Rena captain ends silence on disaster

By Jamie Morton


The disgraced captain of the Rena has apologised publicly to New Zealanders for the first time for causing this country's worst environmental maritime disaster - and then trying to cover up his role.


In his first public statements, Mauro Balomaga said he wanted to apologise to those who almost a year later are still dealing with the aftermath of the Rena's grounding off Tauranga.


Speaking from the Philippines, to where he was deported this month after serving just over three months in jail in New Zealand, he described his feelings of guilt at knowing his reckless behaviour led to beaches awash with heavy fuel oil that had poured from the ship.


"We did not think it would come to that point. Of course we felt sorry about it," he said.


"During the course of the interviews and the investigations, we did apologise on the record, but that was for the safe-keeping of the authorities, and not for the public."


Balomaga and his navigation officer, Leonil Relon, were jailed after admitting taking short-cuts on the way to the Port of Tauranga on October 5 last year, his 44th birthday.


 When the Rena ploughed into the Astrolabe Reef at 17 knots, Balomaga instructed Relon to change the GPS logbook to show the ship had taken a different path.

He admitted the deceit a month later.


He told the New Zealand Herald this week that he did this to protect Relon.


The reef had appeared as a radar echo 15 minutes before the 2.14am grounding, but Balomaga said the crash came as a shock.


 "It was really unexpected ... We thought we may not be able to save it completely, but we could limit the damage and we could save the ship ... That was our thinking initially."


There were early hopes the vessel could be towed off the reef, but Balomaga said that by then he had been relieved of his command.


"At that time, even though we thought we could still do something about it, we were not allowed to."


Balomaga, one of Costamare Shipping's most experienced seamen, had a clean record before the grounding.


"It was quite tough at the time, but we had to be brave and we had to be strong about it ... We had to be thinking of the safety of the crew on board, and if we could minimise the damage to the environment."


His company continues to support him and he has hopes of one day returning to the sea.


If allowed, the father of five wants to visit New Zealand to thank local Filipinos who supported him while he was in custody.


Asked if pressure to reach the port by 3am - described during the court case against him as an obsession - had helped cause the disaster, Balomaga blamed only himself.


"That was not the contributing factor at all ... It was too many serious mistakes, it was something you never dream of ..."


Balomaga said he hoped lessons could be learned from the disaster, and agreed New Zealand should have mandatory shipping lanes.


Such lanes have been recommended by the Maritime Union and the Green Party.


But Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says the lanes are expensive to set up and police.


And Ministry of Transport officials told the Herald the lanes did not necessarily guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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