Lies and confusion around the fatal sinking of a trawler

The Guardian, December 12 1992

Luck sometimes gets so bad that it no longer seems like luck at all.

There was a time in the sad, strange story of the sinking of the Pescado – back in the Spring of 1991, when the vessel had just gone down and six young people had been drowned off the Cornish coast – when all that anyone really could say was that they had been terribly unlucky. They had sailed out of Falmouth Harbour just after dark on February 25. The wind was light. There was a gentle roll on the sea. They went off to trawl for scallops. They were sighted once or twice by other boats over the next 48 hours, and then they vanished. A fire on board? A freak wave? Some kind of disaster in the dark?

The luck seemed particularly vicious towards four of those who died, who would never even have been on board the Pescado in the first place if it had not developed trouble with its rudder the previous week and put into Falmouth for repairs. That was when three of the old crew left in search of better money, and Steven Hardy, Sean Kelly and Adrian Flynn went on board to replace them. None of them was a trawlerman by trade. Steven Hardy was a welder, aged 30. Sean Kelly was a 17-year-old orphan who had been in trouble with the law. Adrian Flynn was 21 and unemployed and had seen a little card advertising for crew for the Pescado on the noticeboard in the YMCA in Lincoln where he had been staying. It was his first trip to sea. The three of them simply wanted work. All three of them died.

On the same day in Falmouth, Jo-Ann Thomas also joined the Pescado, not because she earned a living in the fishing business, but because she was devoted to the ship’s skipper, a burley 27-year-old from the Outer Hebrides called Neil Currie. They were engaged to be married and Jo-Ann, who was 23, had been crying in the pub with her best friend, Alison, complaining bitterly that she could not get through another day without Neil. So she joined him, and she and Neil died together. So, too, did the sixth crewman, the mate, Peter Birley, aged 34, from Fleetwood. Eventually, the sea threw back the bodies of Jo-Ann and Neil. The remains of Peter Birley surfaced this summer. The other three were never seen again. It all seemed such bitter bad luck.

But that was 21 months ago, back in the Spring of 1991, before the Pescado’s owner, Alan Ayres, started asking tricky questions; before he turned private detective and stumbled into a scandal; before all the lies started bubbling up to the surface. Now, the sinking of the Pescado no longer looks like mere bad luck. It smells now of corruption and abuse of power.

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Alan Ayres is an affable, self-made man, aged 53, the son of a Yorkshire miner, who earned enough from a series of businesses – a garage, antiques, rented property – to retire to a small house in Plymouth with his two cats and his girlfriend. He had never had much to do with the sea and he became the Pescado’s owner in the summer of 1990 simply because he was looking for an investment for some spare cash and he struck an apparently attractive deal with a colourful character he met on Plymouth’s gin-and-tonic circuit called Joseph O’Connor.

O’Connor was a clever, crafty fishing entrepreneur, who had done so well in the mid 1980s that he was known around the Plymouth docks as Champagne Joe, but his empire had collapsed. Ayres knew that O’Connor was now bankrupt but he had no idea that he was also about to be arrested for a £360,000 international fraud and had previously been fined £7,500 for owning an unseaworthy vessel. The Pescado had belonged to O’Connor and was now lying rotting in Milbay Docks while the receiver sorted out his affairs. Alan Ayres agreed to take shares in a one-ship company, Guideday, which bought the boat from the receiver for £5,500, and to pay for a complete refit. Joe O’Connor said he would manage the boat and look after all the details. They would send it out trawling for scallops and earn a small fortune.

As far as Ayres knew, the refit went well. All through the summer and autumn of 1990, the workmen were busy, replacing the engine, adding extra ballast, overhauling the winches and wiring. O’Connor arranged for the Pescado to be re-registered as a fishing vessel and granted a licence to fish for scallops. Alan Ayres’ only worry was that the costs were doubling; he paid out £51,338 from his own pocket and had to borrow a further £50,000 from the bank. Finally, on December 19, the Pescado set sail and Ayres watched with relief as, over the next two months, the old trawler made six trips to sea and returned with scallops worth £17,026. The crew took 30%. The rest was profit.

When the boat was late back from its seventh trip, Ayres was not too worried at first. He guessed they were busy or perhaps they had some mechanical problem. Then, On March 8, at four in the morning, he was woken by the sound of two policemen banging on his door. They told him to go straight away to Falmouth coastguard where they had some wreckage to show him. He was still sure that it would be all right, that they would find some simple reason for the Pescado’s delay. But when he fingered the broken bits of wheelhouse in the coastguards’ foyer, he began to feel terribly gloomy. Grasping for hints of uncertainty, he contacted the carpenter who had restored the wheelhouse, but when he came, he said that he recognised his work, and Alan Ayres simply shook his head and started to cry. All he could hope was that the crew were afloat in a life raft somewhere. That night, he heard on his car radio that Jo-Ann Thomas’ body had been found on a beach near St Austell.

