Cook Strait chaos as ferries struggle with rough weather

5:09 pm on 16 February 2023
Bluebridge and Interislander in Picton  Marlborough sounds

Bluebridge and Interislander in Picton Marlborough sounds Photo: RNZ/ Rachel Thomas

The Cook Strait travel woes continued on Thursday after rough sailing conditions forced Bluebridge to cancel its afternoon sailing.

Palmerston North resident Andrew Spicer said he tried to check in at the Bluebridge terminal on Thursday afternoon, only to be told the ferry would not be sailing.

Spicer, who had been in the South Island for the Burt Munro Challenge, said there were hundreds of people and bikes in Picton ready to go back across to Wellington.

It comes after a chaotic day at the Picton terminal on Tuesday when KiwiRail staff moved mattresses, pillows and blankets into the terminal as passengers stranded by the cyclone were looking at more than a week in the port town before they could next get on a ferry.

Wednesday morning proved even more chaotic as more desperate passengers turned up.

Spicer said he was originally booked with Interislander, but decided to switch his booking to Bluebridge after seeing Interislander ferry, Kaitaki, lose power and drift towards the south coast of Wellington about two weeks ago.

He planned to camp on the front lawn of the terminal until he could get on a ferry.

"They'll eventually get sick of me, but it doesn't look like there's accommodation in Picton.

"Everything is full, everyone will be in the same boat, or boatless I should say."

He said he had also tried to look for another sailing - but at the moment it looked like he could not get one for another week.

A spokesperson for Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries confirmed the 2pm was cancelled to passengers due to rough sailing conditions. The ferry would be taking freight, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson could not confirm how many passengers were affected but said they were working to reschedule or refund passengers depending on their preference.

Its website said the weather in the Cook Strait had deteriorated and now had large swells.

MetService had a gale warning in place for Cook Strait, warning at 3pm on Thursday the sea was very rough, with a southerly of 35 knots causing swells of two metres, and poor visibility due to rain.

The Cook Strait on Friday was also forecast to be a rough sea with 35 knot winds and showers, although it was likely to ease in the afternoon. By 3pm on Thursday a call was yet to be made about one remaining Bluebridge ferry scheduled to leave Picton on Thursday.

The Straitsman was due to arrive in Picton at 5.15pm and depart at 7.15pm.

The Connemara would leave Wellington for Picton at 8.30pm.

Meanwhile, Dave Pomeroy, of Christchurch, had been on an Interislander ferry on Monday night that he said made it part of the way to Wellington before turning around.

He had stayed in Picton the last two nights waiting for the next ferry, and had got himself, or so he thought, on the 6.30pm Interislander sailing.

"The first night I stayed in my car, but I managed to get the last bed in Picton last night," he said, the backpackers he stayed at telling him he booked the last bed they had available on Tuesday night.

Pomeroy had been heading to Whangamata to view a house that he was looking to purchase, but he said the house had been flood damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle.

"It might be a write-off, or I might take a few months to get it repaired, I don't know. I've got family to stay with up there, so I'm not too worried about it," he said.

Kiwirail's 10.35am passenger sailing was changed to freight-only, and left Picton on time on Wednesday.

Interislander executive general manager Walter Rushbrook said about 3pm on Wednesday afternoon the Aratere and Kaitaki had "both returned to the Cook Strait run" as freight only.

But, later in the day, Rushbook said the Kaiarahi passenger ferry planned for 6.30pm on Wednesday had to be cancelled due to "crewing issues". The 8.35pm Aratere sailing from Picton - originally freight only - was being opened up to passengers.

The Aratere and Kaiarahi both sailed on Thursday with passengers. The Kaitaki did not sail on Thursday as it was undergoing an audit required before it could take passengers again. A sailing by the freight ferry Valentine replaced Thursday's Kaitaki sailing.

The Interislander's next sailing was the Kaiarahi which would leave Picton at 6.30pm on Thursday, followed by the Aratere which would leave Picton at 8.35pm.

The Aratere was due to leave Wellington for Picton at 3.45pm.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.