"This is getting worse" - skipper's final words in Cheeki Rafiki sinking

An official report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has revealed that 12 metre sailing yacht Cheeki Rafiki almost certainly sank, killing four crew, because her keel became detached in adverse weather. The investigation also identified that GRP yachts, like the Beneteau First 40.7, can suffer bonding failure, weakening the overall structure of the yacht and allowing the keel to detach.

Much is still conjecture, since the hull was never recovered after the sinking on 16 May 2014.

Sailing yacht Cheeki Rafiki

The disappearance of Cheeki Rafiki set off shockwaves internationally when the search for her four missing crew members was called off prematurely. She was lost in the North Atlantic during a transatlantic crossing from  Antigua to Southampton, UK. According to US Coast Guard reports, the crew were sailing into conditions of 50mph winds and 4.7m seas.

A few days before disappearing, Cheeki Rafiki’s skipper reported, “Just hit a big wave hard.” In the final message from the crew before contact was lost, her skipper says, “This is getting worse.”

When the US Coast Guard called off the search after three days, a petition was started on Change.org that garnered more than 200,000 signatures, and the UK government sent an official request for the search to be resume. Less than a week later, a US Navy helicopter spotted the boat’s wreckage 1,000 miles off of Massachusetts, and the lifeboat was found to still be on board, sadly dashing any hopes of recovering the missing crew (pictured below): Paul Goslin, 56, from West Camel, Somerset; Steve Warren, 52, from Bridgwater, Somerset; skipper Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham, Surrey; and 22-year-old James Male, from Romsey, Hampshire.

The crew of sailing yacht Cheeki Rafiki (L to R) James Male, Andrew Bridge, Steve Warren and Paul Goslin

The official MAIB investigation concluded it was unlikely that Cheeki Rafiki’s keel was lost by hitting a submerged object. What’s more probable is that Cheeki Rafiki may have ran aground during her time in the Caribbean, with each contact further compromising her structural integrity. Harder, more frequent usage – such as racing – could have exacerbated this bonding vulnerability and caused the keel to move. The report also suggests that one or more of the keel bolts could have deteriorated.

The report aims to serve as a learning moment for the wider yachting public, bringing up safety issues, “which if addressed, should reduce the likelihood of a similar accident in the future,” according to MAIB chief inspector Steve Clinch.

This photo of Cheeki Rafiki's hull shows the partial remains of the aft pair of its 24mm keel bolt holes

The MAIB report also determined that Cheeki Rafiki hadn't had an authorised inspection since its coding survey in 2011 and calls for regular inspections of yacht structures.

The report puts forth many safety recommendations, and particular attention is paid to the accessibility to the life raft and can be deployed easily.

“I hope that this report will serve as a reminder to all yacht operators, skippers and crews of the particular dangers associated with conducting ocean passages, and the need for comprehensive planning and preparation before undertaking such ventures,” says Steve Clinch. “On long offshore passages, search and rescue support cannot be relied upon in the same way as it is when operating closer to the coast, and yachts’ crews need a much higher degree of self-sufficiency in the event of an emergency. Thus the selection and stowage of  safety and survival equipment needs to be very carefully considered before embarking, together with options for contingency planning and self-help in anticipation of problems that could occur during the passage.”