British ferry crew face trial over fatal boat crash

British ferry crew face trial over fatal boat crash
The Condor Vitesse, which crashed into a French fishing boat, fatally killing its captain. Photo: Fender5/flickr
The crew of a British ferry are set to go before a judge in France on Wednesday accused of manslaughter after their vessel collided with a French fishing boat, killing its captain. The crew were allegedly chatting about actress Halle Berry at the time.

A former captain and his first mate will go on trial Wednesday after their British ferry crashed into a French fishing boat, killing its skipper, while they were allegedly distracted
chatting about a "sexy" Halle Berry film and drug testing.

Paul Le Romancer, the 58-year-old ex-captain of the "Condor Vitesse", and his first mate Yves Tournon, 48, are facing charges of manslaughter, involuntary injury and failing to respect maritime regulations over the incident on March 28, 2011.

The accused, both French citizens, will appear before a court in the northwestern town of Coutances and are each facing up to five years in prison.

The "Condor Vitesse", an 86.6-metre (285-foot) catamaran belonging to the fleet of British-registered Condor Ferries, collided with the "Les Marquises", a 9.3-metre (30-foot) French fishing boat, in thick fog between Saint Malo and the island of Jersey.

The catamaran, travelling at 70 kilometres per hour (45 miles per hour), split the fishing boat in two, killing its captain Philippe Lesaulnier, a 42-year-old father of four. The boat's two other crew members were fished out of the sea unharmed.

Prosecutors allege that the accused were not paying enough attention to radar despite the fog, had deactivated the ship's anti-collision system and had not turned on its fog horn.

The ferry, containing 200 passengers, was able to continue its voyage to Jersey after the accident.

An investigation by France's BEA maritime authority noted that the captain and first mate had carried out "almost-continuous conversations unconnected with the operations of the vessel" which created "an atmosphere that was hardly compatible with the concentration needed to pilot a high-speed vessel in foggy conditions."

Transcripts of the conversation, recorded on the bridge and released in a BEA report, showed the crew chatting about films and drugs in the time leading up to the collision.

"Last night I watched Catwoman on television. I'm an idiot because after that I didn't sleep well," the captain is recorded as saying on the transcript a few minutes before the collision, referring to the 2004 film starring Berry.

The first officer replied: "Catwoman?"   

"She was jumping everywhere like a cat," the captain said. "She's bloody beautiful. She was wearing a sexy outfit."

The conversation later turned to how long certain drugs would remain present in the body and jokes about the first mate forgetting his glasses, before an alarm indicated the collision.

Condor Ferries, based on the British island of Guernsey, is not itself facing criminal prosecution.

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