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Sunsail staff found guilty

By Practical Boat Owner (PBO)

Three Sunsail employees were found guilty today of the manslaughter of an 11-year-old girl. At the trial in Lefkada Town, Greece, Sunsail admitted no rescue knife was used and there was no masthead flotation on the Hobie Cat, which capsized at Club Vounaki in 2003, trapping Laura Morgan by her harness.

Only four of the five staff charged with 'manslaughter by negligence' appeared in court. Three were found guilty. Hotel manager William Hutton (31), watersports manager Rebecca Morgan (30) and assistant manager Kevin Jones (25) were given 18-month jail sentences suspended for three years. The other two employees, Ben Annetts (39) and Colin Bradley (28), were found to be not guilty.

Laura's mother, Lynne Morgan, who was a witness at the trial, said she was "hugely relieved" with the verdict, but did not see it as a victory. "I've lost my beautiful child and nothing's going to bring her back. There are no winners but I feel justice has been done for Laura."

Laura and her two friends were trapezing on the 4.9m (16ft) catamaran when it capsized and Laura became trapped by her harness. The boat did not have masthead buoyancy so inverted and dragged Laura under the trampoline. Despite desperate attempts by the safety boat officers to free Laura, she had drowned by the time they managed to unhook her.

Normally Sunsail's modified Hobie 15s carry masthead flotation, but the ones at Club Vounaki did not. However, for Lynne, the issue was that Laura was allowed to wear a harness. "She should never have been given it," she said. "It was only the third time she'd been out on a Hobie Cat."

RYA national sailing coach David Ritchie published a report on dinghy entrapment last year, and said it was fine for beginners to use harnesses "in the right conditions." Since the accident, Sunsail have made it their policy to ensure parental permission is gained before allowing children under the age of 18 to use a harness.

In February 2005 the RYA made it mandatory for sailing schools to carry a rescue knife which, in the event of a catamaran capsize, is essential for slashing the trampoline. "This allows the casualty to breathe, as there is no air pocket between the trampoline and water," explained Ritchie. "The instructor's instinctive reaction is to dive under the boat to free the casualty but it's better to try to right the boat."

Lynne says she's pleased all the evidence was presented in open court during the six-hour trial. "It's a small consolation but hopefully something like this will never happen again," she said.

Sunsail are disappointed with the verdict and have lodged an appeal on behalf of the three staff. In a statement they said:

"The company recognises this has been an extremely difficult time for Laura's family and wishes to reiterate that the thoughts of everyone in the company remain with them…This is the first time in the company's 30-year history that a tragedy such as this has occurred. The safety of guests is the number 1 priority for Sunsail in everything it does and sailing at its clubs meets, and often exceeds, the very stringent guidelines laid down by the Royal Yachting Association."

(22 March 2006)

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