Ferry has its day in court: New Zealand sailboat skipper fined

Classique without a ferry in the way
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Sail does NOT have right of way over power in all cases, and New Zealand authorities this week showed how seriously they take it.

In the Auckland District Court yesterday (August 29), Melville John Bolton, 73, of Mt Roskill, was convicted and fined $4000 and ordered to pay court costs $1,356, after being convicted on 13 January this year of one charge of 'operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk' under S65 of the Maritime Transport Act (MTA) 1994.

The conviction followed an Marine New Zealand (MNZ) investigation into an incident on the Hauraki Gulf on 14 March 2009, in which the Waiheke to Auckland ferry Seaway II had to take emergency evasive action to avoid a collision with the yacht Classique, skippered by Mr Bolton.

Despite the master of the Seaway II attempting to warn Mr Bolton with repeated blasts on the ship’s whistle that the Classique would cut dangerously close across his path, the warnings were ignored. Alarmed that a collision was imminent, the master of the Seaway II was forced to slow rapidly and put the vessel into reverse, allowing the yacht to pass close across his bow and down the starboard (right) side of the vessel.

Despite being a vastly experienced skipper, when questioned by MNZ, Mr Bolton admitted he had deliberately ignored the maritime collision prevention rules, which are designed to stop dangerous ‘close quarter’ situations from developing, as he had assumed the ferry would alter its course to port. He argued at the hearing that a customary body of law existed that enabled him to use his own experience and judgment of the situation to assess the risk of collision – despite the existence of the Maritime Rules.

The District Court Judge rejected that argument.

MNZ Manager of Maritime Investigations, Steve van der Splinter, said the incident illustrated the dangers of skippers ignoring internationally recognised safety rules, and automatically assuming that other skippers would take the right course of action when confronted with a potentially dangerous collision situation.

'This would be a bit like turning your car across the path of an oncoming truck and then expecting the truck driver to take the correct action to avoid you. This is clearly reckless and foolish in the extreme, and it’s only down to the quick thinking and skill of the master of the Seaway II that this incident did not result in far more serious consequences.

'No matter how skilled or experienced a skipper you may be, the collision prevention rules are there for a good reason – to prevent these situations from happening in the first place – and no-one is above the rules,' Mr van der Splinter said.

Breaches by individuals of S65 of the MTA on conviction carry penalties of a fine not exceeding $10,000 or a term of imprisonment not exceeding one year.

Mr van der Splinter said the large fine imposed reflected the seriousness of the offending. Maritime New Zealand's Ross Henderson also says the conviction reflects the seriousness of the incident.

Mr Henderson says the conviction took two years after interventions from Mr Bolton's legal team.