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French Lifeboat Skipper Cleared of All Charges in Trial Over Failed Rescue

SNSM rescue boats under way in the Channel (SNSM Ouistreham)
SNSM rescue boats under way in the Channel (SNSM Ouistreham)

Published Jun 8, 2024 8:28 PM by The Maritime Executive

A court in Le Havre has acquitted the skipper of a volunteer lifeboat of all charges stemming from the sinking of a trawler during a rescue tow in 2021. 

Philippe Capdeville, the skipper of the rescue lifeboat at the port of Ouistreham, was in charge during the response to the Breiz incident three years ago. On January 14, 2021, the crew of the wooden trawler Breiz issued a distress call to report that the vessel had lost helm control at a position about three miles off Lion-sur-Mer. The SNSM lifesaving station at Ouistreham launched its rescue boat, with Capdeville at the helm. In heavy weather, the lifeboat took the Breiz in tow, but the trawler soon flooded and capsized, killing three crewmembers aged 19-27 - including the captain and co-owner. 

France's Bureau of Investigation of Maritime Events (BEA Mer) cleared the SNSM and the lifeboat crew of any responsibility for the sinking. However, prosecutors detained Capdeville for three days for questioning last year and launched a criminal investigation. In a trial brought in April 2024, they accused him of serious navigational errors during the tow, alleging that he transited at excessive speed, made sudden course changes, selected a hazardous route and made false logbook entries. They sought a 12-month suspended prison sentence and a two-year ban from operating at sea; Capdeville maintained his innocence, with the support of the SNSM and French lifeboat crews. 

On Monday, the court acquitted Capdeville on all charges. The judge found that he had followed all appropriate guidelines during the tow, except for the matter of the final 41 seconds, when the lifeboat failed to answer calls from the Breiz. At that point, the capsizing was already inevitable, the court found - so any alleged lack of vigilance on Capdeville's part would have had no effect on the unfortunate outcome. 

"We are of course thinking of the families for whom this decision must be difficult, and has probably not answered all their questions," said Bertrand Hudault, the North Sea Channel Inspector General of the SNSM. "That said, as far as we are concerned, it is a real relief because we were convinced that Philippe Capdeville would not had committed no fault in the conduct of this mission and that he had acted as best as possible in trying to save lives."

Four other people faced charges in connection with the case: two administrative staff from the Territorial and Maritime Directorate, who were charged with manslaughter for registering unqualified crewmembers for the Breiz; an assessor who examined the Breiz to estimate its value for insurance purposes, charged with manslaughter for inaccurately gauging the weight of the aging vessel's fishing gear; and the surviving co-owner, a former farmer and fishmonger who had a half share in the Breiz

Only one individual, the surviving co-owner, was convicted. He received a suspended sentence of 18 months for non-compliance with safety regulations. 

After the trial, lifesaving society SNSM called for legal reforms to ensure that its volunteer crewmembers have protection from any future criminal prosecution. The affair had a significant effect on other SNSM volunteers: in April, as the trial got under way, multiple rescue boat stations in Normandy closed as the members went out on "unavailability" in protest of the decision to press charges. 

"For the volunteers, it is also a source of anxiety and big questions about the criminal liability of the rescuers. when they carry out an intervention. This trial has highlighted this risk," emphasized SNSM's Hudault.