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Helmsman Sentenced to 18 Months in Jail for Causing Fatal Collision

helmsman guilty of manslaughter in collision
Swedish Coast Guard searching after the collision with the Scot Carrier in the background (photo courtesy of Sjöräddningssällskapet)

Published Jun 16, 2022 12:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Danish court on Thursday sentenced a British officer to 18 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to charges of negligent manslaughter for his role as helmsman leading to a collision that killed two Danish seaman. During the case in Copenhagen City Court, the 30-year-old British citizen tearfully confessed to his crimes, including being on a phone call and drinking prior to his watch, agreeing to plead guilty saying he was solely responsible for the collision.

The Scot Carrier, a 4,700 dwt general cargo ship, was sailing in the busy shipping lane between Denmark and Sweden on December 13, 2021, when it collided with a small, self-propeller Danish barge the Karin Høj with two crewmembers aboard. The Danish vessel capsized and after an extensive search and rescue operation by the Swedish Coast Guard, the body of one of the sailors was found trapped in the flooded cabin on the vessel. Prosecutors on Thursday speculated that the other sailor who was never found fell overboard during the collision.

Swedish authorities learned of the collision when they received a signal from the emergency beacon aboard the Danish vessel. They launched their search and ordered the Scot Carrier to return to the scene with the vessel only returning approximately 30 minutes after the collision. The vessel was detained and the Swedes initially took into custody the chief officer and the first officer, accusing them of being intoxicated. The chief officer was later released, but the first officer who was on duty as the helmsman was remained by the Danes in absentia and later extradited to Copenhagen to stand trial.

During his confession in court, the helmsman admitted to drinking prior to going on duty at 11 p.m. but said he did not feel the effects and believed it was safe to navigate the vessel. A review of the vessel’s voice data recorder and navigation records showed that he entered a course change into the autopilot shortly before the collision. The helmsman was the only person on the bridge violating company policy and navigational regulations.

He told the court he had looked out the windows and checked radar and did not see anything and then went back to a telephone call he was making via an app on his phone. He said less than 15 seconds before the collision he saw a white light to starboard and tried to reverse engines, but it was too late. He felt a “deep bump” knocking the Scot Carrier off course, while the voice records from the bridge captured him crying out multiple times “Oh my God…” He immediately started forward propulsion telling the court he needed the power to regain control of the ship.

Asked why he did not stop the Scot Carrier he said he was confused and panicked. He regained control and continued on the fixed course. The captain later came to the bridge after a call from the Swedish Coast Guard. Blood alcohol testing of the helmsman conducted by the Swedes revealed a level of 1.15, well above the legal limits in Denmark and Sweden. In addition to the charge of negligent manslaughter with aggravating circumstances, he was also charged with leaving the scene without providing help or assistance to the crew of the Karin Høj.

“I would like to say how sorry I am,” the helmsman said during his sentencing. “I am ashamed of my unprofessional behavior in the hours up to… I am so sorry.”

In accepting his guilty plea, the court sentenced him to a year and a half in prison. He will also be deported from Denmark, banned from re-entering for 12 years, and indefinitely can not operate a ship in Danish waters. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the families and $7,000 in fines.