When ocean-going vessels suffer damage at sea, the finger of blame is sometimes pointed at their crews. In one case, however, a judge found that a costly battering sustained by a yacht during a stormy transatlantic crossing arose not from poor seamanship, but from manufacturing defects.
The case concerned a newly built catamaran that was designed to withstand rough seas and ought to have been well capable of crossing the Atlantic safely. A private individual (the employer) engaged a yacht delivery company to sail her from France to the eastern seaboard of America. An experienced crew was appointed to complete the passage.
She only made it about a third of the way to her destination, however, before her log recorded a number of equipment failures which resulted in the skipper deciding to turn back to the Azores. Whilst doing so, she encountered very rough weather and sustained significant damage. In claiming more than £40,000 in damages from the company, the employer contended that the damage was caused by the crew having negligently sailed her into the teeth of a storm.
Dismissing his claim, however, the High Court observed that a decision made by a trained and experienced crew, on their own in the middle of Atlantic, was not very apt for review or challenge in the calm and safety of a courtroom a long way from the sea and a long time after the event.
Both the planning and execution of the proposed ocean crossing were, the Court found, carried out with reasonable care and skill. With the exception of relatively minor damage arising from a broken mooring cleat, the damage sustained by the yacht was the product of manufacturing defects.
Finishing defects in the yacht were not structural and did not, as the crew feared, indicate major failures. In combination, however, the crew reasonably perceived them as serious at the time. The decision to abandon or postpone the voyage was reasonable and there was no breach of duty on the crew’s part. On the available evidence, the Court observed that the employer’s claim would have been better directed to the yacht’s manufacturer.