Boating tragedy highlights flaws

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Te Anau farmer Shane David Gibbons was killed in a jet boat accident in March last year.

It has been a lonely 16 months since Bridget Speight’s partner was killed in a jet boating crash on the Hollyford River. The Te Anau farmer wants to raise awareness around the dangers of alcohol consumption while boating in a bid to protect others. She talked to Abbey Palmer prior to the boat driver’s sentencing in the Invercargill High Court on Wednesday.

SHANE David Gibbons (50) was a passenger in a jet boat on a Southland farmers’ trip on March 18, 2019, when the driver lost control and hit gravel, killing Mr Gibbons and seriously injuring two others.

Last month, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) released a report which confirmed the driver (who had name supression) had a blood alcohol level three times the legal road driving limit.

Chief investigator of accidents Aaron Holman said the accident was made more likely by a combination of insufficient planning, insufficient daylight; and too much speed and alcohol.

The report revealed the accident happened between 7.30pm and 8.30pm when “the light was starting to fade”.

The boat was believed to be travelling upstream at a speed of 35-50kmh from McKerrow Island Hut to Lake Alabaster, with four people on board.

“The Commission found it was virtually certain that the accident happened because alcohol consumption impaired the driver’s ability to make good decisions and to operate the jet boat safely.”

Ms Speight said she and Mr Gibbons had been a couple for 30 years and owned Whare Creek, a sheep, beef and dairy support farm in the Te Anau Basin – land which had been in her family for 100 years.

More than a year since her partner’s death, Ms Speight said this week she wanted more awareness raised about the danger of drinking alcohol while operating a jet boat.

She also wanted “the culture” to change, where the two activities seemed to go hand-in-hand, so no-one else would have to experience the pain she had felt after losing someone in a preventable accident.

“It’s happened now, I want to be able to move forward but I don’t want it to happen to another family.”

Drinking while operating a boat should be treated exactly the same as drinking while operating a land vehicle, she said.

Speed should also be at the front of people’s minds, the same as it would when driving.

“People need to take responsibility if they’re taking a boat out, these boats are powerful.

“It’s just like a car, you have a sober driver, or you wait until you get somewhere [before you drink].”

Legislation needed to play a role in deterring people from drinking and operating a boat, as well as hold people accountable for their actions, she said.

While there was no legal maximum for alcohol limits while recreational boating, section 65 of the Maritime Transport Act 1994 clearly prohibits the operation of a maritime vessel in a dangerous manner.

The Act states police were able to prosecute impaired maritime users if they were acting in a careless or dangerous manner.

The maximum penalty for an individual is a fine of $10,000 or less, or a maximum of 12 months imprisonment.

Ms Speight said she had only become aware there was no specific law around drink driving while operating a vessel until after the accident.

“It’s like a road accident except the car is a boat and the road is the river.

“There is a culture around jet boating and drinking and it needs to be spoken about.”

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