In the beginning, he never suspected foul play. Things simply seemed confused. The coastguards said that the first they knew of a wreck was at 19.37 on March 7, when a fishing vessel called the Scath Du reported seeing a wheelhouse roof in the water. But when he talked to local fishermen, Ayres came across three different trawlermen who insisted that they had all independently told the coastguards of floating wreckage up to a week earlier. One of them, who was himself a part-time auxiliary coastguard, said he had reported wreckage on February 28. The coastguards said they had no record of any of these earlier reports.

The Department of Transport, which investigates all wrecks, said they could not find the Pescado. Ayres talked to local fishermen, who had seen scraps of wreckage and who had been snagging their nets on a new obstacle, and, within 24 hours, he had found it, 15 miles off St Austell. The Department of Transport said it was too deep for divers to inspect. Ayres talked to local divers and discovered that the Royal Navy routinely sent divers down in the area, because there was an old wreck, the Narwhal, a couple of miles away, which it used in exercises.

Ayres heard rumours – that the Pescado had been smuggling drugs or running guns, that it had been deliberately rammed, that it had been scuttled in an insurance fraud. But what most upset him was the official suggestion that the Pescado had been unseaworthy. The Department of Transport announced publicly that it had sailed without a safety certificate. Alan Ayres had had enough. He hired a boat and he hired a cameraman and, on May 22 1991, he went out to have a look for himself at what had sunk the Pescado.

The camera sank 75 meters below the sea on the end of an umbilical control cord. In the wheelhouse of the control vessel, Ayres watched as broken images of the seabed started to flicker onto the monitor screen. The controller manoeuvred the camera. In rapid succession, Ayres saw, first, the Pescado, lying upright but tilted on the seabed with its fishing gear scattered around it and then, as the camera moved closer, the unmistakable sight of a six-foot dent punched into the underbelly of the boat on the starboard side and, finally, running away from the dent, he could see with equal clarity two long black smears. Ayres was no seaman, but, as far as he was concerned, the sinking of the Pescado was no longer a mystery. His trawler had been the victim of a maritime hit-and-run. And there was only one sort of vessel, he reckoned, which could have hit her from underneath and left those ugly black marks across her side: a submarine.

Ayres decided to go public and, on May 24, he called a press conference in a small hotel in Falmouth to announce his discovery. The story hit the local press, and the Ministry of Defence pounced on it. They derided Ayres’ claim. In a statement, they declared that there was ‘absolutely’ no submarine of any nationality in the area between February 25, when the Pescado set sail, and March 8 when it was confirmed sunk. The Department of Transport suggested that the boat must have been dented as it hit the seabed and that the black smears had been made by the rubber wheels on its trawling gear. They agreed to send their own camera down to look for themselves.

Ayres kept looking. He established that there had been a mine-hunting exercise in the area at the time that the Pescado sunk and that the Navy had been using submerged targets. But the Ministry of Defence dismissed a connection. Then a Plymouth seaman seemed to point the way when he spotted a submarine moored in Devonport Docks which was clearly showing a smear of blue paint down its side. But the Ministry of Defence said that this was simply the blue primer paint which all subs carried under their black overcoat and by the next day, they had painted it over.

Ayres is not afraid to describe himself as a ‘stubborn old bastard’. As Government departments showered him with scorn, he went out again with the remote underwater camera, but this time, he adapted the camera. He took a 12″ piece of stainless steel tube, sharpened one end of it, filled it with grease and strapped it to the front of the camera so that it stuck out like a unicorn’s horn. The cameraman lowered this contraption to the seabed on the end of its umbilical cord, pointed it at the underbelly of the Pescado and repeatedly drove it into the black smear marks. When they brought it up, the grease in the stainless steel tube was speckled with black dust. Ayres sent it off for chemical analysis.

He needed to know more about subs. He traveled to Portsmouth, where he visited the submarine museum in Gosport and then traced a friend of a friend who smuggled him into the naval base at Portsmouth to give him more background on the subs – their size and power, bases and movements. In the harbour, he spotted two local men mooring a boat and he asked them to take him out on the water. When he told them what he wanted to do, they were nervous but with a handful of cash, he persuaded them to help.

