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Sheriff says Cemfjord tragedy with loss of eight crew could have been avoided

By Alan Hendry

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Sheriff Gary Aitken said the Cemfjord tragedy was a reminder of the risks facing seafarers. Picture: Callum Mackay
Sheriff Gary Aitken said the Cemfjord tragedy was a reminder of the risks facing seafarers. Picture: Callum Mackay

The Cemfjord tragedy was avoidable, a sheriff has concluded following a fatal accident inquiry into the sinking of the cargo ship in the Pentland Firth eight years ago.

The Cypriot-registered freighter capsized in extreme conditions on January 2, 2015, and the eight crew – seven Polish men and one from the Philippines – were never found.

Sheriff Gary Aitken, in his determination published this week, said the reasons for continuing the ill-fated voyage were "lost with the ship and her crew".

He observed that the dangers of the firth are "well known within the maritime community".

Sheriff Aitken added: "The tragic deaths of the Cemfjord’s officers and crew are a reminder that even in the 21st century, with all of humanity’s technological achievements, there are still considerable risks faced by those who labour on the sea."

The freighter had been taking a cargo of cement from Denmark to England. The Hrossey ferry, sailing from Lerwick to Aberdeen, discovered the upturned hull.

The recent fatal accident inquiry at Wick Sheriff Court heard that sea conditions at the time of the tragedy were “extraordinarily violent”, according to the Marine Accident Information Branch, with winds gusting up to 90 mph and waves of 10 metres or more.

Coastguards and lifeboat crews from Caithness and Orkney took part in a two-day search without finding any trace of the crew.

No recommendations are made in the sheriff's determination.

"The cause of the accident... was the sudden capsize of the Cemfjord in violent sea and weather conditions during her westbound transit of the Pentland Firth," Sheriff Aitken stated.

"The entry of the Cemfjord to the Outer Sound of the Pentland Firth could reasonably have been delayed until tidal and weather conditions were more favourable to her westbound passage and that might realistically have resulted in her capsize and the resultant deaths of her officers and crew being avoided."

Those lost on the Cemfjord were the ship’s master Pawel Chruscinski (43); chief officer Jaroslaw Orlow (54); chief engineer Roman Tamas (56); third engineer Jerome Narvasa (32); ordinary seaman Henryk Dubanowski (55); ordinary seaman Tomasz Kwiatkowski (31); able seaman Artur Podrazka (24); and ordinary seaman and cook Artur Wegorek (24).

The Cemfjord capsized in the Pentland Firth in early January 2015.
The Cemfjord capsized in the Pentland Firth in early January 2015.

In his concluding remarks, Sheriff Aitken stated: "It is clear from the evidence that the sea and weather conditions in the Pentland Firth around 1pm on January 2, 2015, posed a severe hazard to any vessel seeking to transit the area, particularly from east to west, as the Cemfjord sought to do. The elements caused the sudden catastrophic capsize of the vessel, the suddenness of that event tragically resulting in inevitably fatal consequences for her officers and crew.

"It is not possible to state why the vessel was attempting to transit the firth at that time. It is equally clear from the evidence that the dangers of the Pentland Firth are well recognised and well known within the maritime community.

"Pawel Chruscinski was a very experienced master, used both to the Cemfjord and the Pentland Firth. He had shown a willingness to alter the voyage of the vessel to take account of tidal conditions before.

"The other deck officer, Jaroslaw Orlow, was new to the Cemfjord, but was a very experienced mariner. Sadly, the reason or reasons for continuing her voyage on January 2, 2015, were lost with the ship and her crew."

Sheriff Aitken expressed his condolences to the families and friends of those who were lost, adding: "Their loss is no doubt still keenly felt."

The Cemfjord had left the Danish port of Aalborg on December 30, 2014, with 2000 tonnes of cement bound for Runcorn in Cheshire. It was last seen sailing between Stroma and Swona shortly after 1pm on January 2.

Over 24 hours later the Hrossey encountered the upturned hull some 10 miles east of the Pentland Skerries. No distress call had been made from the ship.

The Cemfjord’s owner later ruled out the idea of any bid to salvage the 272ft vessel.

A memorial service was held in St John’s Episcopal Church in Wick in the weeks after the tragedy.

A stone memorial at John O’Groats commemorates the loss of both the Cemfjord and the George Robb, a trawler that came to grief at Duncansby Head in December 1959.

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