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Rules of the Road: NZ changes yacht safety rules in wake of fatal sailing mishap

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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake Desvergers

The New Zealand Maritime Safety Authority, commonly known as Maritime NZ, recently announced major changes to safety rules for domestic and international recreational vessels leaving New Zealand ports for overseas.

The revisions stem from recommendations in a detailed, 60-page accident investigation report involving two crew fatalities on S/Y Platino in June 2016.  It outlines how the yacht went from sailing comfortably to being significantly damaged and effectively out of control in just seconds.

Platino was a 19.78m sailing yacht launched in 1998 and refitted in 2015.  It was certified to a Category 1 standard by Yachting NZ in May, 2016. Yachting NZ is an association delegated by Maritime NZ to provide specialized inspections on recreational vessels.

Platino sailed from Auckland bound for Fiji on June 11, 2016, with five crew on board. The accident happened on the morning of June 13.  The yacht was about 305nm (565 km) north-northeast of Cape Reinga, the northwestern-most tip of New Zealand. She was sailing in high winds with gale conditions and a confused sea.

At the time of the incident, Platino was sailing on course, but turned unexpectedly and dramatically to starboard. The investigators concluded that the sudden turn was likely caused by a combination of weather and sea conditions, plus a malfunction of the autopilot. This unintentional turn set off a series of events that allowed the boom to swing uncontrollably across the yacht. One crew member was struck by the boom and fatally injured. A second crew member was thrown overboard and lost. Serious damage to the main deck caused a catastrophic failure. The entire mast, boom and rigging were lost.

Sadly, the three surviving crew saw their overboard crewmate in the water, but were unable to help him because of the chaotic, dangerous situation on deck and a total lack of control over the yacht. Having lost the mast, the yacht was essentially dead at sea. The surviving crew were eventually rescued by a passing container ship a day later.

The director of Maritime NZ, Keith Manch, stated in a press release that work is underway with Yachting NZ to change the National Safety Regulations of Sailing. This compilation of regulations is used for safety inspections of all recreational vessels, sailing or powered. Maritime NZ requires foreign-bound  yachts to be certified by qualified Yachting NZ inspectors before they are permitted to leave New Zealand. Vessels departing the island on long ocean voyages must obtain a Category 1 safety certificate.

The revised regulations will focus on a range of new requirements, to include vessel equipment, training manuals and crew qualifications. Familiarization, emergency preparedness and captain’s competency will be stressed.
In this case, Maritime NZ is using the information from the investigation to improve safety and have decided against any enforcement action. As such, Maritime NZ made a listing of 28 recommendations under seven headings:

  • Certification of pleasure craft departing on international ocean voyages.
  • Autopilot failure.
  • Preventer failure (a preventer is a device used on a sailing vessel to help control swinging of a boom).
  • Mainsheet traveler failure (a mainsheet traveler is used to keep the boom in position).
  • Person overboard.
  • Emergency communication.
  • Command and control.

The investigation found that a number of factors combined to cause the accident and the severity of its outcome. Many of the comments in the accident report focused on crew. While all of the crew were experienced sailors with thousands of sea miles, they had not trained together for emergencies, and none had trained on board this particular yacht. They were not sufficiently familiar with the yacht’s equipment, what was available to them, or its proper use, the report concluded.

The accident may not have been preventable, but with more robust crew familiarization, the severity of the situation may have been reduced. It is with this mindset that Maritime NZ appears to be moving forward with yachting rules focused on the human element.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome below.

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