Family of fisherman who died in Joanna C tragedy 'bemused' by official report

·4-min read
Robert Morley drowned after being flung off the Joanna C ship. Inset, a life jacket which washed up
Robert Morley drowned after being flung off the Joanna C ship. Inset, a life jacket which washed up

THE family of a man who drowned in a fishing boat tragedy have been left “bemused” by an official report.

Robert Morley's stepdad and mother said the outcome of an investigation into the sinking of the Joanna C had not given them the “peace of mind” they hoped for.

Barry and Jackie Woolford are awaiting the inquest into Robert's death to clear up a number of "anomalies".

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report described how Robert was thrown from the boat as it capsized and he hung onto a lifebuoy before he eventually drowned.

Barry told The Argus: “We lost our son but we’re really none the wiser as to why. We know how but we don’t know why.

“There are anomalies which we want to ask about at the inquest.”

The Argus: The Joanna C ship sank on November 21, 2020. Picture from the ship's owner
The Argus: The Joanna C ship sank on November 21, 2020. Picture from the ship's owner

The Joanna C ship sank on November 21, 2020. Picture from the ship's owner

The Joanna C capsized off the coast of Newhaven after becoming tangled with a line of whelk pots.

The captain, David Bickerstaff, found Robert in the water after escaping the ship as it sank in the early hours of November 21, 2020.

The report described how Robert was wearing a lifejacket and had become tangled in an orange rope which was attached to a lifebuoy.

While David attempted to untangle him, the lifejacket came off. Without it, Robert was unable to stay above water and eventually drowned, the report said.

David was later pulled from the water. He was the sole survivor of the tragedy, which also claimed the life of deckhand Adam Harper.

The report included a picture of a life jacket, which washed up on the beach in Newhaven and is believed to be the one that Robert was wearing shortly before his death.

The Argus: The life jacket washed up on Newhaven beach likely to be worn by Robert. Picture from MAIB
The Argus: The life jacket washed up on Newhaven beach likely to be worn by Robert. Picture from MAIB

The life jacket washed up on Newhaven beach likely to be worn by Robert. Picture from MAIB

Barry added: “We have read it and are a little bit bemused, we know Robert never wore a life jacket.

“The report stated that he had a life jacket and it came off in the water. We have no answers to that as to why it was removed or why the report says he was wearing one.

“He never wore a life jacket, like a lot of fishermen. Our son told us he never wore a life jacket.

"He said they got in the way, there are newer life jackets which are a lot smaller than the cumbersome ones before, like the one which washed up on the beach.

“Knowing our son, he didn’t wear a life jacket. We even have a picture the night before the boat went down sitting on a scallop dredge with no life jacket on.

“We’re not looking to apportion blame, but we want to know why it says he was wearing one. I’m 100 per cent certain he wouldn’t have worn one.

The Argus: Robert Morley pictured before 2020
The Argus: Robert Morley pictured before 2020

Robert Morley pictured before 2020

David and Adam were not wearing lifejackets when Joanna C capsized, which
was reasonable as they were inside the vessel, the report states.

Robert was said to be wearing a lifejacket when he went into the water but this was lost at sea and not recovered during initial searches.

A lifejacket was recovered at Newhaven beach three days after the tragedy and the report states it was probable that this was the same one which had been worn by Robert.

The report says this lifejacket may have been one of the spares on Joanna C. Its worn appearance and loosened straps indicated that it had been in use rather than stored, the report said.

The report, released yesterday, also found that there had been a life raft on the ship but it did not inflate, which "adversely affected the survivability of the crew"

The MAIB has made two safety recommendations in regards to stability requirements for fishing boats and buoyancy requirements for life rafts.

“A lot of good has come out of that, that’s the one bit of comfort we have got," Barry added.

"The safety aspect and the way they’re looking into things now is great."

The Argus: From left, Christian Funnell, Steve Bell, Jackie Woolford, Barry Woolford, Nick Gentry, Lewis Arnold, Maria Caulfield, Lesley Boniface and Trevor Cutler at the memorial for lost fishermen at Newhaven
The Argus: From left, Christian Funnell, Steve Bell, Jackie Woolford, Barry Woolford, Nick Gentry, Lewis Arnold, Maria Caulfield, Lesley Boniface and Trevor Cutler at the memorial for lost fishermen at Newhaven

From left, Christian Funnell, Steve Bell, Jackie Woolford, Barry Woolford, Nick Gentry, Lewis Arnold, Maria Caulfield, Lesley Boniface and Trevor Cutler at the memorial for lost fishermen at Newhaven

After the Joanna C got into difficulty, the boat's emergency radio activated, alerting the coastguard.

A massive search operation was launched and David was eventually pulled from the water by rescuers at around 8.50am.

The body of 26-year-old Adam was found by divers five days later.

Robert’s body was found washed up near Bexhill the following month.

An inquest is due to be held at Hastings Coroner’s Court, although a date has yet to be set.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting