The sad story of the Solway Harvester is now entering its final chapter as the last remnants of the scallop dredger are about to be cut up and finally removed from Douglas harbour.
The wrecked hulk of the boat moored in Douglas has remained a reminder of the tragedy which claimed the lives of seven Scottish fisherman when it sank on January 11, 2000, 11 miles off the Isle of Man coast. Yesterday (Saturday) marked the 14th anniversary of the tragedy.
Work to scrap the vessel was started by Laxey Towing Company in the autumn and boss Stephen Carter had expected it to be complete by the end of the year – weather permitting.
‘We hoped to have it finished but the weather being so appalling put a stop to that. Also the working day is very short at that time of year and we can’t work in the dark,’ he said.
‘Despite that we have had four or five people working on it whenever it was fit and they have done remarkably well under the prevailing conditions. All that remain now are some pieces of the bottom of the boat. More than three quarters of it has gone now.’
Mr Carter said the work had been meticulously planned before it even started and sections had been removed using oxy acetyline cutting equipment, winched onto the quayside using a crane then cut up into smaller pieces that could be transported to a scrap metal merchant in the UK.
‘The challenge is to work from the top and keep it balanced so it stays afloat for as long as possible. That way it’s easier to work on,’ Mr Carter said.
For the first few weeks work progressed quickly but then the bad weather set in with rain making it hard to use the cutting equipment and high winds preventing the cranes from running. High tides and torrents of water running from the river recently have also disrupted work recently on the last sections because the sea bed has not dried sufficiently even at low tide.
Mr Costain expects to lift the last pieces of metal out of the sea bed next week and the final task of cutting them up, taking them away and clearing the site should be complete by the end of January.
On the day of the sinking, the vessel had taken shelter off the Ramsey coast from deteriorating weather conditions. When a distress signal was picked up soon before 6pm on January 11, 2000 lifeboats from Ramsey, Douglas and Port St Mary joined in the search and the Ben my Chree was diverted. Helicopters from RAF Prestwick and RAF Valley also took part in the search.
The boat was salvaged from 115 feet of water in a salvage operation costing £1m funded by the Isle of Man government. All seven crew members who were from the Whithorne area of Dumfries and Galloway were found on board. They were skipper Andrew Mills (known as Craig), 29; his brother Robin Mills, 33; their cousin David Mills, 17; Martin Milligan, 26; John Murphy, 22; David Lyons, 18; and Wesley Jolly, 17.
A report into the sinking criticised the vessel’s standard of maintenance and its owner Richard Gidney stood trial for manslaughter in 2005.
The prosecution alleged the sinking was the result of ‘gross failings’ in the duty of care provided by Mr Gidney.
The trial at a Court of General Gaol Delivery was halted after five weeks. Deemster Andrew Moran ruled the defence had no case to answer and directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict.
He criticised the prosecution which, he said had failed to show what standards of good pracitce were expected and had not therefore shown how Mr Gidney had breached them.
An inquest into the deaths of the crew members was conducted by coroner Michael Moyle in 2008. Mr Moyle ruled the men had died by accident but criticised the ship’s standard of maintenance and equipment.
He said there were over 20 safety issues which had caused concern and urged the fishing industry to follow recommended safety measures more rigorously.
Mr Moyle also criticised Mr Gidney for giving ‘unsatisfying or inadequate’ evidence.
He added: ‘It appears to me throughout his first and real concern was his own self-interest, trying to protect himself from what he might perceive as suggestions of failings. Any sympathy for the crew and their families was secondary.’