Royal Navy Officer Blames Fatigue for Near Miss of Minesweeper and Tanker

Royal Navy minesweeper
HMS Penzance came with 1,200 feet of a product tanker in 2023 (Royal Navy file photo)

Published May 20, 2024 3:00 PM by The Maritime Executive


A lieutenant in the Royal Navy was severely reprimanded, lost seniority, and fined, by a court martial hearing looking into the circumstances in which his minesweeper came within 380 yards of a product tanker off the coast of Scotland. According to the media reports, the defense admitted the failures but blamed them on stress, overwork, and fatigue, saying the officer failed to prioritize his duties.

During the sentencing in the Bulford Military Court, the presiding judge said, “Your actions on that day brought that ship within a hair’s breadth of disaster and your career with hair’s breadth of ending. It brought you within a hair’s breadth of prison.”

HMS Penzance, a minesweeper commissioned in 1997, was conducting a training exercise on April 17, 2023. The defense contended that Lieutenant Euan Playford-Johnson, age 30, had been on watch for eight hours and was tired and greatly stressed. He was the officer of the watch with a second officer who was training for nighttime navigation and two others on the bridge.

Playford-Johnson stepped to the side of the bridge “so that he could concentrate on other work,” for the next day leaving the junior officer to navigate. They told the court he intended to “keep an eye” on the navigation.

The minesweeper, which is 600 tons displacement and 172 feet (52.5 meters) in length, operates at speeds of up to 13 knots. It was navigating in the busy Firth of Clyde in the west of Scotland. It was around 2120 when the incident took place.

The junior officer became concerned about a tugboat and turned the minesweeper but failed to see an oncoming product tanker, Sten Baltic (16,600 dwt). Playford-Johnson and two others on the bridge also failed to see the tanker of which the minesweeper had turned directly into its path.

The captain and pilot of the Stena Baltic however realized the dangerous situation and slowed the tanker while hailing the Penzance asking the ship to speed up and change course. According to the report, the court was told the minesweeper and tanker came within 360 meters (less than 1,200 feet) of each other.

The court martial hearing was told the lieutenant compounded his error by not reporting the incident to the captain. Further, once he became aware of the consequences, he “failed to remedy it.” The court was told he accepted that he was not performing his duty and was “deeply remorseful,” while saying it had been a long and tiring day. The Penzance had gone to sea for the first time in two months as a training exercise for the junior officers.

For negligently handling the vessel and two counts of breaching standing orders, Playford-Johnson was given a severe reprimand. He lost his seniority and was fined £3,600 (US$4,600), but avoided jail time or a discharge. 

HMS Penzance had been stationed in Scotland. The minesweeper was decommissioned in January 2024.