I remember the radio broadcast – three bodies found in the Channel, a yacht missing. But I only took a close interest a few days later when it was reported that accident investigators were examining the hull of the P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao. A couple of summers before, I had sailed to Spain on the same ship, watching from its decks as whales cavorted in the Bay of Biscay. Now this leviathan, which leaves hundreds of metres of churning water in its wake, was suspected of running down a yacht called the Ouzo. An image flashed up of the yacht at night, of sailors throwing themselves overboard moments before the ferry hit.

Around this time, a photograph was released of the three grinning crew, Rupert Saunders, Jason Downer and James Meaby – close friends in their mid-thirties, who had met at school and university. It was reported that the Marine Accident Investigation Branch was piecing together what was known about the men’s last hours.

On Sunday August 20 2006, the three men had arrived in Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight, to sail the Saunders family’s yacht, the Ouzo, to Devon for the annual Dartmouth Royal Regatta. Around sunset, Bill Mitchell, a boatyard owner who used to look after the Ouzo, was walking his dog on the beach. The boat was a quarter of a mile away when he recognised it. “They were heading out through the channel,” he remembers. “It was still fairly light and I could see people on board but not who they were.” His was the last confirmed sighting of the Ouzo. According to radar records of a yacht presumed to be the Ouzo, the first two hours of her voyage were slow-going due to the flood tide. By 10.30pm, as the tide turned, the Ouzo was in Sandown Bay, believed to be sailing south-south-west towards the open sea. At this point Jason Downer sent a text to his girlfriend, saying that they were under way and that he was about to go below to rest. That was the last anyone heard from the sailors. Two days later, a fisherman spotted Meaby’s body 10 miles south of the Nab Tower, and the following evening Saunders and Downer were found dead, floating nine miles to the west.

Two weeks after the accident, Michael Hubble, the Pride of Bilbao’s 61-year-old second officer – and officer of the watch – was arrested on suspicion of causing the men’s deaths, and released on bail. Hubble had retired as a P&O employee earlier in the year but in June he had begun agency work on the Pride of Bilbao. Six months after the Ouzo’s disappearance, he was charged with manslaughter and breaching Section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act for “conduct endangering ships, structures or individuals”. In October 2007, his trial began at Winchester Crown Court.
The essence of the case was simple. On the night that the Ouzo set sail, the Pride of Bilbao left Portsmouth and had a near miss with an unidentified yacht to the south of the Isle of Wight. The prosecution said the yacht was the Ouzo and that it had been swamped by the P&O vessel. The defence argued it was a different yacht and that the Ouzo could have tangled with a ship in another part of the Channel. The trial revealed that Saunders and Downer had survived for at least three hours in the water before drowning, while Meaby had been alive for at least 12 hours before succumbing to hypothermia.

Despite two detailed searches of an area of 125 square miles, including the use of a Royal Navy mine hunter and commercial divers, the Ouzo has never been found. But by piecing together witness statements, radar and phone records, and talking to those connected with the case, it is possible to recreate a picture of the last hours of the three yachtsmen that August night two years ago.

Between the Ouzo’s position at 10.30pm and its likely encounter with the Pride of Bilbao was a distance of 13.3 nautical miles, which would have required the Ouzo to travel at 5 knots. It’s known that the tide was becoming favourable and with a force 5 west-south-westerly wind this speed was consistent with the yacht and crew’s capabilities. The three men would have been into their usual routine, with one resting down below, the other two in the cockpit. Jamie Saunders, brother of Rupert and a regular member of the Ouzo’s crew, says sailing at night was not much different from during the day, except that they were more alert on lookout and in checking their position. “Despite it being dark, you can actually see a fair distance off the boat as your eyes adjust to the darkness. Visibility from the cockpit was excellent.”

