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Sailor Tells of Fight for Life as Ship Hits Rocks

Maria Assumpta Brig 

S.A.  8500 Sq feet

LOA 123

Guardian, Saturday June 3 1995

Sailor Tells of Fight for Life as Ship Hits Rocks

John Howells, helmsman of the world's oldest working square-rigger, the 137-year-old Maria Assumpta, tells former ccrewman Simon Newsam about its destruction this week off the north Cornish coast

'We were going through a channel between The Mouls and Pentire Point. It wasn't the Admiralty recommended route but we had followed this course before and everything was fine.

'I was at the helm and Mark (Lichfield, the Captain (and owner)) was standing next to me. All but about three people were on deck. The others were below in the saloon preparing the exhibits for entering Padstow.

'We were motoring but had plenty of sail up too. We had a lee shore and the tide was against us. The engine was running smoothly, then suddenly it just stopped. I remember Mark saying at the time "this could be serious". 'All hands were called on deck. Two men went below to see what had happened to the engine. They never got it restarted. The rest tried to get some more sail up.

'There was a westerly wind and I had to sail a course close to the shore. Mark was by my side giving me constant directions. I'd knowm how serious it was for about five minutes since the engine stopped. I said to mark "I think we're going to make it." Then seconds later we hit.

A lookout posted at the bows to watch for reefs had not spotted the submerged rocks. The captain immediately began broadcasting Mayday calls to Padstow Harbour and nearby shipping.

Mr Howells, aged 40 and a tree surgeon from Crynant, West Glamorgan, made his way forwards. 'At that stage I was more worried about crashing timbers from above than drowning. The foc'sle was the safest place to be since not much would fall forwards. 'I got my legs tangled in ropes by the rail. The ship was already listing at about 20 degrees, and up to 60 degrees every time the swell hit. The deck was almost vertical at times.'

As the boat began to break up, he freed himself from the ropes and reached the bows. At that moment he saw Ann Taylor - one of the crew who died - in the sea.

'She was lookin straight at me. She was terrified. A wave crashed over me and I lost sight of her. A few minutes later I saw her on a rock and I thought, "she's made it," so I forgot about here and tried to help the others.'

Several others were trying to jump onto the rocks from the bows. 'You had to time your jump with the swell. The boat was breaking up.' Another crew member, Nigel, saved his life. 'He went ahead of me and we both made it. Then a wave crashed over me and he grabbed my collar as I was swept away.' Another of those who died, John Shannon, also made it to a rock but lost his grip as waves washed him back out to sea. 'Jamie Campbell had made it onto the rock, but he saw Emily Macfarlane still on the deck. Very bravely, but foolishly, he jumped back into the sea and made it to the boat. He was a real hero.

'I saw them in the sea together. They both went under a couple of times but came up again. Then they went under and I lost sight of them. I saw Jamie about a minute later on the other side of the ship.

He did not see Emily again. She is assumed to have drowned. Mr Howells said she had been ill and was wearing a lot of heavy clothes and was probably still feeling weak.

'The rescue services were brilliant. They were there so quickly. We were on the rocks, getting a fix on the people who were still in the sea. We were pointing them out to the helicopter and rescue boats.

'John Shannon was in the sea about 50 or 60 metres out, clinging on to a cool box but itkept on spinning over. Tim, his best friend, had a fix on him and saw him finally slip under. He just couldn't hold that box.

'I asked where Ann was, but she wasn't there. She must have been washed onto the rock by one wave, and washed off again by another.'

Mr Howells denied that the ship's engines regularly broke down. They had been rebuilt over the winter, he said.

The boat had been under motor power for much of the previous day between Gloucester and Swansea. The cause of the engine failure remains a mystery. Independent newspaper UK (approx 1 July1997)

Skipper goes on trial over tall ship deaths

The owner and skipper of what was the world's oldest working square- rigged sailing vessel yesterday went on trial for the alleged manslaughter of three crew members lost when the vessel broke up on the north Cornwall coast.

