Over-reliance on GPS results in successful prosecution

7 August 2008

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) says the conviction of two Auckland boaties following a collision with a lit beacon sends a strong message about the dangers of over-relying on GPS and failing to keep a proper lookout.

The charges were brought by MNZ following an incident on February 17, 2007 when Fletcher’s 13.8-metre cabin cruiser Chardonnay collided with Illiomana beacon in Auckland Harbour. Fletcher, Thomas and several others had been out on the harbour watching the departure of the cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II. It was a dark night, but despite this, Fletcher, who was at the helm, was not using radar to assist his lookout.

Some time after 11pm, Fletcher passed the helm to Thomas while he went below, without giving him any instructions regarding the vessel’s position or course. Shortly afterwards, the Chardonnay, travelling at considerable speed, hit the beacon, whose light had a range of five nautical miles (9km). All those on board were rescued by the nearby launch Lady Argyle, but Fletcher suffered serious injuries requiring hospital treatment. The Chardonnay suffered major damage and was a total loss.

Both men subsequently said they thought they had already passed the beacon, and acknowledged their vision was impaired by the dark conditions and the lights from the many other vessels in the area.

Judge Paul ruled Fletcher was significantly more culpable than Thomas in operating the vessel with what he knew to be an unreliable GPS system, no radar and no paper chart, and also in not advising Thomas of this when he handed over control of the Chardonnay. He noted the handover procedure was poor and there were issues with the lookout procedure.  The judge also accepted Thomas failed to slow down and fix his position before proceeding.

MNZ manager recreational boating Jim Lott says the case is a clear example of the need for skippers to maintain a vigilant lookout at all times, including using radar at night.

“Even in familiar waters, charts are needed to remind skippers of where dangers exist. GPS is a very useful aid to navigation but this serious accident reminds us all that it is not safe to rely solely on GPS.”

It also highlighted the need for good communication when handing over control of the vessel.

“The decision to hand over the helm without telling the helmsman the vessel’s course and position in this case could have resulted in a fatality,” Mr Lott says.

“There were a number of other vessels on the harbour that night, and if the Chardonnay had collided with one of them the consequences could have been far worse. It is essential to slow down to a safe speed in harbours where visibility is affected by background lights on shore.”

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