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Father-of-two Leslie Gelberger set off from the golden sands of an Auckland beach for a swim one morning and never returned home. Reported missing by his wife, the shocking discovery would be made the next day that the outing had been fatal to the experienced ocean swimmer. More than three years after his death, a lengthy court case has finally come to a conclusion.
The wife of a swimmer killed by a Ports of Auckland boat says she is disappointed it took years of legal battle before the company finally took responsibility for her husband’s death.
Yesterday the council-owned organisation was fined $424,000 by the Auckland District Court for breaching harbour speed limits after one of its pilot boats was involved in the “tragic accident”.
Leslie Gelberger, a Westlake Girls’ High School teacher, died in April 2017 after being struck by a boat while swimming off Narrow Neck Beach and Cheltenham Beach.
His body was found by a passing ferry floating near Mairangi Bay the next day.
Leslie Gelberger was a husband, father and teacher. Photo / Supplied
Gelberger’s wife Laura McLeod told the Herald of the relief she felt that the court process had finally ended.
She said yesterday’s sentencing was more difficult than she could have imagined.
“The process has been long, painful and emotionally exhausting.
“I am disappointed that you, the Ports, continued to fight against taking responsibility for Leslie’s death until the very end.”
The Ports of Auckland and Grant More, the master of the vessel involved, pleaded guilty on the eve of trial earlier this year to Health and Safety at Work Act charges laid by Maritime NZ.
“You profit from our waters, our trade, yet your guardianship and safety in our waters has been lacking,” McLeod said.
“It took the death of my husband for you to sit up and notice or care about your boats speeding close to shore. Despite Leslie’s death and countless records of your negligence it then took a national lockdown for you to admit any fault.”
Prosecutor Sam Lowery had said during Friday’s sentencing that Ports of Auckland vessels had breached speed limits on 99 per cent of their journeys in certain restricted areas.
McLeod added no fine would ever make things right.
“But for a company whose profits exceed $50 million a year it does not seem that $424,000 will be a deterrent or of any consequence at all.”
Despite not being required to make any reparations to Gelberger’s family, Ports of Auckland has made a payment of $220,000 to recognise the tragedy.
Originally from Canada, Gelberger had moved to New Zealand about three years before his death.
McLeod said he was missed every day.
“The loss of his bright smile and enthusiastic personality was devastating to everyone who knew him.”
Ports of Auckland last night declined to respond to McLeod’s comments.
But Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson had earlier said he was deeply sorry its pilot boat was involved in the “tragic accident”.
“I would like to offer my sincere and heartfelt condolences to Mr Gelberger’s wife, children, parents, sister and wider family.
“As a family man, I understand how much pain his loss has caused, and I profoundly regret what has happened.”
While it was admitted the Wakatere had struck and killed Gelberger, his death was not the result of an unlawful act because it occurred more than 200m from shore – where there are no speed restrictions, the court heard.
The Wakatere crew heard a bang when they hit the black wetsuit-wearing Gelberger at about 35 knots, court documents released to the Herald show, which they believed was a mechanical fault.
More slowed the vessel and turned it around but after not seeing anything in the water he returned to port.
Judge Kevin Phillips said Gelberger’s death was not a factor in the sentencing of either party.
Judge Kevin Phillips presided over the Ports of Auckland sentencing. Photo / Sam Hurley
Instead, the issue was over a “systemic failure” from continuous speeding breaches by Ports of Auckland-operated vessels between April 2017 and January 2018.
The time period accounted for between 3465 and 4257 journeys.
The judge fined Ports of Auckland $424,000 plus court costs, and More $8400 plus court costs.
Ports of Auckland’s lawyer, John Billington QC, said: “We can’t avoid the factor Mr Gelberger was killed in a tragic accident.”
Ports of Auckland’s Queen’s Counsel John Billington addressed the court during the sentencing. Photo / Sam Hurley
However, as Billington explained, Maritime NZ laid charges accusing the company of systemic speeding offences in the 12-knot and 5-knot restricted zones of the harbour.
The authority also alleged More was travelling at an unsafe speed in such areas on the day Gelberger was struck by the Wakatere.
The Ports of Auckland pilot boat, Wakatere, which struck and killed a swimmer on April 20, 2017. Photo / Supplied
More’s lawyer Simon Lance reiterated the death was a tragic accident, adding it occurred in the context of working for an organisation where speeding was the norm.
He said his client had “suffered a lot of anguish as well” but acknowledges the trauma of Gelberger’s family.
McLeod wanted to thank everyone who had supported her family, including the work of the police.
“Maritime NZ as well as Auckland Police have been supportive and diligent the whole way through … Thank you to the members of the community who stepped up to help with the investigation,” she told the Herald.
“Over these last three years our community around us has helped raise my boys and have bent over backwards to help us out.
“You have embraced us in ways I never imagined and there is no way I could adequately show my appreciation. Your kindness has reaffirmed our love for New Zealand and New Zealanders. Thank you.
“My boys and I continue to struggle in our grief without Leslie’s presence, but I am hoping with this now behind us we may finally have the space to breathe and fully grieve the enormity of our loss.”
Yesterday, Maritime NZ director Keith Manch said the message was “less speed, less harm” because speed increased the risk of collision, injury and death.
Manch said Ports of Auckland had inadequate systems to ensure its vessels did not break speed limits.
“On the day [Gelberger died], the master of the pilot boat chose to travel at excessive speeds, well over the speed limits.
“If rules are broken, and people are put at risk, Maritime NZ will take action.”