Mark Litchfield, 56, who was among 11 survivors when the 137 year old wooden tall ship Maria Assumpta was wrecked as she approached Padstow in May 1995, appeared before Mr Justice Butterfield at Exeter Crown Court.

The three lost crew were Anne Taylor, 50, of Wallingford, Oxfordshire; Emily MacFarlane, 19, of Felixstowe, Suffolk; and 24-year-old John Shannon from Queensland, Australia.

The jury of six men and six women heard that Mr Litchfield, of Boxley, Kent had pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charges at an earlier hearing. Mr Justice Butterfield, who said the trial could last over six weeks, adjourned the hearing until today.

The charges allege that Mr Litchfield unlawfully killed Anne Taylor on 30 May 1995, and unlawfully killed Emily MacFarlane and John Shannon between 19 May and 25 June 1995.
In each case the charge alleged that as master and owner of the vessel, Mr Litchfield owed a duty to take reasonable care of all those who sailed on her, including the three who died.
In each case the charges also allege that he was in breach of that duty and did not take did not take reasonable care of the crew who died.
It was claimed that he failed to plan, navigate and execute a safe passage for the vessel from Hartiand Point towards Padstow, and in particular failed to sail the vessel at a safe distance from the shore.
It was also alleged that he sailed the ship so close to the shore that he had to rely on using the engines to avoid grounding on Mouls Rock, knowing that the diesel fuel was contaminated and likely to cause the engines to fail

 

Independent Newspaper UK (approx 2 July)

Ship wrecked for view of the coast

The world's oldest working sailing ship was wrecked on the Cornish coast with the loss of three crew when her owner-captain took her close inshore to admire the coastline, a court heard yesterday.

Despite knowing the coast well, Mark Litchfield steered the 137-year-old Maria Asumpta on the course, regardless of adverse wind and tide conditions, said the prosecution lawyer, Richard Lissack, at Exeter Crown Court. The 125-foot-long square-rigger went aground at Rumps Point, outside Padstow Harbour, on 30 May 1995, and broke up "almost immediately".

Mr Litchfield, from Boxley, Kent, has pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of the three members of the 14-strong crew who died. They were Anne Taylor, 51 of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, the ship's cook; second engineer John Shannon, 30, from Queensland, Australia;and Emily MacFarlane, 19, of Felixstowe, Suffolk, an assistant bosun. The charges allege that Mr Litchfield, a former Royal Navy lieutenant, was in breach of a duty to take reasonable care of those who sailed in the vessel.

Mr Lissack said Mr Litchfield set the course, chose the route, decided all matters of navigation and ran all aspects of the vessel.

"He would not brook any question of his authority. Despite knowing the north Cornish coastline very well, he decided to take her close inshore, regardless of the prevailing wind and tide, which were adverse. He did this to admire the coastline, let those on the cliffs admire the Maria Asumpta, and to use up some time, as they were ahead of schedule.

"In taking her close inshore, Litchfield put the vessel on a lee shore a situation where the wind was blowing towards the shore to which you are close."

Mr Lissack said Mr Litchfield broke two of the golden rules of sailing: always maintain a good distance off, and never get caught on a lee shore.
The case continues. Electronic Telegraph, net version of the Telegraph (popular UK paper) ********************************************************************

THE skipper of the Maria Asumpta, the world's oldest active sailing ship, was jailed for 18 months yesterday for the manslaughter of three of his crew who died when the vessel foundered.

Mark Litchfield, 56, was convicted by majority verdicts of 10 to two after the jury at Exeter Crown Court had deliberated for more than 14 hours. Litchfield, a former Navy officer described by the judge as "a man of great ability", stood impassively in the dock as the guilty verdicts were delivered.

