Bulker Captain Pleads Guilty to Dangerous Navigation During Cyclone

captain guilty of sailing to close to shore in cyclone
Spinnaker SW was sailed dangerously close to the shore according to Maritime New Zealand (Namura Shipbuilding Co. file photo)

Published May 2, 2023 4:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

New Zealand’s maritime authority is prosecuting the captain of a Panama-registered bulker for operating his vessel in an unsafe manner “placing the vessel and the people on board in unnecessary danger or risk.” The captain has agreed to plead guilty to the charges and is facing up to 12 months in prison or a fine of N$10,000 (US$6,200) when he is sentenced in July.

The case stems from the operation of the Spinnaker SW, a 31,657 dwt dry bulk carrier. The Equasis database lists the owners of the vessel as a Taiwanese corporation and the management as Shih Wei Navigation Co., also of Taiwan which manages over 30 vessels. The bulker is 11 years old with a clean inspection record according to Equasis, including inspections days before the storm in Port Chalmers, New Zealand, and after the storm in Tauranga.

As first reported by the Bay of Plenty Times news outlet in New Zealand, the ship went to sea during the recent Cyclone Gabrielle, a severe tropical cyclone that devastated the North Island with its impact being felt as far away as Australia and Vanuatu. The storm is reported to have been the costliest on record in the Southern Hemisphere, with total damages estimated at more than US$8 billion. At its peak winds were sustained at over 90 mph and the storm killed 11 people in New Zealand.

The Spinnaker SW put to sea on February 14, 2023, after the peak of the storm from Mahia on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island intending to sail north along the coast to the Port of Tauranga. According to the summary of the case seen by the news outlet, the vessel was encountering winds at Force 7 (near gale on the Beaufort Wind Scale sustained above 30 mph) and seas above 20 feet. The shipping company defined anything above Force 7 or seas at or above 13 feet as heavy weather.

Captain Yongyu Li told the District Court that his voyage plan had been to go around Portland Island as he came out of Hawke Bay and turned north on his course in the South Pacific. The ship was operating with a draft of 8.8 meters and the shipping company’s policy required at least a 10 percent clearance in confined waters and 20 percent in open waters.

Experiencing a heavy swell, the captain decided to steer closer to land to reduce some of the rolling motion according to the summary. The news outlet reports “he admitted he did not calculate the risk before heading towards land, but instead had relied on ‘his experience and observations.’ He said he knew he was breaching his employer’s policy.”

Maritime New Zealand’s analysis of the vessel’s track shows that at one point he steered the vessel less than 700 meters (2,000 feet) from a shallow spot of 9.4 meters. The captain then turned the vessel 120 degrees. That brought the vessel less than a half mile from a 10-meter shallow and placed the ship just over one nautical mile from shore. Maritime New Zealand said by taking this course the captain risked hitting the ocean floor on multiple occasions.

Captain Li had been in command of the bulker for two years. Previously, he had served as first mate for 10 years. The captain told investigators that he would not operate his ship in this manner in the future but he has also pleaded guilty to the charges brought by Maritime New Zealand. Sentencing has been set for July 19 to enable the captain to appear in person. The hearing was conducted via an audio-video link.