A cargo vessel’s captain, Captain Yongyu Li, has reportedly admitted that he put the ship and the people on board at risk. When Cyclone Gabrielle hit, he steered into the shallower waters off Hawke’s Bay when the ship was headed to the Port of Tauranga.
Li appeared on Monday in the Tauranga District Court via an audio-visual link from China. He pleaded guilty to operating a ship on 14 February in a manner that caused unnecessary dangers or risks.
The charge under Section 65 of the Maritime Transport Act 1994 has a maximum sentence of 12 months in prison or a $10,000 fine.
Per the Maritime New Zealand summary of facts derived by the Bay of Plenty Times, Li has served as a ship captain for about two years and was employed as a first mate for 10 years before that.
On 14 February, he was captaining the 19.8-tonne cargo vessel named Spinnaker SW, which flies the flag of Panama, from Mahia up to the Port of Tauranga.
The weather on that day was rough as Cyclone Gabrielle was hitting New Zealand.
Before setting sail from Mahia, Li chalked out a voyage plan to sail around Portland Island.
His firm’s safety management system defined heavy weather to have wind speeds on the Beaufort scale of force seven or higher and significant waves of four meters or higher.
The ship’s maximum draft – the minimum depth of water it could navigate safely – was about 8.8m.
The employer’s policy was that the under-keel clearance shouldn’t go lower than 10% of the ship’s max draft in confined waters and when approaching a port. While in open waters, the minimum was 20%.
Li was on the vessel’s bridge between 11.30 am and 12.30 pm when the vessel was nearing the Portland Island.
The force of the wind was at level seven, and the 6-7m swell made the vessel roll. He chose to steer closer to land to slow the rolling motion but didn’t do any formal appraisal of deviation from the initial voyage strategy.
The vessel then entered the water that was about 11.3m deep, almost 2.28 km from the island.
Two spots were about 9m and 10m deep on the port side.
At about 2.03 km from the island and approximately 666m from a 9.4m shallow spot, Li decided to turn the vessel 120 degrees, putting the Spinnaker SW at about 748m from the 10m-deep shallows and approximately 2.38km from the island.
Maritime New Zealand mentioned that by choosing this action, Li ended up risking the ship hitting the ocean floor.
The vessel became exposed to the sea and its swell motions, with inadequate draft and under-keel clearance, and came within almost 800m of the shoal ground. The result was that the vessel and those on board were exposed to unnecessary danger/risk, per the summary.
Li confessed to an investigator associated with Maritime New Zealand that he decided to take the ship into shallow waters since the wind was way “too str,ong” and he wanted to avoid the vessel rolling from left to right and shaking.
He admitted to not calculating the risk before heading toward land but instead relying on experience and observation. He said he knew he was breaching his employer’s policy.
Asked why he had decided to take the vessel out despite the bad weather, he said he wished to unload the ship in Tauranga.
Li informed the investigator that he would never offend in this way ever again.
The summary did not mention how many individuals were on the vessel.
In court, Li was aided by a China-based interpreter who translated court proceedings for him and also confirmed Li’s guilty plea to the charge.
His lawyer, Tom Lynskey and Maritime New Zealand lawyers, Suzanne Trounson and Frances Rhodes, agreed that sentencing needs to take place in the Wellington District Court on 19 July to allow them a chance to appear physically.
Melinda Mason, the judge, convicted Li and remanded him to appear for his sentencing by an audio-visual link on the given date.
References: Bay Of Plenty Times, RNZ