Relatives of the dead said afterwards that they were pleased with the verdicts but believed that the prison term should have been longer. Suzie MacFarlane, whose 19-year-old daughter Emily died, said Litchfield should never be allowed to operate a sailing ship again. He had previously owned the Marques, a square rigger which sank with the loss of 19 lives in 1984,

Miss MacFarlane, of Felixstowe, an assistant bosun; John Shannon, 30, the Australian second engineer, and Anne Taylor, 51, the ship's cook of Wallingford, Oxon, drowned when the Maria Asumpta hit rocks off Rumps Point, near Padstow, Cornwall, in May 1995.

The jury found that in plotting a course too close to the treacherous Cornish coast and in relying on engines which he knew to be fuelled by contaminated diesel, Litchfield had been grossly negligent and shown a profound disregard for the lives of his crew.

It had heard during the six-week trial that Litchfield, of Boxley, Kent, had been advised to change his course by the Padstow harbourmaster and that engineers had recommended that the dirty fuel be disposed of when the 137-year-old ship was refitted at Gloucester docks just before its final voyage. Litchfield testified that he could not recall the detail of either conversation.

When the Maria Asumpta began to be pushed towards the shore by a combination of tide and wind as it approached Padstow, Litchfield had switched on the engines.

They failed minutes later when the fuel filters became clogged and the ship drifted on to the rocks. Alun Jones, QC, defending, pleaded for Litchfield to be spared a prison sentence. He said Litchfield was no danger to the public and that there would be no deterrent effect in jailing him. But Mr Justice Butterfield said a jail sentence was required not to reflect the value of the lives lost but to punish Litchfield for his recklessness and negligence.

"The three members of the crew who died, like the rest of the crew, showed you loyalty and devotion and served you without reward and reposed in you their absolute trust and confidence," the judge told Litchfield.

"On the verdict of this jury you betrayed that trust by showing a contempt for the very dangers they trusted you to avoid. The jury found you had a profound disregard for the lives of the crew and were reckless in your navigation and management."

The judge added: "You chose to conduct yourself as you did in the face of clear warnings of the consequences in respect of the fuel used and the course sailed. This was therefore no momentary aberration but a deliberately chosen course of conduct condemned by the jury as grossly negligent."

Mrs MacFarlane, 51, speaking outside court, said it had been suggested in Litchfield's defence that the families of the dead bore no malice against him because they had not pursued civil claims against him.

"This is not so," she said. "Bringing a civil action was pointless once this case was going to court. This is the second time he has set up and run an operation that has resulted in the loss of lives. It is important Mark Litchfield does not have the opportunity to set up a similar operation. Remember this is a leader who managed to scramble off the boat before the two women and one man who died." Mrs MacFarlane, who was accompanied in court by her daughter Laura, 20, said Emily had been a talented girl with a zest for life. Her loss had left "a huge void".

Joan Bell, 59, a sister of Mrs Taylor, said: "This tragedy was avoidable. I think Litchfield is totally irresponsible. The sentence should have been longer but at least he has been tried and found guilty."

JOHN Johns, keeper of the Trevose Head lighthouse, was showing visitors around when his wife came running to find him. "She's on the rocks, she's on the rocks," his wife was shouting.

Mr Johns grabbed his binoculars and ran out on to the roof of the engine room. He watched in disbelief as the Maria Asumpta, the world's oldest active sailing ship, was smashed to pieces on rocks off Rumps Point.

"It did not look like a sailing ship any more," he said. "It was just crumbling up before my eyes."

The ship's arrival in Padstow, Cornwall, had been eagerly awaited. Townspeople and tourists had gathered along the cliff tops to watch her passage into the bay.

Those spectators became helpless witnesses to a disaster as the ship drifted noiselessly towards the shore. She grounded on submerged rocks off the Rumps and began to break up.

They could only watch as people jumped from the deck on to rocks or were swept away by the currents.

The Maria Asumpta's final voyage had begun four days earlier on May 27, 1995, when it motored out of Gloucester Docks, after a major refit and survey, and down the Bristol Channel.

