Speedboat captain nicknamed ‘Mr Safe’ killed teenage girl when he crashed into buoy, court told

Emily Lewis - Hampshire Police/Solent News & Photo Agency
Emily Lewis – Hampshire Police/Solent News & Photo Agency

A schoolgirl died in a speedboat crash after a “grossly negligent” skipper nicknamed “Mr Safe” smashed straight into a 15ft buoy, a court heard.

Michael Lawrence, 55, is accused of taking risks by performing daring stunts before he ploughed into the huge metal buoy at more than 40mph.

The smash, on Southampton Water, threw passengers overboard, left them with broken bones, and killed Emily Lewis, 15, as her chest was crushed against a metal handle. The “beautiful” schoolgirl died in hospital later that day from catastrophic injuries.

Winchester Crown Court heard that after the crash Mr Lawrence paced up and down the boat “not appearing to assist anyone and stepping over those in his way”.

Mr Lawrence denies manslaughter by gross negligence over the “extremely dangerous” ride. Michael Howley, 52, the owner of Seadogz Rib Charter, denies “failing to take all reasonable steps to secure the boat operated in a safe manner” after he “delegated responsibility” to the skipper.

Mr Lawrence initially claimed his Covid face mask was blown up by the wind and covered his eyes but the court heard that just days later he “changed his story” and blamed a momentary loss of vision for hitting the buoy.

Michael Lawrence - Solent News & Photo Agency
Michael Lawrence – Solent News & Photo Agency

Opening the case, Christine Agnew KC, prosecuting, said Mr Lawrence’s behaviour was “truly, exceptionally bad and grossly negligent” and his safety briefing before the ride, on 10am on August 22 in 2020, was “wishy-washy”.

“This was to be a high thrills ride,” Ms Agnew said. “Tragically, it was both a high thrills and ultimately an extremely dangerous ride which ended with the death of Emily.”

She said Mr Lawrence was either not paying attention, or had been planning to turn around the buoy and had miscalculated but added: “In either event, the prosecution say his actions that day fell far below those of a competent skipper.”

Ms Agnew said that Mr Lawrence was “not an inexperienced seaman” but “quite the opposite” and his behaviour was more than an “extremely grave mistake”.

She said he took risks and “failed to observe basic safe practice” adding Mr Lawrence’s actions were “truly exceptionally bad, grossly negligent and caused the death of Emily.”

The prosecutor Mr said Howley had failed to ensure the boat was operated safely during the 60-minute “adrenaline-fuelled” ride which involved speed, tight turns and jumps.

Michael Howley - Solent News & Photo Agency
Michael Howley – Solent News & Photo Agency

Mr Lawrence held multiple boating qualifications but took corners sharply and left passengers “uncomfortable” as the boat reached speeds of 55mph.

She said there were 14 seconds until impact and the last recorded speed was 36.6 knots but “witnesses expected the RIB to turn but some became worried when it was not doing so”.

Following the crash, Mr Lawrence called Mr Howley four times and was heard to be telling him “hey mate, I’ve had an accident, it’s a really bad one, I’ve had a bad one”.

The prosecutor said Emily suffered brain damage and her family was told she was “unlikely to survive” before they made the “unspeakably hard decision to turn off her life support machine”.

boat - Solent News & Photo Agency
boat – Solent News & Photo Agency

The court heard that in Mr Howley’s police interview he said Mr Lawrence was “Number one” of the skippers in the area and described him as “Mr Safe and Mr Cautious” but Ms Agnew said neither man was aware of High Speed Passenger Vessel safety code.

Karim Khalil KC, defending Mr Lawrence, said he “kept a proper lookout and did not travel at an improper speed” and was “unable to and didn’t see the buoy”.

He said he now has PTSD and is a “genuinely decent man who is doing his best to explain what happened”.

James Newton-Price KC, representing Mr Howley, said he did “what he reasonably could” and “was careful to do so and take his job seriously.”

The court later heard from Emily’s father Simon who told of the moment he watched his dying daughter’s lips turn blue after the speedboat ride, which had made him “nervous” before the crash.

“The buoy was dead ahead. It felt like it was going straight 15 or 20 seconds,” he said adding that he was “thrown forward very violently and hit my face, knee and wrist on the seat in front”.

He said his other daughter Amy, then 18, shouted she had broken her arm and he then saw her sister “scooched down in front of her seat in almost like a foetal position” as she told him she couldn’t breathe.

“I kept telling her ‘OK’ and to take deep breaths. Emily was unconscious and unable to speak and that was the first time I noticed her lips, which turned blue.

“Even with my small amount of knowledge I knew that’s not a good thing.”

He said that at hospital the family decided “it’s not how Emily would have wished to live” and made the decision to switch off her life support machine.

The trial continues.

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