Captain in fatal British ferry crash denies reckless conduct

COUTANCES, France (AFP) - The former captain of a British ferry that killed a man whose fishing boat was sliced in half denied reckless conduct as he stood trial in France with his first mate on Wednesday.

An earlier investigation by France's BEA maritime authority revealed the pair discussed the actress Halle Berry and drugs testing before an alarm alerted them to a collision.

Paul Le Romancer, 58, told the court in the Normandy town of Coutances that he did not think the "Condor Vitesse" catamaran, owned by Britain's Condor Ferries, was moving too fast when it crashed into the fishing boat at a speed of 70km per hour in thick fog on March 28, 2011.

"Given the traffic, and the fact that we were in open sea, no, I think it (the speed) was appropriate," Le Romancer told the court.

Asked why he had not seen the smaller boat on his radar, he replied: "I don't understand why not."

Le Romancer and first mate Yves Tournon, 48, face up to five years in prison if convicted on charges of manslaughter, involuntarily causing injury and failing to respect maritime regulations.

Prosecutors claim the two men were busy chatting at the time of the accident and did not pay enough attention to their radar.

They also alleged the pair had deactivated the ship's anti-collision system and had not turned on its fog horn.

The collision took place in the English Channel, between the French port of Saint Malo and the island of Jersey.

The 86.6m catamaran sliced the 9.3m fishing boat in two, killing its captain Philippe Lesaulnier, a 42-year-old father of four.

Lesaulnier's widow was in court on Wednesday and wept discreetly as details of the accident, which two of the fishing boat's crew survived, were recounted.

The BEA investigation concluded that the captain and first mate had carried out "almost-continuous conversations unconnected with the operations of the vessel" in the run-up to the collision.

Transcripts of conversations on the bridge revealed the two men discussed Halle Berry's performance and body-hugging outfits in the 2004 film Catwoman, drugs testing and the first mate forgetting his glasses before an alarm alerted them to the collision.

Condor Ferries, based on the British island of Guernsey, has not been prosecuted.

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