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One Too Many
Posted: Friday, November 24, 2017 7:46 PM
Joined: 19/08/2014
Posts: 67

The explorer yacht had been at sea for more than a week and was making its regular crossing from Australia to New Zealand at the season’s end. For several years M/Y Libation and her regular crew had embarked on an extensive summer cruise for the owner and her husband, taking in the remotest parts of the southern hemisphere before flying the last leg back to their native New Zealand while the crew delivered the yacht back to her home port. The disadvantage for the crew was a long spell without any time off, but as usual, they were about to be granted a long spell of leave to make up for it.
Holding to tradition, as Libation entered the shelter of Auckland’s large bay and was in sight of the main yacht harbor, the chief stewardess opened ice-cold beers for the crew. Taking the first sip, the captain and crew were looking forward to a few more once tied up alongside.

The harbormaster’s launch welcomed them back into the harbor with a friendly smile and escorted the yacht to its berth. With the fenders in place and lines being made ready, the captain placed his second empty beer bottle aside and started to maneuver the 100-meter yacht into its tight berth. As he did so, he made eye contact with the harbormaster, who looked surprised to see him with what was clearly alcohol at the helm.

Sandra Ford of Maritime New Zealand explains that the rules for New Zealand on alcohol limits for professional seafarers are those dictated by the international STCW Convention and are strictly applied. “The limit is not greater than 0.05 percent blood alcohol level, or 0.25 mg/l alcohol in the breath,” she says. Equating to less than half a bottle of ordinary strength beer, the captain and his crew, after drinking two bottles and despite not feeling it, were well over the legal limit.
Preoccupied by what was going on alongside the yacht, and communicating with his crew by radio to query why one of the mooring lines wasn’t ready, the captain failed to notice a tour group of kayakers paddling past the vessel’s other side. Confirming the bowline wasn’t in place and annoyed with the junior deckhand, the captain moved the yacht back out into the channel using the bow and stern thrusters simultaneously. In a tight space, the water was stirred up as the yacht sidestepped into the channel.
In full view of the harbormaster, the yacht overtook a kayaker straggling behind the rest of the group. The stirred up water tipped him over into the water and dangerously close to the stern thruster still in operation.

The Queensland government stresses the multifaceted dangers of drinking while being in command of a yacht. “Alcohol and drugs affect your judgment, vision, coordination, and reflexes, increasing your risk of having a marine incident. Furthermore, sun, heat, wind, waves, and constant motion can increase these effects of alcohol and drugs. Reflexes and response times in emergencies are slowed, and swimming ability [is greatly] reduced. The master of all other classes of domestic commercial vessels (Class 2, 3, and 4) must have a blood-alcohol limit of less than 0.05 percent. The master of a Class 1 commercial vessel must have a blood alcohol limit of zero.” While many believe the rules apply only while yachts are at sea, the reality is that they actually apply not only at anchor, but also when the yacht is moored alongside.
M/Y Libation managed to get back into the dock and, after establishing that the kayaker had not been injured, the crew apologized and waved him on his way. The harbormaster, however, was not so impressed, and the incident had called attention to the bottles left out on a yacht that clearly had only professional crew on board. Within 10 minutes, the police were on board and at the bridge, closely followed by the harbormaster, who demanded the captain take a breathalyzer test.
The Shipowners’ Club, which deals with vessel insurance worldwide, has published numerous reports on the issues of alcohol and drugs in a professional seafaring context, in particular, the unique nature of work, the pressures it involves, and the outlet that drink and drugs provide.

“The pattern of life at sea for many seafarers involves periods cut off from the diversions and entertainments enjoyed by those ashore. Periods of isolation and tedium induce a strong desire in many to party when they come ashore,” a report states. “Because of the international character of maritime work, shipping companies and employees are confronted by local legislation on drugs and alcohol, international agreements, maritime guidelines, and charter party clauses that outline drug and alcohol policies.”
The captain of M/Y Libation was charged under New Zealand law and was fined for being found drunk and in charge of a commercial vessel. The yacht’s management company, one of the largest in the industry, immediately terminated his employment, leaving the highly qualified captain with very little chance of finding work in yachting again. Despite the relatively small quantities of alcohol involved and the captain having no history of any alcohol issues, his career afloat had come to an abrupt halt, and the entire crew were quickly associated with a story that made the international press, as it was caught on camera by a bystander in the marina.