Royal Navy warship came within ‘hair’s breadth’ of crash with oil tanker due to tired officer

Lieutenant Euan Playford-Johnston
The military court heard that Lieutenant Euan Playford-Johnston concentrated on other work while in a busy shipping lane at night, leaving a junior colleague in charge of HMS Penzance - Solent News & Photo Agency/Ollie Thompson

A Royal Navy warship came within just 360 metres of crashing into an oil tanker after a “fatigued” officer left a junior colleague in charge, a court martial heard.

The HMS Penzance nearly collided with a Norwegian tanker in Scottish waters after Lieutenant Euan Playford-Johnston left an inexperienced officer to navigate the ship in a busy shipping lane at night.

The captain of the 144 metre, 12,000-tonne tanker was forced to slow down to avoid a collision, the consequences of which “would have been unthinkable”, according to a judge at a military court.

Bulford Military Court, in Wiltshire, heard that Lt Playford-Johnston, 30, had been “fatigued” after a long day on the bridge of the HMS Penzance, a minesweeper based at Faslane, on April 17 last year.

He decided to carry out other work, leaving an “untrained” junior officer in charge of navigation as the ship passed through the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast, the court martial was told.

It was heard that Lt Playford-Johnston went to the side of the bridge to carry out some work but intended to “keep an eye” on the second officer of the watch.

The officer altered HMS Penzance’s course to avoid a tugboat but in doing so had unwittingly set course for the path of the oil tanker, the Sten Baltic, prosecutor Lieutenant Commander Edward Hannah told the court.

“Neither Lt Playford-Johnston nor the second officer – or the other two on the bridge – noticed the Sten Baltic”, Lt Cdr Hannah said.

The captain of the Sten Baltic had to reduce its speed and told the HMS Penzance to speed up to avoid a collision, the court martial heard.

Lt Playford-Johnston took control of the ship and took action to avoid a crash. There was 400 yards between the two ships at the closest point of contact, Lt Cdr Hannah said.

HMS Penzance
HMS Penzance nearly had an 'unthinkable' collision with the oil tanker Sten Baltic - PA

Lt Playford-Johnston subsequently tried to cover up his actions by not reporting it to the ship’s captain, a serious breach of Navy rules, the court heard.

He has been given a severe reprimand, lost his seniority, and fined £3,600 after admitting negligently hazarding a ship and two counts of breaching standing orders.

Sentencing, Assistant Judge Advocate John Atwill said the married Navy officer had narrowly escaped being jailed.

Judge Atwill said: “That hazard almost paid out. There was a real risk of a collision. The consequences would have been unthinkable.

“Your actions on that day brought that ship within a hair’s breadth of disaster and your career within a hair’s breadth of ending.

“It brought you within a hair’s breadth of prison.”