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A skipper’s life was adversely affected when he witnessed the vessel, Shark Team, capsize off Gansbaai, resulting in the deaths of three tourists six years ago.
Steve Smuts, who had more than 30 years’ experience at sea, told the Western Cape High Court on Monday that he could not look at the sea or board his vessel after watching the Shark Team go down on April 13, 2008.
He took the stand in the damages action against the vessel, the skipper Grant Tuckett, and shark-cage diving business White Shark Projects, in court to establish whether they were responsible for the death of at least one passenger.
Nineteen people were aboard the shark-cage diving boat, including investment banker Chris Tallman, on holiday with his friend Casey Lajeunesse, and Norwegian tourist Kenneth Rogue, the three who died that day. Sixteen were rescued.
Tallman’s wife, Sarah Tallman of North Carolina, is suing for $2.2 million (R24m) in damages, alleging the defendants were negligent when they went out to sea that day.
But the defendants say Chris Tallman entered into a contract, which included a “waiver, release and indemnity statement of understanding” and that an “express term of the contract” was that he had “acknowledged that cage diving, shark diving and boating are hazardous activities and accepted any and all risks of injury or death”.
Before a decision is made on the damages action, Judge Alec Freund has to decide whether the defendants are liable.
Smuts was called to testify in support of Sarah Tallman’s case on Monday.
He told the court that he had also been at sea that day aboard the Swallow. The sea was rough and conditions “seemed to be getting worse very quickly”. Ron Lennox, skipper on board a third vessel nearby, called him on his cellphone and asked what he thought.
“My words were: ‘I’m getting out’. Ronnie said he was calling off the trip. He said it’s going to get worse because the tide has turned.”
Seconds later, before he could put his cellphone in his pocket, Smuts saw “them (Shark Team) go under”. “Ronnie was the first to react. I heard the mayday call go out… I had hysterical female passengers on board. I didn’t want to hang around in that area because of the safety of my passengers.”
Two weeks later he went to his doctor and was declared medically unfit for six months. “I just couldn’t go back to sea. I couldn’t even look at the sea. I sold my boat, my rock lobster quota…” an emotional Smuts said.
The hearing continues on Tuesday.