1 Feb 2021

Cruise ship denied entry to NZ low on fuel with storm on horizon

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 1 February 2021

A cruise ship turned away from New Zealand is now stuck off the coast of New Caledonia, low on fuel with a significant storm approaching and no permission to dock.

Le Laperouse has an economic exemption to come to New Zealand for the cruise season, but was last week refused entry after Immigration denied 61 of its 90 crew visas because they are not considered essential workers.

The government says the ship left Jakarta before its paperwork was processed, but the boat's owner believes it and the crew were given the all clear to come.

Ponant Cruises' Asia Pacific boss Sarina Bratton told Checkpoint the boat had travelled 3600 nautical miles to get to New Zealand.

"We are trying to get into Noumea, it's been a difficult situation..., and we're still very low on fuel.

"We've spoken to the [New Zealand] Immigration Department about the lack of available people who have sufficient safety training certification in New Zealand.

"We've been in touch with multiple recruitment agencies, shipping service agents, superyachts, trying to identify how many, if any, New Zealanders could be available to work," she said.

"We've been operating in New Zealand seasonally for the last seven years. And our makeup of crew hasn't changed. It's been the same as it has for the past seven years. Our application through to the Ministry of Health clearly spoke about the numbers of crew.

"It also gave us a complete breakdown of nationalities for all of those crew onboard the ship.

"We were not aware of a requirement of having visas approved prior to departing for New Zealand.

"Our New Zealand port agent who handles all of our matters and handles all commercial ships coming in and out of New Zealand, through Covid-19 as well they were not familiar with that either.

"So it wasn't until much closer… that we've been told that they would approve the technical crew, but they would not approve the hotel crew."

Bratton says she thinks there has been a "disconnect" between government departments about the application.

She says the denial has cost the cruise company approximately $1.6 million, and could cost more.

"We have the Ministry of Health approval letter and in it, it states that obviously the crew require the appropriate visas before arrival into New Zealand. It doesn't say before you depart anywhere and come to New Zealand."

She believes every crew member on the boat is an essential worker.

"Every crew member has certain responsibilities for safety management.

"So any people who come on, they need to be trained on what their responsibilities are. We said to the Department of Immigration that we would try and locate and maybe we could get around 20 New Zealand crew, if we were lucky.

"We've put advertisements into, into the newspaper over the weekend in New Zealand. We've spoken to numerous recruitment agencies, and we're not having a lot of luck.

"I've informed New Zealand Immigration of that situation, we've been in touch over the weekend. And I'm just waiting to hear back to see whether or not they have any flexibility for the ship to arrive and operate as normal."

She says she is concerned about the safety of crew aboard Le Laperouse as it is low on fuel and without a place to dock.

"Now this morning we were advised that there's a cyclone starting to head towards New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

"Whenever there's adverse weather you are able to sail away from it, but we're in a very low fuel situation. Hopefully it won't come to that."

Immigration New Zealand said on Monday it has no further update in relation to Le Laperouse, other than to confirm that it continues to engage with Ponant to discuss their options.

Maritime graduates, Air NZ cabin crew could have filled roles - Maritime Union

Maritime Union assistant secretary Craig Harrison told Checkpoint he was surprised by the news about the cruise ship.

"I thought the company had gone to the stakeholders earlier in the year, and the industry, and told them they wanted to bring a ship down. There could have been some work done to find workers to fill those vacancies.

"For instance the masseuse, the hairdressers and the catering crew… There's a lot of young workers that work part-time and casual on like the Interisland Ferry and Strait Shipping who'd love an opportunity to go into the industry.

"And just thinking about the workers that have been displaced at Air New Zealand, if there could have been some funding through Covid-19 and work with the maritime schools to get some qualifications for even those people to try and fill these vacancies on the vessel."

With enough notice, he said, such positions could have been filled on the ship by New Zealand staff.

"We would love to promote young New Zealanders getting a chance to be part of a solution."

Harrison said the necessary safety certification is the same qualification one needs to work on the Cook Strait rail ferries.

"The catering staff, the cooks and the various crew carry these qualifications.

"Unless there's something really special about the vessel, which I'd be surprised, other than that, you've got the engineers, officers and what we call the deck crew."

He said if Ponant approached the maritime industry directly to help find crew, the industry would be able to help.

"If you talk to the maritime schools you find these young New Zealanders going through those schools now. They're struggling to get positions on vessels, and they've completed a lot of those basic courses already."