New Zealand fines ship’s captain for risky maneuver to avoid cyclone Ship’s crew

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

The captain pleaded guilty to altering course without further investigation and driving the ship dangerously close to the New Zealand island of Portland, endangering his crew, ship and the environment. The charges were filed by Maritime NZ.

Yongyu Li was the captain of the Panama-flagged bulk carrier Spinnaker SW as it sailed from an anchorage off the Mahia Peninsula on February 14, 2023 to seek shelter from the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle.

John Maxwell, Maritime NZ Investigations Manager, says the 175-metre vessel was en route to Tauranga to load cargo when Cyclone Gabrielle was heading for the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island and the country was under a national state of emergency.

“Due to the difficult conditions at sea, the captain decided to change route without further evaluation and steer the ship near Portland Island,” Maxwell said, describing the decision as “incredibly risky.”

“Navigating a large bulk carrier near the island meant it risked entering dangerously shallow waters and removed the safety net of deeper waters should something go wrong with the ship, such as a power outage,” he said. “If something had gone wrong, the conditions would also have impeded a possible response.”

The ship’s original plan was to circumnavigate Portland Island at a safe distance, but heavy weather prompted the captain to steer closer to the Mahia Peninsula and Portland Island.

“This route change took the ship near shallow water and passed two spots with depths of 9.4 and 10 meters,” Maxwell said. “This is very shallow for a bulk carrier of this size and would have left only a few meters of space between the ship and a possible grounding.”

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

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