HALIFAX – Canada’s transport safety agency will conduct its own inquiry into how Laura Gainey was swept off a tall ship in a North Atlantic gale almost a year ago, saying it wants to look into safety issues missed by the original Cook Islands probe.
The daughter of Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey was hit by a large wave and thrown off the Picton Castle on the night of Dec. 8, 2006 as the three-masted barque sailed about 900 kilometres east of Cape Cod.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada had originally decided not to conduct an investigation, saying it didn’t have jurisdiction because the Nova Scotia-based training ship is registered in the Cook Islands, a small nation in the South Pacific.
However, board spokesman John Cottreau confirmed the board decided last week that an independent investigation was needed after the agency learned the final report from the Cook Islands was unlikely to be altered.
“We have decided to do an investigation on our own,” Cottreau told The Canadian Press.
“We’ve noted some safety issues, we have made those safety issues (available) to the Ministry of Transport of the Cook Islands, and now we have undertaken an independent investigation of the event.”
In late September, the board sent its list of “issues” to the Cook Islands, including statements that the vessel lacked strict procedures on using safety harnesses, that Gainey, 25, was extremely fatigued on the night she died, and some crew didn’t have formal safety training and hadn’t completed man-overboard drills.
Garth Broadhead, head of the Cook Islands marine board of inquiry, said it would be difficult to incorporate the Canadian agency’s concerns in the final report.
“It’s a legal issue as to whether it can be amended, and that’s been made quite clear to the Transportation Safety Board,” he said in an interview from England. “Once issued, there’s no discretion to amend it.”
He declined to comment on the original report or the list of safety issues first raised by Canadian investigators, saying only that he stands by his report.
However, Cottreau said the Cook Islands has agreed to complete a safety audit of the ship in 2008, though he couldn’t elaborate on what that would involve.
Broadhead referred all questions about the audit to the Cook Islands’ secretary of transport, Aukino Tairea, who was unavailable for comment.
Daniel Moreland, the part owner and master of the Picton Castle, also declined to comment.
The final report from the Cook Islands has not been released to the public, but the Gainey family received a copy in July.
The Canadian board later confirmed the family was “dissatisfied” with the report, which prompted the board to ask two of its marine investigators to conduct a review.
After interviewing five crew members and examining the ship’s logs, the board concluded Laura Gainey was exhausted the night she was swept overboard.
In a letter to the Cook Islands, the board said she had been awake for all but two hours the night before she disappeared, and was below deck for only three to four hours the day she was pulled into the sea.
The letter says that “she was affected by fatigue and loss of a alertness at the time of the occurrence” and “the conditions were conducive to fatigue.”
The document also concluded:
-The vessel didn’t have a standard policy for wearing safety harnesses at night or during bad weather, even though wearing harnesses is standard procedure aboard similar vessels.
-Not all of the crew had taken basic Marine Emergency Duties training, which it argued is “critical to making timely decisions when responding to an emergency situation.”
-While the crew and trainees had participated in a fire drill, “no other safety drills were carried out prior to or after sailing.”
In a letter of response, the Picton Castle’s owners disputed the board’s assertions, saying the crew was adequately trained through certification programs from various countries and the overall level of experience of crew members.
As well, the owners said the captain had sent Laura Gainey below for rest shortly before the incident.
And although the Cook Islands requires a minimum crew of seven aboard such a ship, the owners stressed that the Picton Castle carries almost double that number.
The Gaineys haven’t commented publicly on the investigations, and they were unavailable for comment Friday.
It remains unclear what the Transportation Safety Board can do once it completes its full investigation of the foreign-flagged vessel.
But Cottreau noted the results will be sent to the federal transport minister and then made public.
“We have a number of safety communications tools, the recommendations being the most formal of them,” he said.
“In the past, we’ve also used safety information letters, we’ve issued board concerns, and we have issued safety advisory letters.”