Bulker Captain Pleads Guilty to Charges of "Dangerous" Navigation


Published Jul 24, 2023 5:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

The decision by a bulker captain to plead guilty to charges of operating a ship in a manner that caused unnecessary danger has seen him escape jail time. Yongyu Li, the captain of bulker Spinnaker SW, was slapped with a N$1,875 (US$1,182) fine by the Wellington District Court in a case in which he was facing charges of “reckless and risky” maneuvering in extreme weather. The fine included a discount of 25 percent for his early guilty plea.

Maritime New Zealand prosecuted Li for deviating from a passage plan when the 30,000 dwt dry bulk carrier Spinnaker SW encountered Cyclone Gabrielle back in February. The agency asserted that the decision was termed reckless and posed extreme danger to the vessel, the crew and the surrounding environment had something gone wrong. Li pleaded guilty to the charge in May.

Maritime NZ Investigations Manager John Maxwell said the bulker’s captain operated the ship in a manner that caused unnecessary danger or risk when he decided to alter course, navigating the large ship dangerously close to Portland Island.

Maxwell asserts that while New Zealand was in a state of emergency due to the cyclone, Li made an extreme error of judgement whose impacts would have been catastrophic had something gone wrong. 

During the storm, Spinnaker SW was anchored off the Mahia Peninsula for shelter. On February 14, 2023, the vessel departed en route to Tauranga.  After its departure from anchor, the vessel was recorded as encountering six to seven meter swells. The heavy weather causing the ship to roll, prompting the captain to make the decision to navigate closer to the Mahia Peninsula and Portland Island. 

According to Maxwell, this was a risky decision. Navigating a large bulk carrier close to the island exposed the vessel to the risk of getting into dangerously shallow waters, thus removing the safety net of deeper water should something have gone wrong with the vessel, such as a loss of power.

The investigator explained that the original passage plan for the vessel would have seen it transit around Portland Island at a safe distance, allowing for the significant swells and heavy weather anticipated by the crew.

The Wellington District Court convicted Li for operating the ship in a manner that caused unnecessary danger or risk under section 65 of the New Zealand Maritime Transport Act 1994. Captain Li had been in command of the bulker for two years. Previously, he had served as first mate for 10 years.