29 Aug 2016

Urgent call for better ship pilot training

3:11 pm on 29 August 2016

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) wants ship pilots' training improved urgently after a cruise ship hit a rock in the Marlborough Sounds.

The 'Azamara Quest' carries about 700 guests in butler-serviced staterooms, plus about 400 crew.

The 'Azamara Quest' carries about 700 guests in butler-serviced staterooms, plus about 400 crew. Photo: Azamara Club Cruises.

The commission has been investigating how the Azamara Quest hit Wheki Rock in Tory Channel in January with 1100 people on board, on its first voyage to Picton.

It wants the Marlborough District Council and Port Marlborough to review their harbour risk assessment.

Cruise ships, whose crews could be unfamiliar with the narrow, winding Tory Channel, posed additional risks in the Marlborough Sounds, it said.

It is the job of the port's pilots to go 3.5 nautical miles out to sea and take control of the cruise ships for the difficult process of manoeuvring through the narrow channel.

The TAIC said that was a short amount of time to familiarise themselves with captain and crew, as well as the equipment, characteristics and navigation of the ships, and that distance should be reviewed.

The commission also questioned the safety of the port's decision to allow the use of a small pilot boat - the same vessel used by the pilots to reach the cruise ships - for practice navigating the channel, saying a larger vessel should be used.

Marlborough Harbour Master Alex van Wijngaarden said changes were made immediately after the incident and more criteria would be in place for this summer's cruise ship season.

"There are no cruise ship transits permitted through Tory Channel," he said.

"We will be working with both the pilots' provider, which is Port Marlborough, and the pilots' authority, which is Maritime New Zealand, to establish criteria which would perhaps see the resumption of cruise ship transits through the channel."

Captain van Wijngaarden said cruise ships could re-enter the Tory Channel in October if there were sufficient precautions in place.

"Until then, larger cruise ships may enter Queen Charlotte Sound only by way of the Northern Entrance rather than the narrower Tory Channel entrance used by regular passenger and freight ferries, but subject to strong currents.

"Tory Channel, particularly near the heads, can be a very challenging stretch of water where conditions can change quickly."

The Marlborough District Council conceded the training of ship pilots needed improving, with a spokesperson saying it supported the commission's recommendations and was tightening its rules.

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