Pleasure boat may have been a ‘contributory factor’ to beach deaths, coroner hears

The Dorset Belle was originally impounded by police after the incident in May 2023
The Dorset Belle was originally impounded by police after the incident in May 2023

A pleasure boat may have been a “contributory factor” in the death of two children who drowned off Bournemouth beach, a coroner has heard.

Joe Abbess, 17, and Sunnah Khan, 12, died and eight other people were treated by paramedics after they were thought to have been caught in a riptide next to the pier at the Dorset seaside resort on May 31 last year.

At a pre-inquest review at Bournemouth Town Hall was told an expert report found that the presence of the Dorset Belle was part of a “series of events” that “together provided a lethal combination”.

Dorset coroner Rachael Griffin said there was “no question of the actions” of the skipper of the boat who was “commended for taking appropriate measures”.

The skipper was referred to only as Mr Palmer in court and the coroner’s court previously refused to provide his first name.

Joe Abbess and Sunnah Khan died in a riptide off Bournemouth beach
Joe Abbess and Sunnah Khan died in a riptide off Bournemouth beach

Ms Griffin continued: “It’s important that the actions of Mr Palmer were appropriate in all the circumstances but the expert opinion does not rule out the propeller wash of the Dorset Belle being a possible contributory factor.”

She said the report concluded that “whilst the occurrence of rip currents in this area are not unusual, they are usually focused around structures such as piers and groynes” and that they would not normally be expected on the east side of Bournemouth pier.

She continued that the report found that the rip current “was probably due to a change in the seabed topography in the days or weeks prior to the incident or possibly the wash of the Dorset Belle.”

The report concluded: “What occurred on the beach on May 31 2023 was an unfortunate anomaly of nature.

“This came about as a result of a series of events that individually would be unlikely to cause death or serious injury but together provided a lethal combination.”

Dorset Police initially impounded the pleasure cruiser Dorset Belle - which ran trips from Bournemouth Pier - following the tragedy and arrested a man in his 40s on suspicion of manslaughter.

But after consulting an expert as part of its investigation, the force said it had made the “evidence-based decision” that the movement of the Dorset Belle did not contribute to creating dangerous sea conditions.

The force later said that the arrested man would face no further action.

Matthew Gowen, who represents Mr Palmer, said of the report: “It does rule out the Dorset Belle being the cause of the rip current” and added that the report talks “about the possibility that it influenced the location of the current not that it caused it”.

The hearing was told that the operator of the Dorset Belle did not face any prosecution for any maritime rule breaches in connection with the incident.

The inquest is set to begin on Sept 24 with a pre-inquest review to be held on the preceding day.