L’Austral cruise megayacht

(11:20 a.m. AEST) -- Ponant has diverted its current cruise on L'Austral between Port Vila and Kota Kinabalu due to safety concerns in the Sulu Sea near the Malaysian state of Sabah. L'Austral was forced to skip its visit to Borneo and will cease sailing its current itinerary today, three days early. The luxury ship will instead enter dry dock in Manila to undergo a full inspection for hull damage after two separate accidents earlier this year.

In a letter to passengers, also provided to Cruise Critic, the cruise line explained that because Ponant ships sail under the French flag, “recognised by the maritime world as one of the most demanding of all, especially in terms of safety”, L’Austral was forced to reroute to the Philippines.

The letter states: “On the recommendation of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have formally been requested to avoid the Sulu Sea, and especially the Sandakan region. In addition, the certification body of our vessels is asking us to carry out a technical intervention, to be held in a port near Manila, from 16 to 19 March.”

The diversion conveniently allows the opportunity to inspect and repair the 264-passenger megayacht after it was involved in two incidents in two months. In January L’Austral struck a floating object in the Sub Antarctic Islands and diverted to Bluff for an initial inspection. In February the vessel hit an undersea rock while entering Milford Sound in New Zealand, causing minor damage to its hull. Two days later, on February 11, investigators from New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission boarded L’Austral during its visit to Dunedin to check its navigation system, Seatrade reported.

On this month’s cruise, L’Austral altered the itinerary after its stop at the coral reef of Rajah Ampat, Indonesia, and headed directly to Manila, where passengers have been moved to hotels. During the three-day “stopover”, the line is providing complimentary five-star accommodation and land-based activities, with three Ponant executives flying in from France to assist passengers.

The next sailing of L’Austral is expected to depart on time on March 19 from Manila instead of the scheduled departure port of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.

Ponant will reimburse passengers the equivalent of four days of the cruise fare paid, “by bank transfer shortly after your return”, states the letter dated 15 February 2017. In addition, passengers were offered a 20 per cent discount off a future Ponant trip.

Cruise Critic has been informed of “widespread discontent” after the cancellation of the Borneo component of the itinerary. Some Australian and British passengers have claimed they did not receive notification of the itinerary changes prior to departure and instead had only one or two days’ notice. A Ponant spokesperson said the letter was distributed one month ago.

The cruise line provided the following statement: “Ponant’s priority is, as always, to ensure the safety of its passengers and meet their expectations. In addition to making a commercial gesture, the company has offered all passengers a three-day programme of accommodation and tailor-made activities. Some Ponant executive members of staff will join the crew of L’Austral and will be at the entire disposal of our passengers in order to respond to any comments or needs they may have.”

--By Louise Goldsbury, Australia Editor