SIX VESSELS that deviated from planned paths and ran aground in as many years and under similar circumstances is being described as “Groundhog Day”, and likely due to a reluctance to embrace technology.
And earlier this month, a French cruise company and a ship’s master were fined $70,000 and $30,000 respectively for endangering human life and entering a prohibited zone following an incident in the remote New Zealand Subantarctic islands.
All of these incidents have been due to poor bridge resource management, the more fatal of which involved the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia when it ran aground and overturned in 2012 after striking an underwater rock off Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, killing 32 people.
Incidents closer to home and across the Tasman Sea involved the container ship Maersk Garonne, the bulk carrier Molly Manx, and the cruise ships L’Austral and the Azamara Quest.
While none of these latter incidents caused death or environmental harm, all of them were found by the country’s respective maritime authority to have ineffective bridge resource management.
This was exhibited on August 19, 2016 when the Molly Manx began navigating its way through a narrow Otago Harbour passage between the Halfway Islands.
With a tug vessel connected to the stern and one ahead waiting to assist, it deviated from the intended track and was briefly grounded on a sand bank. Under the vessel’s own power and aided by the stern-connected tug, it reversed off; the hull wasn’t breached and luckily no-one was injured.
But New Zealand Maritime Pilots Association President Steve Banks says the details of the ensuing Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report read much the same as the three other incidents in New Zealand waters that occurred in less than 12 months.
Cruise ship L’Austral ran aground in the subantarctic Snares Islands last January and then again, this time in the Milford Sound, four weeks later.
In these two cases, the ship deviated from intended paths on both occasions. Compagnie du Ponant, the French cruise line company that operates L’Austral, was approached for comment.
On October 2, in the Wellington District Court, the company and Captain Regis Daumesnil, a French citizen, were sentenced to charges following the 9 January 2017 grounding of the cruise ship L’Austral on an uncharted rock at the Snares Islands.
In a DOC press release following the sentencing, Southern South Island Operations Director, Aaron Fleming, said it was “pure good luck we did not have a potential environmental disaster” resulting from the incident.
Maritime New Zealand Southern Regional Compliance Manager, Mike Vredenburg, said this case could have ended in tragedy and is a graphic warning of why passage planning is mandatory in New Zealand and internationally.
The third incident occurred in the Tory Channel of the Marlborough Sounds when Azamara Quest was en route to Port Marlborough, carrying 652 passengers and 394 crew. On January 27, 2016 the Maltese-flagged Royal Caribbean cruise ship’s master discussed the passage plan with the harbour pilot, in particular the strong currents and the tight turn required on entry to the channel.
The TAIC report stated that due to a miscommunication, the passage inwards began with the master and pilot having different understandings of how the first turn would be conducted. As a result, “the turn was initiated late and the ship never achieved a sufficient rate of turn to avoid contacting Wheki Rock close to the northern shoreline. The ship struck the rock, causing minor damage to the hull and damage to one propeller”. Nobody was injured.
If this was one isolated incident, it wouldn’t have drawn as much attention, Mr Banks says. “But because we’re seeing the exact same things happening again and again, the Association and the industry are hugely concerned.
“[The incidents] all have similar issues or factors involved in them – it’s Groundhog Day, they’re almost identical when you compare one report with another.”
The TAIC highlighted key lessons following each of its four inquiries. Three of these lessons were similar in three incidents, while the fourth incident only had one lesson.
But each inquiry stressed the need for a “shared understanding between the vessel’s bridge team and the pilot as to the passage plan and monitoring against that plan”. More groundings are likely to continue, especially in New Zealand, if the piloting industry doesn’t undergo a cultural shift and thoroughly embrace technological developments, Mr Banks says.
“What concerns me as well is that the majority of these incidents occurred with older and more experienced pilots at the helm, so it does make us worry about our maritime culture which is centuries old and probably slow to change with technology.
“And what’s happening in New Zealand is also happening in Australia; it’s a concern not only to us but to the Australia Maritime Authority.” Mr Bank’s criticism of older pilots is not specifically aimed at individuals, but more of the system. Navigation should be ‘by all available means’, and using current technology is one of those means, he says.
Technology is only one piece of the puzzle, however. In a majority of incidents where miscommunication is an issue, so too is the ability to challenge errors regardless of rank, personality or nationality. If that culture isn’t encouraged, catastrophes can occur.
Had the Molly Manx not been re-floated, Mr Banks says there was the potential for it to break it in half, albeit an extreme outcome, and block the port.
Nevertheless, he describes all four incidents as accidents because they were unintentional and completely avoidable, but admits they aren’t a good look for the industry.
“We can do better than we are. I know some of my colleagues probably don’t like the criticisms we’re levelling at ourselves. But we can’t just assume that we can sit on our hands.
“So, we must begin to embrace technology more and stay abreast of it and good industry practices because we’re supposed to be the experts; we’re supposed to look after the interest of any ship that visits; the infrastructure of the port; the environment; that’s the role of a pilot.”
It’s not just the pilots’ responsibility to maintain professionalism and ensure cargo, whether it be human or otherwise, is delivered safely.
The TAIC identified a number of measures that Environment Southland, the regional authority in charge of regulating the area’s maritime activity, could take to better manage navigation risks within the Fiordland region and recommended it review its current risk assessment for the area.
In an emailed response, the council stated it is in the process of finalising the risk assessment report and is in discussion with TAIC and the pilotage providers about the draft recommendations.
“The first draft of the risk assessment was delivered to us later than expected, and because we’re still working on it we aren’t in a position to tell you more at this stage,” a council spokesperson says.
“Although the number of cruise ships visiting Southland has increased over the past years and is expected to further increase in future, the tourism pressure is managed through the Regional Coastal Plan for Southland which allows no more than two cruise ships to enter any waterway, passage, fiord, bay or inlet in any one day (Rule 13.1).”
However, the spokesperson says there is a cap on the number of consents provided to commercial tourism operators whose boats take tourists out into different parts of Fiordland, to preserve Fiordland’s natural character, landscape and amenity values, specifically remoteness and tranquillity values.
“Cruise ships aren’t subject to consents as such – they operate under a separate Deed of Agreement between the New Zealand Cruise Ship Industry and Environment Southland.
“We’re currently in the process of reviewing the Regional Coastal Plan, and in April 2017 councillors approved the start of a project to set the strategic direction for how the coast is managed.”
Acting Deputy Director Maritime Systems Assurance, Paul Fantham, of Maritime New Zealand said in an email that the national authority is confident that regional authorities have the right processes in place to mitigate navigational risks in their areas.
“Harbourmasters are empowered by Parliament through the Maritime Transport Act to direct the movement of ships in their ports. They are further supported by their councils’ navigational safety bylaws which apply to the particular requirements of the ports and coasts in their areas.
“The purpose of pilotage is to assure the safe movement of a vessel from sea to berth, and vice versa. This is achieved by enriching the vessel’s navigation capability by employing a pilot who enjoys local knowledge and manoeuvring experience.”