Fisherman Admits to Leaving Wheelhouse Before Collision With Bulker

leila jo
The Leila Jo after the collision, with damage to her bow (Courtesy NZ TAIC)

Published Dec 22, 2021 8:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

A crewmember who was standing watch aboard the fishing vessel Leila Jo when it collided with a bulker off Lyttelton, New Zealand in early 2020 has pleaded guilty to charges that he left the wheelhouse unattended. 

On the night of January 12, 2020, the bulker Rose Harmony was outbound from Lyttelton, bound for the nearby port of Dunedin. Leila Jo was inbound, headed for her home port. It was a clear night, and both vessels detected each other well in advance.

Aboard Rose Harmony, the third officer spotted Leila Jo ahead and determined that the vessel posed a risk of collision. The third officer told the master - who was on the bridge, talking with a group of passengers connected to the charterer - that the fishing vessel was approaching in a meeting situation. The third officer repeated the warning, but the captain remained engaged in conversation and took no action until collision was inevitable. According to a post-accident report from New Zealand's Transport Accidents Investigation Commission (TAIC), the master was "almost certainly" distracted by the presence of the passengers on the bridge. 

Aboard the Leila Jo, a sole deckhand had the watch. Though he detected Rose Harmony on radar, he did not know how to plot the vessel's track and was not thoroughly familiar with COLREGS, according to TAIC's report.

In addition, as the vessels closed in on each other in the minutes before the collision, the bridge of the Leila Jo was empty. The deckhand - identified in court documents as fisherman Christopher Anderson, a longtime employee of the fishing vessel's operator - had gone belowdecks to wake the captain and get some food. The skipper arrived in the wheelhouse to find the bulker approaching at close range, but it was too late to avoid a collision. 

The Leila Jo sustained minor damage to her bow, and her captain suffered bruised ribs, but all parties survived the encounter and returned safely to port. 

In a court hearing in Christchurch this week, Anderson admitted to "causing unnecessary danger" by leaving the wheelhouse before the collision, according to the New Zealand Herald. He will be sentenced to a fine, with the amount to be determined at a follow-up hearing in March. 

Additional individuals connected to the case have also been charged and will begin court hearings in February. Their names have not been released.