Meanwhile, in Portsmouth, preparations were being made aboard the Pride of Bilbao for its voyage to northern Spain. The ship was delayed for just over two hours by a technical fault. It finally set sail at 11.25pm, heading around the east coast of the Isle of Wight en route to Brittany and the Bay of Biscay. At 12.22am the captain “rang full away” – ordering the ferry’s build-up to full speed. A few minutes later he retired to his cabin for the night, handing over to the officer of the watch, Michael Hubble.

Where these two craft ended up in the following 45 minutes was the major point of difference between the prosecution and defence cases. The prosecution argued that the Pride of Bilbao came very close to the Ouzo; the defence claimed the Ouzo could have collided with a tanker called the Crescent Beaune, which was sailing east-west across the Channel. The defence submitted an expert report by Chris Thompson, a lecturer in marine simulation at South Tyneside College. Using the college’s ship simulator, Thompson suggested that if the Ouzo had sailed south-east rather than south-west, it could have come into contact with the Crescent Beaune at the same time and 8.8 nautical miles to the east of the incident between the Pride of Bilbao and the unknown yacht. Thompson cited echoes from the Southampton radar station in the vicinity of the Crescent Beaune, which he said might have been the Ouzo. The defence also proposed another possibility: that the Ouzo might have stuck to its original course but travelled at only 2 knots, which would have brought it close to the Crescent Beaune at 1.40am (see map, page 35).

The turning point came when the defence forced the captain of the Crescent Beaune to admit that he had broken the law by not having a lookout at the time in question. Two weeks before Christmas, after a six-week trial, the jury acquitted Hubble of manslaughter. It was unable to reach a verdict on the charge of having put the men’s lives in danger.

The trouble with Thompson’s theory is that for the Ouzo to have ended up near the Crescent Beaune would mean going against reasonable assumptions about the yacht’s route and the known wind and tides. If it were to have reached the Crescent Beaune at 1.07am it would have had to have been heading south-east to France, rather than on its stated route south-west to Dartmouth, and sailing against the tide rather than with it. Jeremy Smart, head of enforcement at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, describes Thompson’s mention of radar echoes as “spurious – a vessel the size of the Ouzo cannot be picked up at that range by radar”. And if it were to have come close to the Crescent Beaune at 1.40am it would have been sailed exceptionally slowly, at the suggested speed of 2 knots. “For it to come into conflict with Crescent Beaune, it has to be heading in the wrong direction or at a speed which is not consistent with the skills of the yachtsmen,” Smart says. “Two knots is just unrealistic. At that speed they’d have missed their regatta, so it doesn’t make sense.” He adds that the Ouzo’s sails would have been far easier to spot from the bridge of the low-lying Crescent Beaune than from a tall ferry.

The only independent report into what happened, published by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in April 2007, is clear: “After careful analysis of the facts, the MAIB is of the firm opinion that the yacht was Ouzo and that Pride of Bilbao had collided with her, or passed so close that she had been swamped or capsized by the vessel’s wash.” The report was not admissible in court as MAIB’s role is to investigate accidents in order to improve safety, rather than to apportion blame. But a person close to the MAIB says: “No one can persuade me that there were two yachts similarly in distress within 10 miles of each other at the same time. It just isn’t credible.” But what about the Crescent Beaune? Didn’t the court case show that it wasn’t looking where it was going? “The bridge was manned, the officer of the watch was there, and he would have been doing collision-avoidance and navigation. All we are saying is that he didn’t have a second person on the bridge.”

In the media reporting of the case, the apparition of the Crescent Beaune – “a total red herring” as the source puts it – loomed large. “The reason the media picked up on this was that it was the one day when there was more than one journalist in court,” a prosecution source comments wryly. “If you report only one day’s evidence in a six-week trial it will have a funny slant.” When Hubble was acquitted, the papers’ line was that the Ouzo mystery would probably never be solved.

