Fined for sailing too close to Portland Is

A ship’s captain has been fined for endangering his vessel, crew and the environment by running close to Portland Island, Māhia, during Cyclone Gabrielle.

The incident took place on February 14, and the Maritime Safety Authority (MSA) took Captain Yongyu Li to court, with a hearing in Tauranga in May.

The captain pleaded guilty and has just been fined in the Wellington District Court.

This is the fourth such incident involving large ships off the East Coast region in recent years, the first being the stranding of the log ship Jody F Millennium on Waikanae Beach after leaving Gisborne harbour in a storm  on February 6, 2002.

The container ship Rena ran aground off Tauranga on October 5, 2011;  the Bunun Dynasty came close to Wainui Beach during a storm on August 9, 2021; and Captain Yongyu Li’s cargo ship Spinnaker SW came into shallow waters at Portland Island in February.

At the Tauranga hearing in May, the captain appeared via a video link from China and entered a plea of guilty.

The charge under the Maritime Transport Act 1994 carried a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison, or a maximum $10,000 fine.

On the day of the incident Captain Yongyu Li was sailing his 175-metre, 19,800-tonne vessel, Spinnaker SW, for the port of Tauranga, and had chalked out a voyage plan to sail around Portland Island, at Māhia.

He was on the bridge as the ship approached Portland Island late in the morning, and the weather was rough with Cyclone Gabrielle hitting the East Coast. The wind was a force seven and the ship was rolling in a six to seven-metre swell.

Evidence presented by the MSA shows the captain chose to steer closer to land to slow the rolling, but did not do any formal appraisal of deviation from the initial voyage plan.

The vessel entered water that was about 11.3 metres deep, almost 2.28 km from the island, then the captain decided to turn, about 748m from 10m shallows, about 2.38km from the island.

MSA said by doing this he risked the ship hitting the sea floor, and the vessel came within 800m of shoal ground.

While being interviewed, the captain told the MSA investigator  he decided to take the ship into shallow waters since the wind was way “too strong” and he wanted to avoid the vessel rolling and shaking.

MSA says he admitted to not calculating the risk before heading toward land and said he knew he was breaching his employer’s policy regarding the depth of water to be kept under the keel.

MSA investigations manager John Maxwell said the changes meant the ship passed spots which were only 9.4m and 10m deep.

“This is very shallow for a bulk carrier of this size, and would have only left it with a couple of metres of clearance between the vessel and a potential grounding,” he said.

“This was an incredibly risky decision.

“ . . .  it meant there was a risk it would get into dangerously shallow waters, removing the safety net of deeper water should something have gone wrong with the vessel, such as a loss of power.”

Mr Maxwell said if the ship had run aground, rescuers may have been unable to reach it because of the storm.

The Wellington District Court has fined Captain Yongyu Li $1875 for operating a ship in an unnecessarily dangerous manner by purposely navigating off the original plotted course.

In 2021, the MSA decided not to prosecute when the log ship Bunun Dynasty came close to the Wainui/Okitu shore at Gisborne, during a storm that August.

MSA described this as a “near-miss incident” and said if there had been any further failure on the ship “the consequences could have been significant”.

The Bunun Dynasty had been anchored off Tuaheni point, but in wind gusting over 110kmh, the anchor lost its hold.

The master was slow in getting the main engine ready for use and the ship came to just 1.8km from the shoal off Makorori Point, before it was powered up and sailed to Tokomaru Bay.

The MSA identified a number of failures in decision-making, but decided to take no enforcement action against the master or operator of the ship.

However, it did send a notice to all ports covering the issues involved, with a view to “working with industry stakeholders, harbourmasters and ports . . . to reduce the risk of similar occurrences in future”.

In the case of the Jody F Millennium stranding, protracted legal wrangling over responsibility and costs ensued in the following years, with a confidential settlement reached between the Gisborne District Council and the owners in early 2008.

Costs had earlier been estimated at around $15 million.

The Rena grounding on Tauranga’s Astrolabe Reef ended with the captain and his navigator being sent to jail.

The clean-up after the Rena  disaster cost New Zealand $47 million, of which the Rena owners repaid $27 million.

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