NZ could see major maritime disaster unless ship culture changes - TAIC

New Zealand's transport watchdog is warning we could face a major maritime disaster if we don't overhaul the way ships navigate our waters.

There have already been four incidents of large ships grounding or hitting rocks over the last two years.

In 2012, 33 people died when the Costa Concordia strayed from its planned route and hit rocks off the coast of Italy.

Now there's fear of a similar disaster here, according to Jane Meares, chief commissioner of the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC).

"That's absolutely why we're issuing a watch list - yes, I think we could."

TAIC investigated four recent incidents, all of which failed to meet international navigation standards.

Last year, the luxury cruise ship L'Austral hit rocks on a sub-Antarctic island and a month later ran into Mitre Peak in the Milford Sound.

Another luxury ship - the Azamara Quest - was involved in a serious incident in 2016. As it navigated the Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds, it hit a rock - gouging its hull and damaging a propeller.

It was carrying more than 1000 people at the time.

"The bridge team and the pilot had no shared understanding of the plan for the ship to make the turn into the channel or the influence of the tide, and they didn't properly monitor the ship's progress," Ms Meares explains.

Maritime Pilots Association Vice President Lew Henderson's been piloting ships into Wellington Harbour for 20 years. He says in that time there's been a monumental shift.

"I've been on ships where there's so little English that I'm doing it by drawing a picture of what we want to achieve."

He says there's also the problem of experienced pilots not making proper use of the latest electronic equipment.

"We need to be using those. In several of the incidents, TAIC raised the flag that they were not being used, but they were available."

Regulator Maritime New Zealand says there's a problem worldwide with inconsistent training for deck officers.

It's looking at the information given to masters of foreign vessels so they know what's expected of them in local waters.