If it was the Pride of Bilbao that collided with the Ouzo, we can have a pretty good idea of the last few minutes aboard the yacht. Some time before 1am, the Ouzo’s crew would have become aware of a ship catching up with them. But they would have been relaxed about the larger vessel as its course would take it about a kilometre off their port side. The ship was huge, and brightly lit. The men, who had sailed regularly in these waters, may even have known that it was the P&O service from Portsmouth to Bilbao.
What they might not have known was that having passed the Isle of Wight, the ship was about to turn. At 1.01am the Pride of Bilbao altered course westwards to allow it to run down to the Brest peninsula. The second officer, keen for the ship not to heel and cause discomfort to passengers, began a very slow course alteration using the autopilot joystick, which took three minutes to complete. So the ferry’s move towards the Ouzo was imperceptible at first, and as it was approaching from behind, the yacht’s crew may not have noticed. By the time they realised it was heading straight at them, it may have been too late.
Meanwhile, all was calm on the bridge of the Pride of Bilbao, with nothing showing on the radar. But at 1.07am the lookout, David Smith, spotted a white light on the starboard bow. From the ferry’s Voyage Data Recorder, the equivalent of an aircraft’s black box, and drawing on subsequent interviews by MAIB, it is possible to recreate the scene that followed on the bridge between Smith and Hubble (see right).

Accident investigators believe that the Pride of Bilbao passed within 10m of the yacht. The Ouzo measured 7.7m (25ft) long, with its deck a few feet above the water. By contrast the Pride of Bilbao is 176m in length, 32m wide and more than 30m high, with a gross tonnage of 37,583. Its four Wartsila engines, producing 31,280 horsepower, would have been thunderous at such close range. Travelling at 19 knots in the open sea with the Ouzo on the windward side, where the waves would have been greater, the yacht never stood a chance.

Bill Mitchell says it is likely that whoever was on the tiller would have steered away so as to put as much distance between themselves and the ship. However, facing away from the ferry the yacht presented its most vulnerable point to the ferry’s wash. While the hatchway was shielded from the front by a spray hood, it was open to the rear. The wall of water from the Bilbao’s bow wave would have crashed over the yacht’s low stern and gone straight down the hatchway, which would have been open on such a clement night. Now unstable, the Ouzo would have then been hit by more waves from the ferry’s wash. According to the MAIB’s tests, it would have required between 10 and 30 per cent of the hull to be flooded for the yacht to capsize. The Royal Yachting Association’s technical department estimates that it could have gone under in about two minutes.

Saunders, Downer and Meaby are now in the water. They are wearing lifejackets and yachting clothes. They hope the ferry has seen them. But it does not turn round. They bob in the dark English Channel, watching the ship steam south, a streak of white fading into the night. They wonder if the incident has been reported to the coastguard, and listen above the waves for the faraway rasp of a helicopter. And wait and wait. The MAIB said that if the yacht had carried a life raft or a device that automatically sent out a distress signal, the crew might have been saved. The coastguard calculates that it could have had a helicopter on the scene in 50 minutes and the Bembridge Lifeboat in 70 minutes. The helicopter is fitted with a heat-seeking infrared camera, which can identify a recently immersed body from a quarter of a mile. Add to this the ferry with its powerful lights, and coastguard officials say the men would have been found, probably alive.

We don’t know if they all entered the water at the same time, since Meaby’s body was discovered a long way from the other two. But it is likely they would have tried to stay together where they were. They would have known they were six or seven miles from land and that any swim to shore would be hampered by strong tides.

Their bodies would have rapidly adjusted to the cold – the water temperature was 18°C – and for a few hours the fall in body heat would have been gradual. According to the MAIB’s medical expert, reflex shivering would have started after a while, at first in short bursts, and then continuously. The waves would have caused problems for the men and they would have turned their backs to the swell to avoid swallowing sea water.
Did Meaby see the other two die? As first light approached, he might have thought that having survived the night he would soon be rescued. But as dawn broke, that hope would have been slowly dispelled by the unchanging panorama of grey waves stretching to the horizon. According to the medical expert, he probably died around lunchtime on August 21.

