Following the death of an Auckland ocean swimmer in 2017, a coroner has requested that best-practice guidelines be prepared and disseminated.
Leslie Gelberger was struck and killed while swimming between Narrow Neck Beach and North Head near Devonport on 20 April.
He had been struck by a pilot boat called Wakatere, owned by the Ports of Auckland.
On the morning of his death, he texted his sleeping wife to let her know where he was going, and how long he would be away. It was his last message to her, and ended with a simple “love you”.
Shortly before 11am a woman in Devonport noticed a swimmer heading towards North Head, about 200m to 300m from the beach.
A minute later, she witnessed a boat come around North Head Point, travelling towards the swimmer, now known to be Gelberger.
The woman worried the boat could hit the swimmer, and said it soon slowed around the place she had last seen him.
“It milled around for a bit then turned around and went back to the area where the swimmer had been and stopped again,” said the Coroner’s report.
Shortly afterwards, the woman alerted the Coastguard.
Wakatere‘s skipper, Grant More, later told police he had heard a bang, but thought it was a pin falling from the foil of the boat.
Hours after he left for the swim, Gelberger was nowhere to be seen, prompting his wife to head out in search of him before alerting police.
Gelberger’s body was found the next day, missing his lower left leg, and entire right leg.
Ports of Auckland was fined more than $420,000 in the Auckland District Court following Gelberger’s death.
It admitted it had put people’s lives at risk because its pilot boats consistently breached speed limits because, it said, they believed they were exempt.
The limits dictate vessels should not exceed five knots when closer than 200m to shore, and must keep to a 12-knot limit between the Harbour Bridge and North Head.
There is an exemption for Ports of Auckland vessels to breach limits if they are unable to carry out duties, but this applies only in limited circumstances.
In court, the company was found to have breached the rules on about 99 percent of its trips.
The skipper, More, was also fined $8400.
Coroner Brigitte Windley said Gelberger had died of injuries to his head, neck, torso and right upper arm, and chop injuries to his legs.
She stated that both Gelberger and the Wakatere had the right to be present at the scene of the incident.
Windley, on the other hand, highlighted that the Ports had revised pilot vessel passage arrangements, thus moving transit routes further from the coast.
Furthermore, she was aware of advancements in the Port’s monitoring of pilot boat speeds.
Windley is now urging Swimming New Zealand, Water Safety New Zealand, and Maritime New Zealand to work together to provide best practise guidelines for ocean swimmers.
She suggested buddy swimming, wearing brightly coloured swim caps to increase visibility, and staying within 100m of the beach.