Official eyes off jetboats

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A new Transport Accident Investigation Commission report reveals the national watchdog is no longer peering closely at commercial jetboating. 

Between 1995-2011, TAIC says, it was “very active” in investigating commercial jetboat accidents. 

Now, however, many of the “major changes to industry practice TAIC recommended have been taken on board” by Maritime New Zealand and jetboat operators. 

Since 1995, TAIC’s spotlight has shone on 22 jetboating accidents and incidents, almost all involving commercial craft. 

Several centred on Queenstown, the birthplace of commercial jetboating. 

In the commercial accidents nationwide, two people were killed and 93 injured. 

Of the 22 mishaps TAIC studied, eight resulted from boats colliding with canyon walls or riverbanks, four from flips, three from groundings, three from collisions with other craft, three from rock strikes – and one when a jetboat hit a pier. 

What really galvanised TAIC were two accidents in 1999 involving Queenstown’s famous Shotover Jet, the country’s largest jetboat operator, which has now carried more than three million thrillseekers through the Shotover River canyons. 

Within 22 days of each other, two Shotover Jet craft – coincidentally with the same driver – lost steering and cannoned into canyon walls. 

In the first accident, eight Shotover passengers and the driver suffered minor injuries. In the second, a passenger was killed while the skipper and 11 other passengers all received injuries. 

TAIC issued 22 safety recommendations after the two Shotover Jet calamities. All told, the accident watchdog has issued 76 jetboat safety recommendations during the 16 years. 

Of those recommendations, 27 have come to Queenstown – 11 to Shotover Jet, seven to Kawarau Jet, three to Queenstown Lakes District Council, and two each to Skippers Canyon Jet, the now-defunct Dart Wilderness Adventures, and Shotover Jet subsidiary Dart River Jet Safaris. 

Thirty-five jetboating safety recommendations have also gone to MNZ – with whom TAIC had had a testy relationship, the report reveals. 

“It seems the relationship between MNZ and TAIC with respect to findings and recommendations resulting from Commission investigations was not always harmonious,” TAIC admits in the latest report. 

That’s all in the past, apparently: “The overall working relationship … seems much improved.” 

The 76 safety improvements recommended by TAIC include:

  • 23 modifications to boats and equipment
  • 13 improvements to driver training, qualifications, fitness and licensing
  • l3 changes to equipment monitoring and maintenance 
  • 12 recommendations on operator risk appraisals and safe operating plans
  • Five improvements to passenger risk briefings. 

As previously exposed by Mountain Scene, TAIC confirms about 12 safety recommendations remain “open” and uncompleted by MNZ – “some of which have been open for extended periods”, the report notes dryly. 

Yet it’s not all wins for the accident watchdog. 

For years TAIC has been banging on about seatbelts in jetboats, a recommendation opposed by MNZ, Shotover Jet and the NZ Commercial Jetboat Association. 

The report signals TAIC may be about to give up seatbelts as a lost cause. 

Anyhow, TAIC concludes, jetboating is now almost a benign activity. 

Citing a 2008 decade-long study monitoring injuries in NZ adventure tourism, TAIC labels jetboating as having a “low” level of risk. 

Highest-risk activities are mountaineering, tramping, snow sports, horse riding and mountain biking. 

Waterwater rafting and underwater diving are in the mid-range while jetboating is down there with kayaking in the lowest-risk group.