Thursday, October 02, 2008

Why no search for the Gaul?

Although the approximate position of the Gaul had been well known, both in official and unofficial circles, in the 23 years that preceded its discovery, successive governments were reluctant to survey the area in question, and to locate and identify the wreck.
It was only in 1997, when TV producer Norman Fenton chartered a vessel and launched a search in the Barents Sea, that the position and identity of the wreck could be confirmed. Finding the wreck took him no longer than six hours. His discovery triggered an obvious question: why had a search for the wreck not been carried out earlier, this would have put an end to much of the speculation and rumours that had surrounded the vessel’s loss and, more importantly, would have helped to ease the grief, frustration and anger felt by the families and friends of those who had perished with the Gaul.
The discovery of the wreck obliged the Government to answer this question; hence, in April 1999, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, asked Mr Roger Clark, Head of Shipping Policy in the DETR, to conduct an ‘independent’ [1] investigation into why there had been no search for the Gaul after her disappearance in 1974.
Mr Clark applied himself to the task and, a year later, his findings were published in a 60 pages DETR report (see Annex 1).

In brief, the Government’s justification, presented within Mr Clark’s report, claimed that:
Initially we didn’t really know where the vessel was and it would have cost too much to find her and, even if we were to find the vessel, the expense of carrying out an underwater survey of the wreck could not be justified in terms of the benefits it would bring for marine safety.
John Prescott lauded Mr Clark’s conclusions and expressed his total confidence in their soundness and objectivity.

During the 2004 Re-opened Formal Investigation, in response to the victims’ families’ dissatisfaction with Mr Clarke’s explanations, justice David Steel, the Wreck Commissioner, re-examined the arguments, then endorsed, in his turn, Mr Clarke’s earlier conclusions (see the final report of the RFI [2]).

While the official reasoning may appear quite plausible, we have reasons to believe that, in fact, the Government had never been too keen to discover the location of the wreck, not on the grounds advocated by Roger Clarke, but for an entirely different reason: i.e. because a survey of the wreck and an analysis of the evidence that it revealed would have raised questions as to the adequacy of her design. The DfT’s marine experts, it now appears, had long suspected that the arrangement of the duff and offal chutes on the Gaul were a weakness in her design and that this weakness might have been a causal factor in her loss.

(Further details to follow)


[1] As head of the DfT’s shipping policy section, Roger Clarke could hardly be considered independent of the government whose actions he was asked to investigate

[2] “We accept the Department’s submission that its actions were solely directed to balancing the interests of those immediately affected by the loss of the GAUL with the wider public interest and the resources available

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