So it was that that afternoon, he sailed out of the harbour, round the headland and into the estuary that divides Gosport from Portsmouth. While the two local men kept watch, he fired off photographs of two subs lying dormant in the water. Then, with the two local men suppressing a burst of nerves, they drifted up to the hull of one of the subs where Ayres used a chisel lying in the bottom of the boat to chip off a lump of rusting paintwork. Back in Plymouth, he sent this, too, for chemical analysis.

He started to criss-cross the country in search of evidence. He travelled to Faslane, to the nuclear submarine base there and was dazzled by the security, the walls of coiled razor-wire, the remote-control cameras, the armed guards. He stopped to take pictures and, within minutes, he was being pulled over by a car load of guards. He pleaded ignorance and, for a moment, he was afraid they would not believe him, but then they started searching his car and discovered his golf clubs and, instantly, their manner changed. He was just an ignorant Englishman on holiday. They left, but Ayres was not finished.

He drove several miles out of the area, booked into a bed and breakfast and spent two days trying to find a way into Faslane base. Once, in a pub, he asked so many questions that the landlord took him aside and warned him to watch his back. He saw the Faslane peace camp by the side of the main road. It all looked a bit hippyish to him, but he decided to approach them and found himself being warmly welcomed to the camp fire, where he was told that there were numerous cases where subs were suspected of sinking passing vessels. Ayres was not sure he believed them, but when they gave a him a fat dossier full of details, he was converted. He started following them up.

He contacted Bernard Johnson, the millionaire owner of the Wilhelmina J, which had been sunk in an unreported collision with a coaster off Newhaven in April 1991. He drove to Fishguard and found the only survivor of the sinking of the Inspire which, the Ministry of Defence had finally admitted, had been hit by a submarine in September 1988. He talked to trawlermen in ports all along the south coast of Cornwall; it was the wife of a trawlerman who first told him to go and see Edward Leigh.

Mr Leigh is the deputy headmaster of Gorran primary school, near St Austell and he explained to Alan Ayres that one day in the Spring of 1991, he had taken a party of 34 children up to Pendennis Castle and they had been very excited to see a submarine, floating like a toy on the calm sea. He was sure of the date when they had seen it. It was March 5 – during the period of time when the Ministry of Defence said ‘absolutely’ there was no submarine in the area. And Mr Leigh was sure of his facts. Some of the children had even made drawings of the sub. Ayres called another press conference, announced Mr Leigh’s evidence and watched in silent satisfaction as the MoD admitted that, in truth, there had been at least two subs in the area during this time and that their earlier derisive denials had been ‘a misunderstanding’.

Ayres believed he must be close to the truth. His enthusiasm was redoubled when he received the result of his chemical analysis. According to the report, the black dust he had collected from the Pescado was not rubber, as the Department of Transport had suggested, but a mixture of rust, blue paint from the Pescado – and black paint. The analyst made two points about this black paint: first, that it was ‘most probably derived from some source foreign to the Pescado’; and, second, that in chemical tests, it showed ‘similar characteristics’ to the black paint which Ayres had scraped from a submarine hull in Portsmouth. Ayres was now convinced not only that the Pescado had been sunk by a sub but that someone was trying to conceal the truth.

The Department of Transport did not see it that way. Their Marine Accident Investigation Bureau spent seven months studying the sinking of the Pescado but after a further five months they announced that they would not be publishing a report. Instead, in March this year, they released a summary which suggested that the boat had caught its trawling gear on some obstacle on the seabed and dragged itself over. Ayres was full of frustration, but when he talked again to the Falmouth trawlermen, his frustration turned to fury.

It was clear that, behind the scenes, the Department of Transport was well aware of the possibility that the Pescado had been hit by a submarine. One trawlerman described how a Department official had come on board his boat and started asking about the Pescado.

“What’s all this about then?” the trawlerman had asked.

The official had pointed to a map of the bay in which the Pescado was lost and gestured at three words which covered the area: “What’s that say?”

“Submarine Exercise Area,” read the trawlerman.

“Well, you said it, not me,” said the official.

Ayres started tracing people who had spoken to the Department. He found two trawlermen who had been asked to be expert witnesses. The investigators had admitted openly to them that they had no experience of scallop fishing and they had shown the two trawlermen their underwater video of the Pescado and asked for their advice. The two trawlermen had looked closely at the pictures, at the position of the derricks and the winches, at the giant dredging claws lying upside down on the seabed, and both of them now swore that they had told the Department the same thing: at the time it sank, the Pescado had not been trawling for anything. It could not possibly have got its gear snagged on the seabed, simply because its gear was not even in the sea at the time.