The MAIB report showed that the Pride of Bilbao had been involved in a comparable incident. On 28 August 2000 at 10pm the ferry almost hit the yacht Aliniel south of the Isle of Wight. In a possible echo of the Ouzo case, the ferry changed its course less than a mile from the yacht, and was heading directly at her. The crew of the Aliniel put the engines on and shone a light on to the sails, which alerted the Pride of Bilbao’s bridge, and after emergency avoidance action the ferry passed with a margin of 200 yards. The Pride of Bilbao apologised, saying that it had lost the yacht on its radar.

In his trial at Winchester crown court, Hubble argued that he had not stopped the ferry because he was satisfied as to the yacht’s safety. In fact, the MAIB report says that the Ouzo’s battery compartment was well protected so her lights may have stayed on after the crew were washed overboard. But it concludes: “The second officer could not have known accurately how close the yacht had passed, or in fact whether or not the two vessels had collided. This should have given him concern for the safety of the yacht and her crew, and he should have taken positive action to confirm whether it and her crew were safe.”

It is well known that when a ship cuts you up, to use the language of the road, sailors will get on the radio and tell the ship’s master what they think. The absence of any angry swearing over the radio in the moments after the near miss would have seemed like an eerie silence to most experienced mariners. “If a yacht had survived an incident like that, it’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t have got on the radio and said what they think to the officer of the watch on the Pride of Bilbao,” the MAIB source says.

On the Pride of Bilbao’s return voyage, Hubble’s trial was told, Hubble heard a coastguard broadcast announcing that a body had been found off the Isle of Wight and a search was being conducted. He noted it in the ship’s logbook but told no one about the incident with the mysterious yacht. It was only when the accident investigators examined the ship’s voyage data recorder that the captain learned of the incident. Sources say that upon discovering how close his ship had come to the yacht, the captain was “absolutely horrified” that he had not been woken. It was the closest his ship had ever come to another vessel while at sea.

During the trial, the role of expert witness Chris Thompson was crucial in suggesting that the Ouzo could have come into contact with a different vessel, the Crescent Beaune. When I rang Thompson at his office and mentioned the Ouzo he said: “That’s a very sore subject. Our solicitors have instructed us not to say or do anything that could be used in a civil action.” But when pressed he insisted that his own calculations using South Tyneside College’s marine simulator were more accurate than those of the coastguard, which were based on a system known as Saris (Search and Rescue Information System).

During our conversation, he disagreed with large parts of the MAIB report. Contrary to the view of other experts I spoke to, he asserted that the ferry “has a very low bow wave”, that the unidentified yacht was “quite a reasonable distance away” from the ferry, and that the Ouzo could not have been sunk by swamping. “Even if the Ouzo had lain on its side, the yacht would have righted itself in 10 seconds,” he said. “It’s a mystery of the sea… It’s not as cut and dried as some people have made out.”

But to many of those involved in the Ouzo case, his theory doesn’t add up. Jeremy Smart, who as head of enforcement for the coastguard is responsible for prosecuting criminal behaviour at sea, rejects Thompson’s point about the technology: “We use Saris as do a large chunk of the world’s search and rescue. We need the best systems available and none of us use the South Tyneside tool, which is fundamentally a ship simulator rather than a specific search-and-rescue tool.”

John Third, a partner at marine consultancy Brookes Bell, specialises in collisions between ships and has served as an expert witness for 27 years. He questions the usefulness of simulators. “Ship simulators deliver something that looks very good on paper but you can get many different alternative solutions from them. They won’t help you see the most likely answer. The only way of doing that is to look at all the coincidental factors together.”

He argues that a bow wave on the Pride of Bilbao would carry a huge threat at close range. “The problem for a yacht is that as a ship advances, there’s a rising wave. Within 10m from the bow of a ship, the water will start to slope up because it is being pushed up. The yacht is certainly going to heel away. If the hull strikes you, it’ll then knock the yacht over.”

