A CARGO ship which sank in the Pentland Firth with the loss of all eight crewman capsized in "extraordinarily violent sea conditions", an investigation has found.

The 'Cemfjord', a Cyprus-registered cement carrier en route from Rordal in Denmark to Runcorn in England, overturned off the north-east of Scotland at 1.16pm on January 2 2015. Despite an extensive air and sea search, none of the ship's crew - seven Polish nationals and one Filipino - were ever found.

Investigators said the disaster was "predictable and could have been avoided", but that the decision to press ahead with the voyage had been driven by "perceived or actual commercial pressure" to avoid further delays after already falling 12 hours behind schedule.

A report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) noted that at the time of the accident "no other vessels were attempting transit passage east or west through the Pentland Firth due to gale force winds and a "strong, opposing tidal stream".

No distress signal was transmitted - suggesting that vessel capsized suddenly - and the alarm was only raised 25 hours later when the hull of the upturned ship was spotted on January 3 by crew on the Hrossey passenger ferry, who were en route from Lerwick to Aberdeen when they spotted an "unusual object floating in the distance".

The Cemfjord's master, 43-year-old Pawel Chruscinski, was described as a "hard-working, confident captain who was passionate about his ship", but investigators believe he made a fatal error.

Steve Clinch, chief inspector of Marine Accidents, said: “The MAIB investigation found that Cemfjord capsized in extraordinarily violent sea conditions; a fatal hazard that was predictable and could have been avoided.

"The decision to enter the Pentland Firth, rather than seek shelter, was almost certainly a result of poor passage planning, an underestimation of the severity of the conditions and perceived or actual commercial pressure to press ahead with the voyage."

MAIB said the tragedy was linked to "industry and commercial pressures at all levels in the management and oversight of the vessel".

The charterer’s planning schedule "allowed very limited flexibility for delays" while the commercial pressures felt by the vessel's management company, Brise Bereederungs, led it to seek temporary exemptions which allowed the Cemfjord to sail with a rescue boat "that could not be launched or recovered because the lifting slings were too long" following a refit of the ship.

This meant the crew would have been unable to rescue anyone who fell overboard or marshal life-rafts and tow them clear of danger.

The report states: "In the persistently cruel conditions of the North Sea ... such a capability is vital for the safe operation of a ship."

Mr Clinch added that while the exemptions were not a "causal factor" in the disaster, "this tragic accident is a stark reminder of the hazards faced by mariners at sea and the factors that can influence decision making in such treacherous circumstances".

The report also noted that an internal audit in February 2013 highlighted problems including "inadequate emergency preparedness" and that "safety rules and masters’ orders were being ignored on board".

Since the accident, MAIB said Brise Bereederungs had "implemented several changes and initiatives aimed at improving the safe operation of its cement carrying vessels and the safety culture of its crews".