But there was something else. The video which had been shown to the two trawlermen had been edited. Ayres also traced two engineers who had been shown the same video and they agreed with the trawlermen: the video which they had been shown carried no pictures of the dent in the Pescado’s underbelly and so, when they gave the Department their opinion, they had been given no chance to conclude that the boat was sunk by collision.

Through his lawyers, Ayres now obtained the full version of the Department’s video. Not only did it include clear pictures of the dent, but – to Ayres’ great surprise – it carried a soundtrack which had picked up the voices of the Department’s investigators and assistants as they watched the pictures come up from the seabed to their monitor screen. One voice was particularly excited: “You can tell that’s a sub bow,” it said, “sub or submarine…Get the camera closer…cladding of a submarine.”

Yet the Department’s summary report, which dealt only in ‘tentative conclusions’ and ‘probable explanations’, never even mentioned the dent or the presence of submarines in the area let alone the possibility that there had been a collision. Ayres called that conspiracy.

Soon after the release of the Department’s summary report, the police were called in. Ayres was not surprised to discover that they had not been told to find out whether a sub had killed his six crew, but to concentrate instead on whether he or anyone else who was involved with the Pescado had broken the law by sending her to sea in an unsafe condition. Ayres set out to find out the truth about this as well.

Joseph O’Connor, who had now been jailed for two years for fraud, refused to help him and claimed he had never worked on the boat, but Ayres traced the suppliers and engineers who had carried out the refit and traveled all over England, to the Outer Hebrides and Denmark, tracing the crewmen who had sailed on the Pescado’s first six trips. He found that the boat had been seaworthy but, to his horror, he also discovered that when it set sail, it was in breach of numerous maritime laws. Neither Neil Currie nor Peter Birley was qualified as a skipper or mate. None of the four other crew had fire-fighting or survival certificates. The boat had no ‘Epirb’ emergency radio beacon. It had only one life raft, and that was lashed to the side with rope instead of being fitted with hydro-elastic releases, so that it had sunk with the vessel. It had set sail without having a ‘roll test’ to make sure that its new ballast had left it stable. Worst of all, it had no valid safety certificate.

When the Department of Transport had blandly announced this after the loss of the Pescado, Ayres had not believed it. Joseph O’Connor had shown him the certificate. It was valid until November 1991. Ayres was sure it was valid. How else could they have re-registered the Pescado during its refit and got a new fishing licence? You couldn’t register a boat without a safety certificate any more than you could tax a car without an MoT.

In public the Department of Transport refused to explain, and the junior transport minister, Patrick McLoughlin, pleaded that his inspectors could hardly be expected to keep constant watch over 3,000 miles of coastline to make sure that every vessel was in perfect order. In private, they admitted the truth: they had breached their own procedures. They knew that the Pescado’s old safety certificate was no longer valid because the boat had been completely refitted. During the refit, on May 9 1990, the Department had formally cancelled it. But in a letter to Ayres’ lawyers, they now conceded that they had allowed Joseph O’Connor to re-register the boat without a certificate and then, having allowed O’Connor to slip through a loophole, they had failed to keep an eye on him, with the result that the Pescado – with its catalogue of deficiencies – had been allowed to sail in and out of Plymouth and Falmouth harbours half a dozen times, right under the nose of the Department of Transport’s Westcountry headquarters. If the Department had done its job according to its own procedures, the Pescado would never have sunk.

This summer, in the face of relentless pressure from Ayres and the families of the Pescado’s crew, the police announced that, for the first time in British maritime history, they would raise a wreck in search of clues. But months later the Pescado is still on the seabed. The salvagers say they have been dogged by bad weather. Ayres wonders who he can trust. If the wreck is salvaged, police say they will take it to Devonport Docks, most of which happens to be run by the Ministry of Defence. Ayres wonders whether there is any precedent for handing evidence over for safekeeping to the prime suspect in a murder.

Down in the harbours in Plymouth and Falmouth, there are still those who say that Alan Ayres is obsessed, that the loss of the Pescado is all the fault of slippery Joseph O’Connor taking Ayres’ money and cutting corners on the refit. But Alan Ayres counts up the co-incidences – the coastguards who say they were never told about the wreck, the investigators who said they couldn’t find it, the ‘misunderstandings’ by the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Transport which was allowed to investigate its own foul-up – and he says that his common sense insists that all of this is more than merely bad luck.