Rip current that led to two deaths was an ‘anomaly of nature’, hearing told

A rip current tide which led to the deaths of two young people who drowned off Bournemouth beach was “an unfortunate anomaly of nature”, an inquest has heard.

Joe Abbess, 17, and Sunnah Khan, 12, drowned and eight other people were treated by paramedics after they were thought to have been caught in a riptide next to the pier at the Dorset seaside resort on May 31 last year.

Joe Abbess
Joe Abbess, from Southampton, who died after getting into difficulty in the water off Bournemouth beach (Family handout/PA)

Dorset Police impounded the pleasure cruiser Dorset Belle – which ran trips from Bournemouth Pier – following the fatal incident and arrested a man in his 40s on suspicion of manslaughter.

But after consulting an expert as part of its investigation, the force said it had made the “evidence-based decision” that the movement of the Dorset Belle did not contribute to creating dangerous sea conditions during the incident.

And the force said that the arrested man would face no further action.

At a pre-inquest review hearing at Bournemouth Town Hall, Dorset coroner Rachael Griffin said that an expert report found that that the presence of the Dorset Belle was part of a “series of events” that “together provided a lethal combination”.

Sunnah Khan
Sunnah Khan, from High Wycombe, was swimming next to Bournemouth pier when she was caught in the current (Stephanie Williams/Twitter/PA)

She said the report concluded that “whilst the occurrence of rip currents in this area are not unusual, they are usually focused around structures such as piers and groynes” and that they would not normally be expected on the east side of Bournemouth pier.

She continued that the report found that the rip current “was probably due to a change in the seabed topography in the days or weeks prior to the incident or possibly the wash of the Dorset Belle.”

The report concluded: “What occurred on the beach on May 31 2023 was an unfortunate anomaly of nature.

“This came about as a result of a series of events that individually would be unlikely to cause death or serious injury but together provided a lethal combination.”

Speaking of the skipper of the Dorset Belle, referred to as Mr Palmer, she added: “I want to reiterate there is no question of Mr Palmer’s actions, he is commented in the report to take appropriate measures and responses.”

Explaining the role of the Dorset Belle would still be looked at during the full inquest, Ms Griffin  said: “It’s important that the actions of Mr Palmer were appropriate in all the circumstances but the expert opinion does not rule out the propeller wash of the Dorset Belle being a possible contributory factor.”

Matthew Gowen, who represents Mr Palmer, said of the report: “It does rule out the Dorset Belle being the cause of the rip current” and added that the report talks “about the possibility that it influenced the location of the current not that it caused it.”

The hearing was told that the operator of the Dorset Belle did not face any prosecution for any maritime rule breaches in connection with the incident.

The inquest heard that Sunnah’s family had raised concerns over whether the RNLI lifeguards launched jet-skis based at Bournemouth and Sandbanks quickly enough after the first swimmers were seen to get into difficulty.

Ms Griffin said: “There is insufficient evidence that the actions of the lifeguards were causative or contributory to Sunnah’s and Joe’s death.”

She said that Sunnah had been with her aunt and brother when she was swept away by the current and added: “The fact that they could not locate her is indicative of the difficulty in finding out what happened to her and what direction she went until she was sadly found and recovered.”

Ms Griffin added that her preliminary view was that the inquest would not be an Article 2 hearing that would examine whether the state had failed in protecting the two youngsters.

However, she said that the full inquest would examine what risk assessments had been taken about the safety of the sea and beach at Bournemouth in general and on the day of the incident as well as how any concerns had been addressed.

She said: “It was a quickly evolving incident, the number of people was 11 including Sunnah and Joe.

“The emergency services’ response was not delayed and saved many lives. It’s extremely tragic that the lives of Sunnah and Joe were lost that day.

“There is insufficient evidence before me to establish the point at which they died, with the overpowering effect of the water, their death could have been very quick.”

Ms Griffin adjourned the hearing for the full inquest to start on September 24 with a pre-inquest review to be held on the preceding day.