The director of a yachting management company has been acquitted of the manslaughter of four sailors who died when the Cheeki Rafiki yacht sank mid-Atlantic.

Douglas Innes, 43, of Southampton, Hampshire, briefly closed his eyes snd mouthed the words “thank you” as the jury, sitting at Winchester Crown Court, announced the not guilty verdicts.

The jury had been deliberating at the retrial for 23 hours and 25 minutes.

The yacht lost its keel as the crew were returning the 40ft yacht from Antigua to the UK in May 2014 when it got into trouble 1,000 miles from the United States.

Lost at sea were all four crew members – skipper Andrew Bridge, 22, from Farnham in Surrey; James Male, 22, from Southampton; Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin, 56, both from Somerset.

Cheeki Rafiki yacht crew members (left to right) Paul Goslin, James Male, Steve Warren and Andrew Bridge (Royal Yachting Association/PA)Cheeki Rafiki crew members (left to right) Paul Goslin, James Male, Steve Warren and Andrew Bridge (Royal Yachting Association/PA)

The US Coastguard was criticised for calling off its search after two days but after protests from family and friends and intervention by the British government, the search was re-started and the boat found but without any sign of the four men.

Innes, and his company Stormforce Coaching Limited, is to be sentenced on May 11 after being convicted at the first trial of failing to operate the yacht in a safe manner contrary to section 100 Merchant Shipping Act.

Judge Douglas Field said “all options must remain open” with regard to sentencing.

The jury told the judge it was “deeply concerned” about a maritime regulation guidance note and hoped it would be reviewed and tightened to help improve safety.

Prosecutor Nigel Lickley QC told the court the yacht, named after a character in the Lion King, had an undetected fault with bolts holding the three tonne keel to the hull which then failed causing it to fall off during the bad weather during the voyage.

Mr Lickley said the yacht, which had grounded on two earlier occasions, had been “unsafe and unsound” because Innes had “neglected it” by not maintaining it or having it inspected for several years.

In contrast Innes told the court the Cheeki Rafiki had been regularly maintained and inspected with no evidence of damage to the keel.

He said the yacht was taken out of the water for nearly five months in early 2013 for the hull to be stripped back and repainted as part of its maintenance programme.

The Cheeki Rafiki, which capsized in the mid-Atlantic (Royal Yachting Association/PA)The Cheeki Rafiki, which capsized in the mid-Atlantic (Royal Yachting Association/PA)

Innes said no fault with the keel or hull had been found and the yacht was scrubbed thoroughly prior to the its final journey.

No problems with the keel or hull were spotted and he had not been informed by the yacht’s owners of damage caused during two groundings on two occasions, he added.

After the verdicts Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) chief executive Sir Alan Massey warned of the dangers of failing to maintain vessel safety, said the organisation will have to “look hard” at its “regulatory environment” and expressed sympathy for the bereaved relatives.

He said the MCA had carried out “a thorough and extensive” three year investigation into the circumstances of the loss of the Cheeki Rafiki.

He described it as “a horrific and tragic incident” which still has a  “devastating” impact on their families.

Sir Alan said: “The sea can be an extremely hostile place. You must make sure your vessel is safe in strict accordance with its certification.

“You must make sure it is properly maintained and fit to be at sea – you could otherwise find yourself facing serious charges in court.”

In response to the jury’s concerns about MGN280, the guidance note which governs the basic construction and operation of certain small vessels, he said: “They have made some recommendations. We are going to follow those up. Of course, if we need to review or even amend the terms of that guidance notice, we will.”

He added the MCA now needs to “look and ask ourselves ‘is there enough legal force in these regulations as they stand to be able to follow through cases of non-compliance?'”

After the hearing, a family spokesman said: “We have lost our loved ones and our lives have been changed forever. Nothing was ever going to bring Andy, James, Paul and Steve back. They will never be forgotten.

“It is clear from the jury’s comments that there is a need to tighten up marine guidance so that the regulations cannot be misinterpreted. 

“This will help to make our seas a safer place…a fitting legacy for our four men.”