Hearing told that lifejacket failed to inflate

A yachtsman drowned when he was knocked into the sea and his life jacket failed to inflate, an inquest was told. Martin Gibbs from Winscombe, Somerset, was taking part in a race in the Bristol Channel when the wind direction changed causing the boat to accidentally gybe and the boom to swing into him.

The 55-year-old was knocked unconscious and over the side into the sea near Barry, South Wales, during the race on 7 September this year around Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands. The Cardiff coroner Mary Hassell recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Thomas Hendy, a sailing friend who described himself as Mr Gibbs’ deck hand, said that he was ‘very competent, he would not take risks.’ Mr Hendy said the two sailors had their life jackets on during the race, but that they were not clipped on to the boat, Gunsmoke, a single-masted 26ft sailing yacht.

He told the hearing that as they approached Barry they turned onto a downwind course. ‘That’s the most dangerous point of sailing because if the wind gets the wrong side of the mainsail the boom can come slamming across,’ he said. ‘An extra large wave hit the side of the boat. To my horror I saw the boom coming over. It just slammed across, knocking Martin.’

Mr Hendy said the boat was travelling too fast for him to reach his friend, but that he could see he was face down in the water. If his lifejacket had inflated he would have been on his back, he said. He lost sight of Mr Gibbs, so he radioed for help.

Tim Thompson, a search and rescue winchman who pulled Mr Gibbs from the water, said that the only thing keeping him afloat was his jacket. Attempts were made to resuscitate Mr Gibbs, but there were no signs of life and he was pronounced dead at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff. A post-mortem examination found that Mr Gibbs died after suffering a blunt head trauma and submersion in water.

Life jacket expert Joe Bottomley said that Mr Gibbs’ buoyancy aid should have inflated within 10-15 seconds of hitting the water. He said that the only explanation for the device not inflating was that the gas cylinder inside had become unscrewed and the piercing pin had not been able to reach it.
Mr Bottomley said that the cylinder could have become loose over time and that manufacturers recommend life jackets are serviced once a year after purchase. He said that records showed the jacket was just over two years old but had never been serviced.

Hugh Davies, of Barry Lifeboat, who attended the scene, said that being hit by the boom was the most common cause of injury on a yacht.