The family of a Brightlingsea merchant seaman who saved lives during the Zeebrugge ferry disaster have paid tribute to him.

Karl Hykel’s decomposing body was found by two walkers off Cowdray Avenue, Colchester, on August 7 last year.

Yesterday Essex coroner Caroline Beasley-Murray recorded an open verdict on his death.

In March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized, killing 193 passengers and crew.

Aged 23, Mr Hykel was on board one of the first ships to reach the stricken ferry and helped save 18 people’s lives, including two babies.

At the time, he modestly said: “It was something anyone would have done”.

But P&O rewarded him and fellow crew members on The River Tamar medals detailing “the appreciation of their unique assistance”.

Dad David Hykel, who lives with partner Jacquey Thurlow at the Red Barn Road home where David grew up, said as a child he had toured across the country as a drummer with the Brightlingsea Church Land Brigade before joining him as a seaman.

“He started when he was about 16 and I worked with him until he was about 18 or 19,” he said.

“He worked all over European waters.

“He was always helpful and always up for a joke.

“He was a free spirit and very happy-go-lucky.”

Yesterday’s inquest heard a post-mortem examination found he died of morphine toxicity but he also had a blockage to the right artery of his heart.

David Hykel told the inquest the 43-year-old single man, who lived in the St Botolph’s area of Colchester, had been involved in various incidents over the years as a merchant seaman which had affected his health.

Phil Sitch, coroner’s officer, said Mr Hykel was a diabetic, had drug and alcohol dependency issues and was subject to mood swings.

Family members told the inquest they did not believe he would have taken his own life.

Mr Hykel leaves behind 19-year-old daughter Karla from a previous relationship, and her 16-month-old daughter Millie. He also leaves his mother Pat, three brothers and one sister.

After his funeral his ashes were scattered to sea, with monies donated in lieu of flowers at his funeral forwarded to Essex Air Ambulance and Children’s Leukaemia Research.