder put into Fowey Looe or returned safely to Plymouth. All craft were accounted for by evening but the search went on until dusk to ensure that there were no other unreported casualties in the area.

I would like to pay tribute to all those who responded so magnificently to the emergency including the Search and Rescue Services, the Coastguard, the police and the ambulances and, in particular, the Harbour Master at Looe. Our thanks are due to them all.

A Board of Inquiry has been convened to look into the incident and I will undertake to inform the House of its findings.

I am sure that the House will wish to add their sympathy to that which has already been expressed personally on behalf of the Royal Navy by its representatives to the parents and relatives of the two young men who died.

Dame Joan Vickers

While thanking my hon. Friend for that reply, I, too, would like to join with him in expressing sympathy to the parents of the two young men who lost their lives. I personally visited all those in hospital and I found them all in excellent form. I should like to take this opportunity of wishing them success in their future careers. I should like also to join in the expression of praise to all those who helped in the rescue operations, particularly the civilians of Smeeton, Down-derry and Looe, who were on the spot at once and gave excellent help. Perhaps special mention should be made of the W.R.N.S., who not only sailed in their own boats, but also in the rescue boats and were most helpful. This race, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, has been going on for 20 years and I think this is the first accident that has happened. I would hope that this race will be able to continue in future because it is very beneficial for those in the Navy.

Mr. Tom King

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy, particularly in relation to the 16-year-old boy who was a constituent of mine? May I ask the Minister whether the inquiry, which will rightly concern itself with points about the weather forecasts, will pay attention to whether it is really desirable that such young and inexperienced sailors—I understand that a number of them had less than four weeks in the Service—should be engaged in quite such an enterprising venture as this race presents? May I also ask whether my hon. Friend is aware that in one sense part of the inquiry has already been conducted, since, as many hon. Members may have seen, there have been bedside interviews on television, which have raised conflicting evidence which, I would have thought, could be a great embarrassment in this case? Will my hon. Friend consider whether such a practice is really desirable in such a situation?

Mr. Kirk

As to the first point, the inquiry will consider all aspects of this race. I think it fair to point out that adventurous training is part of the Royal Navy's tradition—a rather important part—and the fact that this tragic accident which has occured is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) has pointed out, the first in 20 years, should help us not to lose a sense of proportion about it. On the second point, the inquiry is being conducted by three very experienced naval officers and I am quite certain that they are quite capable of discounting anything they may have seen on television.

Mr. Foley

May I on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends associate this side of the House with the expressions of sympathy with the parents and relatives of those who were lost? May I draw attention to two matters which I hope the inquiry will take up? Firstly, what advice in terms of meteorological conditions was sought and given in advance of the race? Secondly there is the matter of the procedures adopted in terms of rounding up all the ships concerned. We look forward to a full report of the inquiry and its being made public.

Mr. Kirk

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am quite certain that both those points will be dealt with, and I will make, as I promised, a further statement to the House about the findings of the inquiry.

Captain W. Elliot

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that, whereas of course one greatly regrets this tragic loss of life, there is in naval training an element of risk, sometimes a very great element of risk, and that the record of this race over the last 20 years has been very good indeed? I think that that should be borne in mind.

Mr. Kirk

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that point.

Mr. Ronald King Murray

The Minister has rightly drawn attention to the element of risk and to the fact that any episode of this kind does involve an element of risk. The reports do not make very clear what rescue facilities accompanied the boats in this race. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what rescue facilities there were? If not, can he say whether this aspect will properly be canvassed at the inquiry?

Mr. Kirk

Yes, as I said in my Answer to my hon. Friend, there were eight escort ships with radio, and each boat in the race carried more life-saving equipment, including life jackets, than would have been needed by the crews; so in fact I think that all reasonable precautions were taken. It is only regrettable that, clearly, they were not enough.

Mr. Hicks

As Member for a constituency which includes the coast off which this unfortunate event took place, may I, too, express my sympathy to the parents and relatives of the two boys concerned? May I also pay tribute to all those persons of the various organisations which assisted in the rescue operations, and to all those who participated in an individual capacity in the coastal villages and towns? There is just one further aspect to which I would like the Minister to draw the inquiry's attention. This is the question which is being asked locally and is worrying people. It relates to the apparent omission to call in the assistance of the various fishing boats and shark angling boats which were in the vicinity that day. Most of those 20 or so boats are equipped with radio, and, of course, their skippers and crews have an intimate knowledge of those coastal waters and would willingly have helped. I would ask the Minister to bring this to the inquiry's attention.

Mr. Kirk

I am sure the board will look at this point. Of course, help would have been welcome from all sources. We got, as has been pointed out, very considerable civilian help, for which we are extremely grateful.

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