Maritime NZ Taken to Task

This is the editorial in the latest edition of Professional Skipper


The recent decision by the Manager of Investigations Harry Hawthorn on behalf of Maritime NZ to not prosecute the master involved in a serious harm collision sends a very confusing message to the maritime and leisure marine industry in New Zealand.

The incident occurred during Auckland’s Anniversary Day regatta involving the yacht GYPSY, who had  just started in the carded classic yachts event off Princes Wharf when it was T-boned and sunk by the vessel ANTAEUS under power. Conditions on the day were light airs in which the yachts including the 10.26 metre GYPSY were only just wisping along with minimal steerage and definitely no power with which to get out of the way of their own shadow, had they even tried never mind a bloody great 18 metre yacht motoring with clear sticks at what some onlookers suggest near on 10 knots.

The devastating result was the loss of a 1939 Logan designed classic and the near loss of crew person Jill Hetherington who suffered a fractured pelvis and serious head injuries that may have resulted in death had it not been for the quick actions of the GYPSY skipper John Pryor, who rolled Jill over into the rescue position while supporting her limp form in the water.

The decision to not investigate was made by a Maritime NZ duty investigator confirmed by the senior investigator in charge, as not being serious enough to warrant an investigation.

This decision was later contested by the commercial industry which identified some huge discrepancies in Maritime NZ standards. Had this involved a commercial vessel irrespective of the serious harm nature of the event, you can bet Maritime NZ investigators would have been over the commercial skipper like a rash.

Not so… but the decision by Maritime NZ to belatedly open an investigation was seen to be fair and reasonable. Meanwhile the Harbourmaster took the easy way out and issued a $200 infringement to the skipper of the ANTAEUS, Mr Charles St Clair Brown, for breach of the local Harbourmasters bylaws. This then raised the question of potential double jeopardy to which our lawyers suggest, No! Our lawyers liken it to when you might get a speeding ticket for driving the getaway car at speed under the road transport laws and you can then be charged for a serious offence under the Crimes Act.

In the letter sent to the skipper of the GYPSY, Maritime NZ advised that they did not propose to seek any additional enforcement action. They admonished him for not taking action to avoid a collision in accordance to Rule 22…. Hello

What part of wisping along trying to maintain steerage versus a vessel under power at enough speed to cut a yacht damn near in half: power gives way to sail, don’t they understand?

Needless to say John’s reaction was one of astonishment, while the still recovering Jill was in disbelief, confused and asking how can this be. ”This is just incredulous”, she said.

Meanwhile waterfront scuttlebutt is less than kind suggesting that Charles St Clair Brown has his fingers in high places. I for one would not like to argue that such influence could be true, even when the evidence is starting to suggest otherwise. With numerous recent examples of incidents resulting in prosecutions, had Maritime NZ placed this case before the courts to decide, the maritime industry and New Zealand would have at least seen due process in action and maintained a professional respect for the regulator.

I respect the General Manager of Investigations Harry Hawthorn, when he took time out of his busy schedule to discuss changes in policy affecting his decision on this case. Harry advised that based on the interviews with the two operators involved and an eyewitness he had decided not to prosecute. When questioned on the decision, the result of which sends a clear message condoning bad behaviour on the water, Harry said no. “No, we are saying from our investigation, there is nothing to suggest that either operator was deliberately trying not to comply with the rules”.

”What about operating a vessel at speed in a busy waterway with undue care and attention and failing hr maintain a proper lookout resulting in a near fatal collision”, I asked. “We have no evidence that this was the case” he said.

The decision was based on their new compliance approach of information, education and assistance to comply with enforcement. “It is a whole new approach to Maritime NZ’s compliance strategy and enforcement” he advised and was somewhat astounded that we did not know anything about this. Well bugger me days, I know I can be a bit cloth eared at times but this was all new to me and to most of the maritime industry might I suggest.

Sadly, it would appear that Maritime NZ has lost the plot or maybe it’s the result of losing most of its maritime institutional knowledge with only one person in investigations having a scant background in fishing. The end result clearly exposes a level of public incompetence never before seen in this organisation. Who are these people to come up with new compliance strategies or change the rules of investigations without consulting the maritime industry which it impacts upon most?

Have they stepped outside of their charter? Maybe the time has come when as the regulator it is time to hand over its role of accident investigations to an external agency, or given that most of the current crop of investigators including Harry are ex-police, then should it be the New Zealand Police who are tasked with this responsibility? At least the maritime industry would know where it stands.

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