He has worked both for and against the MAIB in court. “In general, they are excellent. I’d be quite surprised if MAIB truly got something wrong. They are more likely to say they can’t reach a decision on something.”

The Ouzo’s loss becomes painfully real when I meet Jamie Saunders for lunch at a pub near his office. I mention hearing that he was originally supposed to be on the yacht. “Yeah, I should’ve been on the boat…” he says before his voice trails off. The mixture of anger, regret, guilt and loss overcomes him. When he recovers he explains how he’d had to pull out of the trip to keep some holiday back for his wedding. Instead, he arranged to meet the rest of “Team Ouzo” later in the week before the regatta. As he speaks, he clutches his temples with both hands in an effort to stop himself from breaking down again. He wonders aloud if he could have made a difference on the boat that night. “It’s just one of those things you think about. What could I have done differently, would I have seen it earlier? You rationalise all these things but you think, ‘I am the one to blame because I’m the one still alive.'”

P&O has never contacted the families, presumably because to do so would be to imply some legal responsibility. “I think the view was that once Mr Hubble was cleared, P&O’s connection to the case ended,” says Brian Rees, the company’s media head. He refused to let me see a transcript of the Voyage Data Recorder (I later obtained part of it from one of the relatives) but confirmed that Hubble had not worked for P&O since the incident. Hubble himself made the following statement after the trial: “The families of the men have my deepest sympathy but the demise of those men was nothing to do with me, or any action of mine or the Pride of Bilbao.”

Saunders is unimpressed. “There’s no closure on any of it. I find it difficult to take in that someone somewhere hasn’t been held responsible. It’s unacceptable that with our judicial system they cannot reach a decision on something as serious as three people being killed at sea.”

The Near Miss
Transcript from the Pride of Bilbao’s Voyage Data Recorder (with bracketed commentary drawn from MAIB interviews).
Smith: He’s showing a red, that one, Mike.
Hubble: It’s what?
Smith: (The lookout moves quickly towards Hubble and speaks with urgency.) Head on, head on. It’s pretty close.
(Hubble leaves the chartroom and enters the wheelhouse, seeing a cluster of bright white lights close on the starboard bow.)
Hubble: Is it a yacht?
Smith: Yeah.
Hubble: Whereabouts?
Smith: Just right there.
(The lookout sees a small yacht with two white sails pass close to the starboard bow. It disappears down the starboard side of the ferry and he runs over to that side of the wheelhouse. Meanwhile, Hubble turns to port to give the yacht room.)
Hubble: We’re clearing.
(Worried that the stern would swing round and hit the yacht, he then turns to starboard.)
Hubble: Coming to starboard now 15 degrees.
(The lookout, now on the starboard side of the wheelhouse, can see no sign of the yacht.)
Hubble: All right?
Smith: We’ll see.
(Hubble now moves to the starboard side of the wheelhouse to look.)
smith: See a light. (It is a red light about a point [11 degrees] on the starboard quarter.) [This sentence is transcribed as a statement, not a question.] Hubble: Aye.
Hubble: No you can’t, you can’t see it can you?
Smith: No.
(Hubble moves quickly back to the centre of the wheelhouse to turn off some decklights at the rear of the ferry, which he thinks are obscuring their view of the yacht.)
Hubble: Where is that bloody light switch, it’s over here somewhere isn’t it?
(Hubble then rejoins the lookout on the starboard side.)
hubble: Ah, there’s a light there. (He sees a red light four or five points off the stern on the starboard quarter of the ferry. He returns to the console and puts the ferry back on its original course. The lookout returns to his position on the port side. Hubble looks back and sees a white light about two points [22 degrees] to port of the stern.)
Hubble: Can’t believe he came up that quick, fuck all on radar.

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