The vessel had a crew of 14 largely amateur sailors who were eager to learn and determined to enjoy the adventure of sailing on a square rigger.

The first days of the trip were hampered by poor weather and the Maria Asumpta sought shelter at Porlock, Lynmouth and the Mumbles, off Swansea.

Tuesday, May 30, dawned fine with good sailing conditions. There was a Force 4 onshore wind but the sea was calm and the ship made good progress towards its rendezvous with the Padstow pilot.

Mark Litchfield plotted a course close to the coastline. He was to tell police in an interview that it was "a nice coast and I thought everybody else would like to look at it".

The Maria Asumpta was his "baby" and he thought it would be "a nice sight" for people ashore. On board the crew were enjoying their journey. There was time to take photographs and build a donations barrel to collect money for the ship's upkeep upon their arrival in Padstow.

Around 1.30pm Mr Johns caught his first sight of the ship as it rounded Tintagel Head. It was a mile off the coast and Mr Johns was concerned that it should be so close. But the ship had sailed to Padstow before and he assumed its skipper knew what he was doing.

Adam Pursar, watch leader and perhaps the most experienced crew member, had begun to doubt his captain's navigation. He suggested tacking out to sea, away from the hazards of Mouls Rock, Roscarrock and the Rumps.

Litchfield disagreed and insisted on a course which contradicted the accepted wisdom on navigating the local waters. He had taken a call on his mobile phone from the harbourmaster, who testified that he had advised him to take his ship further out to sea before trying to enter Padstow Bay. Litchfield said the conversation was difficult to remember because the reception was poor. He had climbed up a mast to try to get a better signal.

At 3.30pm, 45 minutes before the ship grounded, Litchfield began to take a more active role in directing the helmsman and navigating.

He was surprised at the extent to which, as it approached Mouls Rock, the vessel was being set in towards shore by a combination of wind and tide.

With the ship still veering off course as it approached the Mouls, Litchfield ordered the engines to be started and the Maria Asumpta skirted around the rock.

on deck as the crew looked to Litchfield. He gave orders for the sails to be set full to try to gain speed and steer the ship clear of the next rocks. The engineers were sent below deck to attempt to restart the engines.

Mr Pursar said he knew that the ship was now doomed. Philip Chatfield, another of the more experienced crewmen, spoke of the position as "hopeless". Litchfield, too, knew the ship would not make it. "I think I started to pray," he said.

There was an abundant supply of lifejackets on board but no order was given to put them on. Ten minutes after the engines failed, the Maria Asumpta struck a rock and heeled dramatically to starboard, then swung again to port. Immediately her hull began to splinter and crack.

Litchfield shouted: "Oh my God, she's struck - save yourselves and make land by the rocks." At 4.15pm his distress call was taken by Falmouth coastguard centre.

As lifeboats and rescue helicopters began to scramble, crew members jumped from the bow on to the rocks. Mr Pursar turned to Litchfield as he jumped and screamed: "You bastard, you bastard."

Emily MacFarlane, 19, a poor swimmer, stood on deck clutching a mast, screaming. Jamie Campbell, the engineer, went to help her but both were washed into the sea and she was lost. John Shannon, 30, the second engineer, jumped overboard but was pulled away by fierce currents.

On the deck Anne Taylor, 51, the cook, seemed petrified with fear. A widow, she had given up her job as a secretary to sail on the ship. She stood rooted to the deck as the ship split at the point where she was standing and she was pulled down into the churning sea. Survivors were picked up by fishing boats and lifeboats which hurried to the area.

A Navy helicopter winched the body of Anne Taylor from the sea around 7.35pm. The bodies of Emily MacFarlane and John Shannon were found 25 days later by the Port Isaac lifeboat off Carnweather Point. They were identified by their clothing.

 

Photos of the Maria Assumpta Disaster from PPL PHOTO GALLERY

 

Most of this Information From: Chris Bennett C.R.Bennett@greenwich.ac.uk

 
 
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