Families hope UK inquest will solve mystery of trawler deaths in 2004

The families of a fishing boat crew who believe their deaths 17 years ago were caused by a military submarine becoming entangled in their nets off the Cornish coast have told an inquest they hope they will finally learn the truth of what happened to their loved ones.

A full inquest began in London on Monday into the deaths of two of the five men lost when the fishing trawler the Bugaled Breizh sank off the Lizard peninsula in January 2004.

The family of the skipper, Yves Gloaguen, 45, told the court he had been very safety-conscious, while relatives of the crew member Pascal Le Floch, 49, said getting to the truth was “close to our hearts”.

The son of a third man who died, Georges Lemetayer, 60, said his father had expressed concerns about the number of accidents involving fishing boats and submarines, and added that he hoped the inquest would be a “red light” for military commanders and make them think more carefully about the safety of other vessels.

The Ministry of Defence has always denied that a Royal Navy vessel was to blame, but at the start of the inquest, Judge Nigel Lickley QC said he had decided it was right to look again if a submarine was involved.

He said the inquest, which is due to last three weeks, would look at the position and movement of submarines in the area at the time of the sinking, promising he would approach it with “an open mind” and it would be a “fair and rigorous” investigation.

The inquest heard that the Bugaled Breizh, a 24-metre trawler, was fishing about 15 nautical miles south of Lizard Point when the skipper called for help, reporting that the boat was sinking. A large air and sea rescue operation was launched.

The bodies of Yves Gloaguen and Le Floch were recovered and taken to Cornwall, hence an inquest on their deaths in the UK.

The body of a third man, Patrick Gloaguen, 35, was recovered during a salvage operation to raise the boat and taken to France, and his death is not the subject of the inquest. The bodies of Lemetayer, 60, and a fifth man, Eric Guillamet, 42, were never found.

The inquest heard the incident was investigated at length by the marine authorities and courts in France.

Lickley said: “They examined the possibility the sinking had been caused by a submarine catching one or both of the long wires leading from the winches of the Bugaled Breizh to the trawl net. Some experts in the proceedings thought that was physically the most likely explanation while others disagreed.”

Lickley said the French authorities came to the conclusion that the possibility of a submarine being involved could not be ruled out but there was no direct evidence to support this. The more likely explanation was that the trawl net dug into the seabed leading to the vessel heeling sharply and taking on water.

The judge said it emerged that there were three submarines in the area at the time, due to take part in a Nato exercise. Closest was the Dutch submarine Dolfijn, which was believed to be 12 miles away on the surface when the sinking took place. A German submarine, the U-22, was 40 nautical miles away, also on the surface. The British submarine, HMS Torbay, was said to be 100 nautical miles away beneath the surface. The US said they had no submarines in the area.

Françoise Jolivet, the widow of Yves Gloaguen, said he was a “joyful” man who was “very concerned” about safety. Speaking on behalf of the Le Floch family, Bertrand Le Floch said his brother had been called by the sea, adding: “We never imagined such a brutal or even violent death. The truth is close to our hearts.”

Lemetayer’s son, Thierry Lemetayer, said his father had once expressed concerns about “recurring accidents” between fishing boats and submarines.

“He said it in fatalistic tone, not in revolt but in the hope that it would one day change. It probably didn’t change fast enough.”

Lemetayer said he hoped the inquest might spark a “red light in the heads of submarine commanders so they take into account the presence of other boats”.

The inquest is due to hear from witnesses including a Royal Navy rear admiral and current and former submariners.

Speaking before the inquest began, Frank Ryan, of law firm Vardags, which is representing the families of Gloaguen and Le Floch, said: “This David versus Goliath inquest should enable the victims’ families to establish the real reason their loved ones’ lives were so tragically lost.”

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