Fishermen in Northern Ireland are more likely to leave the wheel unattended in dangerous seas due to financial pressures, an inquest has heard.
Connor Bogues (24) and a crewmate drowned in January 2006 after their boat struck rocks near Ardglass harbour, Co Down, while skipper Conrad Zych was helping process the catch, a jury found.
Mr Bogues’ body was never recovered and Downpatrick Coroner’s Court heard serious expert criticism of the skipper for leaving the wheel amid 6.5ft-10ft (2-3m) high waves on a dark night.
Captain Allan Marsh, from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said: “The fundamental of seafaring is keeping a look out, it is absolutely crucial.”
The Greenhill sank in cold waters with the high waves buffeting the crew on a pitch-black night, the vessel flooding rapidly after the skipper reversed off the rocks.
None of the three men on board were wearing lifejackets, the lifeboat inflated upside down, and Mr Bogues, from Crewhill Gardens, Ardglass, and crewmate Donal Gibson were swept away, despite being strong swimmers.
Mr Zych was later sentenced to 12 months in prison, although he hugged Mr Bogues’ mother Maureen outside the court in a public show of reconciliation.
Coroner John Leckey asked Mr Marsh about the skipper’s decision to leave the wheelhouse, and whether that was common across the industry.
Mr Marsh responded: “It is reasonably widespread and it is most widespread in Northern Ireland and the west coast of Scotland.”
In north and east Scotland they simply put prawns into boxes, but in Northern Ireland they separate the seafood and prepare them for the harbour.
Mr Marsh added: “There is a shortage of labour, a shortage of good labour and there’s not as much money as there was.
“The size of the crew tends to be smaller than it was and that adds to the pressure on the skipper.”
He said sorting the catch in advance increased the price the skipper could charge for it.
After the Greenhill began to sink, Mr Zych went below deck to retrieve lifejackets, but was forced back because of flooding and darkness.
The skipper and two deckhands were left holding on to a floating life raft canister, it inflated upside down and by the time it was the correct way up Mr Bogues and Mr Gibson were gone.
Coastguard enforcement officer Mr Marsh added: “It is one thing doing it in a heated swimming pool, but another thing on a dark night in the cold with waves.”
Mr Zych was rescued by the Portaferry lifeboat.
Lifeboat crew member Andrew Edwards told the jury he was attracted to the area of the sinking by the smell of fuel.
“We spotted with the search light three reflective stripes of the life raft,” he said.
“I could see someone was inside, they seemed to be pushing from the inside, a male crawled out onto the tubes of our boat.”
Despite firing illuminating flares they could see no sign of the other two. Divers later combed the wreckage of the boat but were unable to find either of the missing men. Mr Gibson's body was discovered in the area later.
Mr Marsh said they would have succumbed quickly to the effects of the bitter cold.
The jury returned a verdict that the victim died of saltwater drowning near where the boat sank when it struck rocks because of the lack of a lookout, with the skipper reversing off them and making damage to the hull worse.