Boat skipper Alan Whittley has been found not guilty of the main charge he faced over the drowning death of a schoolgirl from Canberra.
The girl was only 13 years old when she died after the boat she was in capsized while crossing the Moruya River bar on 24 March 2018.
At the start of Mr Whittley’s nearly two-week trial on 11 May, crown prosecutor Michael Fox alleged as the boat’s skipper it was his “cavalier attitude” towards safety advice, and attempting to cross the bar without preparation, that resulted in her death.
Mr Whittley, a 32-year-old member of Melbourne’s Whittley Marine boatbuilding family and sales manager at their company, fought accusations against him after pleading not guilty to a charge of causing death by culpably navigating in a dangerous manner.
The jury returned its verdict on Tuesday (25 May) after one day of deliberations, finding him not guilty of this more serious charge which carried a maximum of 10 years’ jail.
However, the jury did not have to return a verdict on a backup charge of operating a recreational vessel negligently causing death. This charge will be discussed at a hearing in June. This lesser charge carries a maximum sentence of two years’ jail.
The reasons behind the jury’s verdict are unknown, but at the start of the trial in Nowra District Court, defence barrister Arthur Moses SC of New Chambers said the issue was whether or not Mr Whittley had driven the vessel in a dangerous way.
Mr Moses said the accident was caused by the combination of unexpected waves, along with a possible latent defect in the fuel filter of the boat’s Volvo Penta engine which could have caused the engine to stall and leave the boat’s occupants “at the mercy of the sea”.
The jury heard that early in the morning of 24 March 2018, Mr Whittley had taken a 6.2-metre Whittley CR2080 fibreglass boat from Moruya’s town wharf down the Moruya River towards the ocean.
Onboard for the fishing trip were the girl and her father, brother, friend and a friend of their family. Mr Fox said no one was wearing a lifejacket.
The boat approached the Moruya bar, which is where the Moruya River meets the ocean. Mr Fox said they saw another boat ahead of them which was operated by people going fishing. They would later describe conditions on the day as “rough”.
The girl’s father, who testified to the court on 12 and 13 May, said when he saw the other boat successfully pass the bar, he encouraged Mr Whittley to keep driving.
“Follow his wake, keep going, we’re sweet,” he told his skipper.
He said they followed the wake of the other boat, but as they passed the end of the rock wall and there was a “rolling wave” heading straight towards them.
He said after they made it over the first wave, a second wave crashed over the roof of their boat and filled it with water, so he told Mr Whittley to “gun it” and get them out of there, but when Mr Whittley accelerated the motor stalled. A third wave struck the boat and flipped it over.
“[They were] freak waves that came out of nowhere,” the father said.
He said the boat had clear plastic storm covers around it that prevented rain or spray from getting inside.
When the boat capsized, he struggled to get out from underneath. He escaped and saw Mr Whittley, his son and the two other children, but not his daughter, so he stood on the boat and “started screaming for her”.
The father dove back inside the boat three times to find her and came close to drowning himself.
He could not get into the cabin where his daughter was found as something was blocking the way.
He said Mr Whittley, a long-time friend, was a careful skipper who tried to drive the boat safely on that day in March.
“Do you blame Mr Whittley for the death of your daughter?” Mr Moses asked.
“Not at all,” the father replied.
A statement released on behalf of Mr Whittley after the verdict describes the girl’s death as “a very sad and tragic accident”.
“All our thoughts remain with the young girl and her family,” the statement says.
“Despite their heart-breaking loss and immense grief, the young girl’s family has shown incredible strength over the past three years.”
The trial was held before Judge Nicole Norman. She will hear submissions on the backup charge of operating a recreational vessel negligently causing death on 23 June in the Sydney Downing Centre.