MCIB report of an investigation into a fatal incident involving the FV ‘Mirror Of Justice’ off Teelin, Co Donegal on 26 August 2020
The Marine Casualty Investigation Board has published its report of an investigation into a fatal incident involving the fishing vessel ‘Mirror Of Justice’ off Teelin, Co Donegal on 26 August 2020.
On 26 August 2020 the fishing vessel (FV) “Mirror of Justice” drifted onto rocks west of Teelin Bay, Co. Donegal. An extensive search and rescue operation was implemented to try to find the lone Fisher who owned and operated the vessel. Due to an Atlantic swell the vessel broke up on the rocks on which it grounded. Shortly afterwards the Casualty was found floating nearby wearing flotation type oil skins but no Personal Flotation Device (PFD).
The 9.27 metre (30ft|) half-decked clinker-built boat was a commercial, licenced fishing vessel and was surveyed according to the Code of Practice (CoP) for fishing vessels less than 15 m in length. The aim of the CoP is to set standards of safety and protection for all persons on board small fishing vessels of less than 15 m length overall, which go to sea to fish for profit. The last survey was carried out on 31 May 2017, valid until 30 May 2021 by a Marine Survey Office (MSO) approved surveyor for fishing vessels less than 15 m length overall.
The “FV Mirror of Justice” was owned and operated by a 75-year-old, experienced fisherman since 1988. On the day of the incident, the fisherman was fishing for squid using a rod and reel west of Teelin Harbour. He departed Cladnageragh at approximately 09.30 hrs and expected to return by about 20.30 hrs on the same day. The weather was cloudy and mostly dry with only isolated patches of light rain. Temperatures were around 15/16 degrees Celsius with good visibility and moderate occasionally rough with an estimated significant wave height (combined wind-wave + swell) of 1.5 to 2.5 m occasionally 3 m. Waves and swell moved into the area from a westerly direction.
The skipper of the “FV Mirror of Justice” left a note for his wife to say he was going to “Green nose”, a fishing area between Slieve League and Rathlin O’Birne, marked as “Giants-rump” on the chart, approximately 3.5 nautical miles (NM) west and along the coast from Teelin Bay. The operation involves the use of several rods and reels and special types of lures called squid jigs. Squid are caught in areas with stony seabeds and finding an area where squid are present is a matter of trial and error or by using local knowledge. Any catch was to be sold to market.
A close member of the skipper’s (the Casualty) family reported that normally when returning to port he would stop in an area one half mile west of Teelin Bay for the last few casts of the day. The expected time of arrival in this area varied from day to day and depended on how successful fishing was during the day. This area is approximately one third of a mile southwest of where what remains of the wreck of the “FV Mirror of Justice” now lies.
At approximately 19.30 hrs “FV Barbarella” was heading westwards to fishing grounds and passed “FV Mirror of Justice” west of Teelin Harbour entrance, heading eastwards at approximately six or seven knots. Once passed, the “FV Barbarella” turned and shot fishing gear. Having only towed for half a mile, the Skipper of the “FV Barbarella” noticed the “FV Mirror of Justice” stopped up close to the shore. The Skipper called the “FV Mirror of Justice” four or five times on the VHF radio and received no reply. Concerned, the Skipper of the “FV Barbarella” called another boat owner normally in the area, but who turned out was not on the water that day. He did however agree to walk down from his house and look to see if the “FV Mirror of Justice” appeared to be in trouble from the perspective of the shore.
Another vessel, “FV Girl Denise” was at Muckros Head, on its way back to Cladnageragh, having had repair work completed in Killybegs. The Skipper of the “FV Barbarella” called the Skipper of the “FV Girl Denise” at 20.14 hrs and asked him to have a look. Within five or six minutes the Skipper of the “FV Girl Denise” saw that the “FV Mirror of Justice” was laying against rocks in a foul area behind Teelin Pier, position 54° 37.268’N 008° 38.311’W. He relayed this information to the Skipper of the “FV Barbarella” who in turn called Malin Head Coast Guard (CG) Marine Rescue Sub-Centre (MRSC) Malin on VHF radio at 20.22 hrs. The Skipper of the “FV Girl Denise” could not see anyone on board the “FV Mirror of Justice” at this time.
Prior to this time two anglers fishing at the back of Teelin Pier had observed the “FV Mirror of Justice” drifting. They watched the vessel for approximately 15 minutes and became concerned that the vessel was too close to the shore and that there did not appear to be anyone on board. They clearly heard the “FV Mirror of Justice” making contact with the rocks, and called a local fisherman to relay this information, only to realise that the alarm had already been raised and they could see that the “FV Girl Denise” was already on site. One of the anglers interviewed noted that the time the “FV Mirror of Justice” made contact with the rocks was approximately 20.15 hrs.
