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New Zealand Fines Ship Captain Over Risky Maneuver to Avoid Cyclone

The captain of a bulk carrier has been fined over $1,000 for navigating his ship in a risky manner while avoiding a cyclone earlier this year in New Zealand. 

The captain pleaded guilty to altering course without further assessment and navigating the ship dangerously close to New Zealand’s Portland Island, putting his crew, vessel, and environment at risk. The charge was filed by Maritime NZ.

Yongyu Li was the Captain of the Panama-flagged bulk carrier Spinnaker SW when it departed from an anchorage off the Mahia Peninsula to shelter from the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle back on February 14, 2023.

Maritime NZ Investigations Manager John Maxwell says the 175 meter vessel was en route to Tauranga to load cargo as Cyclone Gabrielle was bearing down on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island and the country was in a national state of emergency.

“Due to the heavy conditions at sea, the Captain decided to change the route without further assessment, navigating the vessel close to Portland Island,” said Maxwell, describing the decision “incredibly risky.”

“Navigating a large bulk carrier close to the island 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,” he said. “If something went wrong, the conditions would have hampered a potential response as well.”

The vessel’s original passage plan was to go around Portland Island at a safe distance, but the heavy weather caused the captain to navigate closer to the Mahia Peninsula and Portland Island.

“This change in route took the vessel close to shallow water, passing two spots with depths of 9.4 and 10 meters,” said Maxwell. “This is very shallow for a bulk carrier of this size, and would have only left it with a couple of meters of clearance between the vessel and a potential grounding.”

Captain Li was charged under s 65 of the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and fined NZ $1,875 for operating a ship recklessly and risking danger to the vessel, crew, and environment by deviating from the safe passage plan and navigating through heavy weather. The sentence included a discount of 25 percent for his early guilty plea.

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