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08 August 2012
Early on October 5 2011 the MV Rena - a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned, 235-metre container vessel - struck the Astrolabe Reef off the coast of Tauranga, a port on the North Island of New Zealand. The vessel was heading to Tauranga from another New Zealand port and was due to continue to an overseas port. It was carrying around 1,400 containers and an estimated 1,700 tonnes of fuel. Since the vessel grounded, it has broken in two: the stern section has almost completely sunk, while the bow section remains wedged on the reef. A total of 945 containers have been recovered to port and 1,300 tonnes of heavy oil was recovered. Over 1,041 tonnes of waste has collected along the northern coastline of the North Island as a result of the incident (for further details please see "Assessing the impact of the Rena disaster").
The master of the Rena at the time of collision, Mauro Balomaga, was charged under the Maritime Transport Act 1994 for "operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk" and under the Resource Management Act 1991 for "discharging a harmful substance from a ship". In addition, four charges were laid against him under the Crimes Act 1961 for willfully attempting to pervert the course of justice by altering ship's documents subsequent to the grounding. The vessel's second officer (navigation), Leonil Relon, faced almost identical charges, except that only three charges were laid against him under the Crimes Act for willfully attempting to pervert the course of justice by altering the ships documents.
On February 29 2012 the master and second officer pleaded guilty to all charges against them. On May 25 2012 the two men were each sentenced to seven months' imprisonment.
Maritime New Zealand, the national maritime safety authority, contended that the master and second officer had been responsible for the navigation of the ship, but had breached the basic principles of safe navigation. The master had given approval for the second officer to deviate from the planned route to Tauranga port to make good time. However, the alterations were not adequately recorded or verified. Dangers to navigation, such as reefs, safe passing distances and adjustments to navigational equipment, were neither identified nor highlighted. The final alteration to the course of the vessel put it directly on course to hit the Astrolabe Reef. No steps were taken to project the vessel's position forward or to estimate where the alteration would take the ship. The reef appeared as an echo on the radar 10 minutes before the grounding, when there was sufficient time to alter course and avoid it. The master saw the echo and assumed that it was a small vessel. After looking for such a vessel and not finding it, he dismissed it as a false echo. At 2:14 am the Rena ran aground on the reef.
Maritime New Zealand stated that, during the course of its investigation into the incident, both officers admitted to making alterations to the ship's global positioning system log, passage plan and computer following the grounding.
Maritime New Zealand has also charged the owner of the vessel, Daina Shipping Co, in relation to the grounding. Daina is a subsidiary of the Greek-based company, Costamere Inc.
Daina has been charged under the Resource Management Act for allegedly discharging harmful substances into water from a ship. If convicted, the company is liable of a fine of up to NZ$600,000, plus up to NZ$10,000 for every day that the offence continues. The prosecution of the charges was adjourned without plea until July 18 2012, but has been adjourned again by consent given the complexity of the case.
Maritime New Zealand has stated that no further charges will be laid in relation to the grounding. Therefore, it appears that the time charterer of the vessel at the time of the grounding, Mediterranean Shipping Company, will not be charged in relation to the incident. This is significant given a recent decision(1) in which the New Zealand High Court found that there is no impediment under the Resource Management Act to charging the charterer for the discharge of harmful substances from a vessel under charter, despite the charterer having neither possession nor control of the vessel under a time charter arrangement. It appears, on that basis, that it was open to Maritime New Zealand to charge Mediterranean Shipping Company as the time charterer of the Rena at the time of the grounding, but it has decided not to do so. Costamere appears to agree with this decision, having issued a press release on January 10 2012 thanking Mediterranean Shipping Company for its assistance and support. Costamere underlined that "MSC as Time Charterer is not a responsible party to this very unfortunate incident".
For further information on this topic please contact Chris Browne or Kerryn Webster at Wilson Harle by telephone (+64 9 915 5700), fax (+64 9 915 5701) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
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