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Boat-owner sentenced for death of diver friend

Boat prop death
Motutapu island (Harvey Barrison)
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A New Zealand yacht-owner held responsible for killing his own friend with his boat’s propeller on a dive trip has been sentenced to pay relatives $150,000 in compensation, plus $14,000 in funeral expenses and a $5,850 fine.

The payout, equivalent to around £86,000, came after Zhenhua Yang had been found guilty of operating a ship in a manner that caused unnecessary danger to others under New Zealand’s Maritime Transport Act. It was announced today (21 October) by Judge David Sharp at Auckland District Court, as reported by the NZ Herald

On 22 February, 2020, Yang had taken four of his family and four diving friends out to Motutapu Island, north-east of Auckland, on his boat Erica. He had learnt how to operate the vessel on a two-day course when he bought it in 2018.

Yang was said not to have checked the weather before the trip or given his passengers a safety briefing, but on arrival in choppy conditions with heavy rain and wind the dive went ahead.

The 39-year-old victim Wei Chen, on his first dive after becoming an Open Water Diver, was buddied with a man called Yung, whose experience level was not stated. PADI Divemaster Andrew Gan dived with his girlfriend Song, a Rescue Diver. 

Struggled to board

After about 20 minutes Chen and Yung surfaced close to shore, 50-100m from the boat. Yang drove over to them and, in deteriorating conditions and a heavy swell, the pair struggled to climb aboard, using a nylon ladder rather than the metal one fitted to the boat’s stern platform.

As the boat was forced towards rocks Yang moved to the helm, from where he was unable to see the divers clearly. He called to his fiancée to tell Chen and Yung to swim to either side of the boat, but later admitted to police that he had not awaited confirmation before reversing the boat away from the rocks.

Yung had managed to climb aboard before the boat hit the rocks, but at some point the propeller had struck Chen. It was only when the other dive-pair Gan and Song resurfaced that they spotted him floating face-down at the surface. 

A post mortem examination indicated that he had been killed by multiple chop wounds as the propellers cut off his right arm and thighs, and lacerated his back and side.

The judge blamed the incident on Yang’s inexperience and lack of formal boat-training. Maritime NZ investigations manager Pete Dwen said that he had shown poor situational awareness and decision-making, and described Chen’s death as a tragic example of the consequences of people making assumptions, leading to “catastrophic results”.

Outside court Nan Jiang, Chen’s ex-wife of 17 years and mother of his five-year-old son, said that the day after the fatal incident she had called Yang to find out what had happened but that, without expressing contrition, he had told her his friend had died “because he couldn’t dive well”.

Speaking in Mandarin through an interpreter Yang had told the judge he was “deeply sorry”, but Jiang called the apology “a disgrace”, because it had been directed at the judge rather than to her and Chen’s partner.

Fishing-boat incident

In Maracas Bay, northern Trinidad, diver William Grimshaw was struck by a pirogue fishing-boat on 19 October. Pirogues have a raised bow that can restrict the view ahead, and a state lawyer has called for the fisherman to be charged with negligence. She claims that Grimshaw and his buddy had been using a surface marker buoy while conducting an underwater training exercise, and that someone should always be stationed in the bow of boats with a restricted view to maintain a look-out. 

Grimshaw, a lifeguard, remained in hospital, having been knocked unconscious and sustaining cuts to his head and shoulder. A police investigation was underway.

Also on Divernet: Speeding Boat Driver Who Hit Diver Fined, Prop Death – Dive Widower Files Lawsuit, Florida Diver Trapped By Propeller, No SMB So Prop-Death Captain Released

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