An inexperienced yachtswoman from Bideford died as she attempted to sail her new boat single-handed around Land’s End after ignoring advice from experienced sailors, an inquest has heard.
Mary Unwin, 65, had bought Seagair two days before setting off from Falmouth to sail the 130 miles around the Cornish coast to Instow in October 2012.
Her husband Carol raised the alarm when she did not return to their home in Bideford, and wreckage from the yacht was discovered washed up on the coast between Land’s End and Sennen.
Cornwall Coroner’s Court heard Mrs Unwin’s body has never been found and the exact circumstances of her death and how the Seagair came to hit rocks will never be known.
Mrs Unwin - who had remarried her former husband eight days before the trip - had wanted to surprise him by sailing the Seagair home.
The couple had been married for more than a decade before divorcing, but had got back together.
In a written statement, Mr Unwin, who did not attend the inquest, described his wife as ‘fabulous’ but said she was a ‘strong individual and didn’t mess about’.
On October 11 they paid a deposit for the yacht from a marina in Falmouth and when Mr Unwin woke on the morning of October 13 his wife had gone.
A few hours later the mother-of-four telephoned him and asked: “Guess where I am?”
Mr Unwin said: “She told me she had sailed the Seagair from Falmouth to Mousehole and was heading up to Instow, near our home.”
When she did not return Mr Unwin contacted emergency services and days later wreckage washed up and his wife’s jacket was recovered.
“I couldn’t believe the possibility she had perished. My thoughts are that in an attempt to surprise me she took a challenge too great,” he added.
“The evidence appears to show that she went down with the Seagair attempting to sail around Land’s End and that it was her own strong-willed character that led to this tragic accident.”
Concern from experienced fishermen
Fisherman Finbar Jones told the hearing Mrs Unwin had hit his own boat as she attempted to moor at Mousehole harbour and scraped her yacht as she left.
He said that after speaking to her he was concerned about her inexperience and warned her of the difficulties of sailing at night on her own.
“She told me, ‘It was just like driving a car at night’,” he said.
“I didn’t feel there was anything we could do to make her change her mind and stay. She seemed sound of mind but clearly inexperienced with boats.
“She seemed very scatty and unsure of what she was doing, but in the same way she was very determined in her mind. Basically, there was no way of stopping her.”
Detective Constable Martin Hearn said Mrs Unwin did not have a life jacket and the Seagair was not fitted with GPS or a liferaft.
He said the day before she left Falmouth she had paid for a day-long course with Peter Van den Berg, an experienced skipper, to familiarise herself with the yacht.
“She had not sailed for a number of years and her experience seemed to be on tall ships with large crews,” DC Hearn said.
“Everybody she spoke to tried to put her off the idea of single crewing.”
DC Hearn said Mrs Unwin had difficulties raising the sail on her own and in Mr Van den Berg’s opinion her skill level was between ‘crew and day skipper’, and she did not have the ability to sail on her own, and offers were made to hire a crew for her.
“The Seagair did not have a liferaft and Mary did not have a life jacket, and on the day of leaving she said she didn’t need a life jacket because she could swim,” DC Hearn said.
“This is an indication of not taking on board the reality of what she was trying to achieve.
“If you speak to the experienced coastguard, lifeboat crews and fishermen who have been working off these waters, none would consider trying to sail single-handed at night in a fashion that Mary Unwin attempted.
“I think, for the people that knew Mary Unwin, she was a strong-willed or eccentric type of lady who was prone to carrying out actions that were perhaps not best thought out.
“If she considered that sailing a boat at night was like driving a car... a lack of knowledge of what she was taking on. It was such a dangerous thing to do.
“It was only advice that was offered to her and there was nothing legally she had done wrong in sailing the Seagair out of Falmour harbour.”
He said inquiries had found no evidence Mrs Unwin was still alive.
Assistant Cornwall Coroner Stephen Covell recorded an open conclusion.
He said: “The evidence I have heard is an indication she did not have the requisite skills to sail the boat single-handedly in daylight, yet alone the dark.
“I am satisfied she perished onboard the Seagair on or about October 14 2012.”