28 May 2024

Enchanter trial ends, but verdict could take months

10:00 pm on 28 May 2024
Enchanter skipper, Lance Goodhew, on trial in Whangārei on 6 May, 2024.

Enchanter skipper, Lance Goodhew, on trial in Whangārei on 6 May, 2024. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

A three-week-long trial sparked by a maritime tragedy that claimed five lives near North Cape has wrapped up in Whangārei - but it could be months before the verdict is known.

On 20 March, 2022 the Mangōnui-based fishing charter boat Enchanter was returning from a five-day fishing trip to the Three Kings Islands when it was hit by a wave estimated to be 10 metres high.

The monster wave capsized the boat, tore off the cabin, and threw all eight passengers and two crew into the sea off Murimotu Island, near the country's northernmost point.

The two crew members and three passengers survived, but five passengers - a group of friends from the Waikato who'd signed up for the fishing trip of a lifetime - died.

The men who died were Geoffrey Allen, 72, Michael Lovett, 72, Richard Bright, 63, and Mark Walker, 41, all from Cambridge, and Mark Sanders, 43, from Te Awamutu.

Following a lengthy investigation, the boat's skipper and owner, Lance Goodhew, was charged by Maritime New Zealand with breaching his duties as a worker on the vessel, thereby putting people at risk of serious injury or death.

That trial, described by Judge Philip Rzepecky as intense and filled with harrowing evidence, ended today.

"Behind it is a terrible tragedy … I acknowledge those that lost their lives, the grief and effect that's had on their families, and also the trauma that the survivors, including Mr Goodhew, have had to endure. We saw some of that brought to life in this court," Judge Rzepecky said.

Prosecutor Sam McMullan initially based his case on Goodhew's decision to leave the Three Kings Islands about 1.30pm on 20 March, 2022 as well as the path he took around North Cape, which McMullan said was too close to shore and beam-on to the waves in fading light.

Maritime New Zealand prosecutor Sam McMullan.

Maritime New Zealand prosecutor Sam McMullan. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

However, based on some of the evidence of preceding days, in his summing-up he focussed solely on the skipper's choice to leave the relative shelter of the islands.

"Maritime New Zealand's case is that Mr Goodhew should never have left the Three Kings. The vessel and its passengers were safe there. There was no good reason to depart, and given the available forecast, leaving meant exposing those on board to more danger - and so it came to pass, a 10-metre wave capsized the Enchanter, and the forecast had predicted waves of that magnitude up until late evening."

McMullan said Goodhew also failed to reconcile conflicting weather forecasts offered by the two services he used, MetService and PredictWind, effectively choosing the more optimistic of the two outlooks.

McMullan conceded that Goodhew could not have predicted the rogue wave that capsized the vessel - rogue waves were, by definition, unpredictable - but the risk of large waves was "reasonably foreseeable" given the MetService forecast of 40-knot winds and swells of 4-6 metres.

Defence lawyer Fletcher Pilditch, however, said the wave that destroyed the Enchanter was "utterly remarkable and unpredictable".

He described the prosecution case as "a misguided attempt to shoot home criminal liability for something neither he nor any reasonable mariner in his situation would have the ability to control".

Pilditch said when it came to the sea there was much that could never be known or predicted - and that was especially true of rogue waves, of which little was understood.

"Clearly no one can control and influence the sea. It is unpredictable and we are guests there … No matter what the developments, no matter the technology, no matter what stage we as human beings have reached in our interaction with the ocean, there is an element which is unpredictable and an element that simply cannot be tamed."

Defence counsel Fletcher Pilditch KC.

Defence counsel Fletcher Pilditch KC. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

Pilditch said conditions just before the tragedy were relatively benign with the passengers able to take showers and walk around the boat.

He said the passengers described the rogue wave as a "vertical wall of water" and its impact like "a hand grenade going off".

Deckhand Kobe O'Neill and surviving passengers Shay Ward, Ben Stinson and Jayde Cook gave harrowing accounts of the wave and its aftermath in the first three days of the trial.

The rest of the trial was dominated by technical evidence from marine and weather experts.

Judge Rzepecky reserved his decision in the judge-alone trial until 11.45am on 22 July, saying he had a great deal of evidence to consider.

It was possible, however, his verdict could be delivered sooner.

The maximum penalty for the charge laid by Maritime New Zealand is a fine of $150,000.

More than 15 people, including Goodhew, his partner and family members, filled the public gallery to listen to today's closing addresses.

The Three King Islands are a famed fishing destination about 60km northwest of Cape Rēinga.

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