This case turned on the particular facts and the characteristics of the Yacht. However, the decision reflects the potential conflicting arguments in such cases, along with how the judge approached the expert evidence adduced by the parties to support their case. Parties should consider the expert’s qualifications and experience before appointing an expert to give evidence in each case.
This claim concerns a transatlantic yacht delivery from La Rochelle, France to Bear, Delaware, on the eastern seaboard of the USA. The yacht was “VLARODA”, “designed for winds that may exceed wind force 8 (Beaufort scale) and significant wave height of 4 m and above”. The yacht had sustained damage during her voyage and the claimant brought a claim for damage alleging that the crew had chosen the wrong northerly route for crossing instead of the southerly route and failed to use proper weather routing, sailing into a storm. The defendant counterclaimed sums due under the contract. The central issue in the case was how and why the damage was sustained.
Both the weather and routing were the subject of detailed expert evidence. The parties were given permission to rely on expert evidence in the fields of (1) navigation/weather planning and (2) marine engineering. In both fields, the court approached the weight to be given to the opinion evidence, having first examined the qualifications and experience of the experts. Regarding the marine engineering experts, neither had formal engineering qualifications. Both were highly experienced and knowledgeable. They gave evidence in a way that promoted respect and confidence in that each listened carefully to questions, did not try to avoid or deflect them, gave considered answers and made concessions where appropriate.
Turning to the navigation experts, the defendant’s expert qualifications and experience were of more relevance and carried more weight than those of the claimants expert who’s primary experience was as master of a variety of large tanker vessels. Although he also had extensive yachting experience and had served as sailing master aboard a Sea Cadets Square Rigger, he had never planned or undertaken a trans ocean voyage in that capacity. His experience as an expert witness was predominantly in the commercial field. He had no formal qualifications in meteorology (though I acknowledge that his Master Mariner ticket and his degree in Maritime Studies would both have involved a close study of the subject). By contrast, the defendant’s expert was a professional yachtsman who had planned and made numerous ocean passages. But to the extent that they differed, the judge found the defendant’s expert evidence more useful and more reliable and preferred it.
The Northern route choice
On the facts found the Judge held that the much shorter and more direct northern route via the Azores and Bermuda was a reasonable choice in November provided that it was properly planned and executed.
Weather and route planning
Based on forecasting available from the US National Weather Services (the “NWS”) and, by reference to that forecasting, it was alleged that the Halcyon crew had sailed VLARODA into “a storm” or “a low-pressure system which became a storm”. The proper course, it was alleged, would have been to have planned and taken a more southerly route and/or to have delayed departure. The experts produced contemporaneous weather charts from the NWS. Of these, the most important were those issued the day before departure. These would have formed an important part of the crew’s decision making.
The experts gave evidence as the “prudent” choice of route selection based on the predicted weather pattern. The judge did not detect a great deal of difference between the experts and held that the route apparently decided upon (and taken) was the “prudent” route described by both, i.e. to head to the south of the low pressure system which was predicted to track (and did track) north east. A decision to head directly west into that system would have been lacking in prudence, or even reckless. But that was not what VLARODA did and there seems little to criticise in the planning aspect of the voyage.
Such difference as there was between the experts seemed to lie in the decision to take a predominantly south westerly course in order to achieve the objective of staying south of the stronger winds and larger seas. Claimants’ expert view was that the course should have been due south and then west, i.e. two sides of a triangle. But this view seemed to give too little weight to the need to balance avoidance of stronger conditions with the need to make progress west. This was, perhaps, well-illustrated when it was pointed out that this preferred route plan would have ended up with VLARODA facing directly into a westerly wind, i.e. a headwind. The judge preferred the evidence of the defendants, which was grounded in their long practical experience of the exigencies of transatlantic crossings by yacht (as opposed to tanker). The judge concluded that the weather and route planning showed no lack of care or breach of duty. To express that in terms of the contractual terms, the planning was carried out “with professional care and attention” and was also congruent with “the best interests of the safety and protection of the vessel and crew”.
The route taken and the decision to turn back to the Azores
From day two the route was predominantly south west from the Azores. The wind was southerly and the log recorded that the course was changed back to a south westerly heading when the wind veered to WNW – a reasonable and seamanlike method of maximising the advantages to be gained from the wind patterns in an area of low pressure. Very importantly to the issues in this case, prior to the decision to turn back VLARODA had not encountered particularly strong winds or heavy seas. The average wind was Force 4 and the sea state was, for the most part, Slight. In other words, VLARODA did not sail into a storm, or anything approaching a storm. On the contrary, the conditions were nothing out of the ordinary and well within the warranted capabilities of the vessel. Against this, the claimant seized on some isolated entries in the log to support the proposition that for economic reasons and without weather information en route the crew had sailed into adverse conditions and then “panicked” and turned back. The submission that the crew did not have up to date weather information is also unsustainable.
Why did the crew turn back? They had lost confidence in the yacht because it was “falling apart” (there were a number of observed defects). The judge attached particular significance and weight to the evidence of Mr Green (the defendant, an experienced yacht skipper) and that of the Claimants’ expert that the decision to turn back was the right one and “seamanlike”. This was the view of very experienced yachtsmen.
In summary, the judge held that the planning and execution of the proposed transatlantic delivery were both carried out with reasonable care and skill. VLARODA might have been expected to suffer some wear and tear on the voyage. Instead she suffered more serious damage. But that was attributable to manufacturing defects. These were defects concerning the “finishing” of the yacht as opposed to her structure. They were not (as the crew feared) indicative of major failures. Nevertheless, in combination they were at the time reasonably perceived as serious and the crew’s decision to abandon or postpone the delivery voyage and return to the Azores was reasonable. There was no breach of duty on the part of the crew, let alone a repudiatory breach. Nor was that alleged at the time. On the material before him, the claim would have been better directed to the manufacturer.
To read the full judgement, see here: Arnold v Halcyon Yachts Ltd  EWHC 2858 (Admlty) (18 November 2022) (bailii.org)