MRSC Malin requested Killybegs CG to respond at 20.29 hrs. At 20.34 hrs Rescue Helicopter R118 was tasked and arrived on scene at 20.42 hrs to commence searching. Meanwhile at 20.37 hrs the Arranmore Lifeboat was requested to attend.
At 21.02 hrs the Killybegs CG Delta RIB arrived on the scene. By this time several local vessels had also arrived to assist. The “FV Mirror of Justice” was on the rocks in a position making it very difficult for any attending vessels to reach it due to a 1 m sea swell.
At 21.08 hrs, having searched the area surrounding the vessel, Rescue Helicopter R118 lowered a winchman onto the deck of the “FV Mirror of Justice”. At this stage the vessel’s deck was awash and the deck boards were starting to float. The winchman could not see anyone on the deck or in the wheelhouse, and the helicopter reported to MRSC Malin that “there was nobody in the cabin, on the rocks or on the cliffs nearby.” He also reported that his PLB got wet.
Killybegs CG requested its shore team to join the search.
The owner of the charter boat relayed seeing the vessel earlier in the day, at 15.15 hrs, working in position 54°38.0’N 008°41.72’W, north west of Carrigan Head and MRSC Malin instructed Rescue Helicopter R118 to search from the vessel to Carrigan Head.
At 22.16 hrs the Aranmore Lifeboat arrived on the scene and at 22.37 hrs accepted the role of on scene co-ordinator. An extensive search continued from Carrigan Head to Teelin and on to Tawny Bay and Muckros Head, involving the Aranmore Lifeboat, the Killybegs CG Delta RIB and shore crew, An Garda Síochána (AGS), Rescue Helicopter R118 and a number of local vessels.
The “FV Mirror of Justice” broke up on the rocks due to the continued swell between 21.08 hrs when the helicopter winchman was lowered and 22.42 hrs when the EPIRB belonging to the vessel, having floated free, automatically activated.
At 23.09 hrs the Aranmore Lifeboat reported that the debris field was visible and moving slowly eastwards with the rising tide and requested the search be concentrated in this area.
At 23.14 hrs one of the local vessels involved in the search found a body in position 54°37.26’N 008°38.21’W among debris from the vessel. This was approximately 110 m from the position that the “FV Mirror of Justice” grounded on the rocks. The body was transferred onto the Killybegs Delta RIB and brought ashore at Teelin Pier. The Casualty, later confirmed as the Skipper of the “FV Mirror of Justice”, was wearing flotation type oil skin bottoms but no PFD. He was fully clothed including wellington boots. He was found with his mobile phone in his possession.
A search of the area during daylight the following day, 27 August 2020, was conducted and the Search And Rescue Transponder (SART), the Skipper’s PLB, the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigator and an inflatable PFD were recovered and brought ashore. The GPS navigator was sent to a local electronics company to ascertain if the vessels track could be recovered but was found to be irreparably damaged. The SART and the PLB were found to be operational but had not been activated and the lifejacket was automatically activated and deflated.
It is likely that the Skipper of the “FV Mirror of Justice” became ill or got trapped shortly after stopping his vessel in an area he was known to fish at the end of the day. It would appear that this happened when he was either beneath the wheelhouse floor or in the fore peak compartment, as he was not visible to the helicopter winchman.
All those who knew the Skipper of the “FV Mirror of Justice”, described him as being a fit, competent and experienced fisher, with a sound understanding of the risks involved in all fishing operations and who would have implemented appropriate contingency actions in the event of a breakdown or a distress situation.
The Skipper of the “FV Mirror of Justice” normally worked his vessel alone. He chose a type of fishing operation which could be considered less labour intensive than other types such as “potting”. Had there been another crewmember on board the “FV Mirror of Justice” on the day to raise the alarm or render assistance, the outcome could have been different. Fatigue may have been a contributing factor, but to what degree is impossible to quantify.
The Maritime Safety Strategy identified that the fishing vessel sector accounts for a significant proportion of all maritime fatalities, and that fishing vessels less than 15 m in length make up 90% of the Irish fishing fleet in numbers. Fishing vessel safety, particularly in relation to the small and medium fishing vessels is a particular concern. Among the key factors contributing to loss of life in the fishing sector is working alone and fatigue.
The Irish Maritime Administration of the Department of Transport should intensify its efforts to promote maritime safety awareness, through a process of information and communication, and promote more effective communication between key stakeholders as detailed in the Maritime Safety Strategy.