Cruise Company and Master Fined After L’Austral Grounding
The French cruise company Compagnie du Ponant and ship’s master have been fined NZ$70,000 ($45,500) and NZ$30,000 ($19,500) respectively in New Zealand's Wellington District Court after L'Austral grounded in January 2017.
The fines for the company and Captain Regis Daumesnil were for endangering human life and entering a prohibited zone when L’Austral grounded on an uncharted rock at the Snares Islands.
Both Maritime NZ and the Department of Conservation (DOC) brought charges against Daumesnil, with DOC also prosecuting the company based on the argument that L’Austral had inadequate passage plans and failed to monitor the ship’s position near hazards to navigation. Daumesnil had an inadequate plan for sailing around North East Island, no plan at all for drifting close to shore while recovering boats, did not identify areas of danger and did not monitor that the ship remained in safe water.
As a result of the grounding the vessel’s hull was punctured in three places. Rather than return to Bluff, the nearest port, Daumesnil made the decision to continue on the cruise schedule. There were 356 passengers and crew onboard.
DOC Southern South Island Operations Director, Aaron Fleming, says it was “pure good luck we did not have a potential environmental disaster” resulting from the incident. “The Snares Islands are one of the jewels of our conservation estate and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. DOC expects all visitors to respect and comply with the regulations which are in place to protect and preserve this pristine environment. They are a unique, unspoiled, but extremely sensitive site that is free of pollution and introduced pests and predators. More than five million birds, as well as sea lions, and whales breed there.”
In arriving at the final sentences, the Court took account of the defendants’ guilty pleas and other personal mitigation factors – for Ponant this included its previous safety record and good character and for Daumesnil the professional consequences that have resulted from the incident.
Summary of the incident
L’Austral had arrived at the Snares Islands on January 9 2017. That morning passengers were unloaded into small inflatable boats for permitted excursions off the east coast of North-East Island.
At 12.45pm the passengers came back onboard and L’Austral then sailed to South Bay to decide if more excursions could be made that afternoon.
On reaching South Bay it was decided no further passenger excursions would take place due to deteriorating weather.
Recovery of the inflatable boats began, and Daumesnil allowed the vessel to drift under manual control, entering the exclusion zone, coming at its closest to 162 meters from the shore.
At about 3.08pm the stern of L’Austral grounded on an uncharted rock 220 meters from shore. Review of the vessel’s paper chart, electronic chart display and GPS positions show that at the time of the grounding the vessel was being navigated without following any passage plan.
Immediately after the grounding alarms sounded, indicating water had entered the hull. Daumesnil directed the area that had been holed to be isolated and checks made around it.
It was confirmed no water had entered the oil sludge tank, fuel tanks, engine room or other spaces around the part of the hull that had been damaged.
Daumesnil then decided to sail 154 nautical miles further south to Enderby Island to continue the cruise as scheduled. He reported the incident to French, but not New Zealand, authorities.
The nearest port to the Snares Islands is Bluff, 120 nautical miles north, which itself is a considerable distance over ocean should a search and rescue operation have been needed.
L’Austral continued its cruise and returned to Bluff on January 12. Divers were contracted to inspect the damage, and temporary repairs were carried out.
On January 13, Maritime NZ Maritime Officers carried out a regular Port State Control inspection of the ship. They became aware of the grounding, an investigation began, and when it was discovered L’Austral had also entered an environmental exclusion zone DOC was advised and joined the investigation.