The stricken cargo ship MV Shiling has returned to Wellington Harbour almost two weeks after it set sail for Singapore for urgent repair work.
The ship was forced to make a mayday call when it lost power and was left rolling in rough seas off Farewell Spit on 12 May.
Onlookers turned out along Wellington's south coast on Tuesday to watch the Shiling as it was towed to safety. Dave Sutich was one of those who headed to Seatoun to watch the cargo ship come in. "I heard about the Shiling getting stranded out at sea, so it was good to come down and see it arrive safely in the harbour on a glorious Wellington day."
Another onlooker, Phil Parnell, said he had followed the Shiling as it came around the bays and planned lunch with a friend at Scorch-O-Rama so they could watch it go by. "The fact it needs a tug, a rather special tug pulling it and the fact it will need a pilot... had it been a slightly rougher day than this, it might have been a slightly different story getting it through the heads."
Wellington's two port tugs Tiaka and Tapuhi, along with the pilot boat Te Haa, were clearly much smaller than the anchor handling vessel Skandi Emerald.
Watching the Shiling under tow, Joe Baker said there was a need for an open ocean tug given the recent maritime incidents that had occurred in Cook Strait. "Just from a strategic point of view, we were very lucky having the [Skandi Emerald] up in New Plymouth and that was pure chance. It does seem you know, given the nature of where New Zealand sits and the weather around us and possible mishaps etc that there should be a tug of that capacity."
Maritime New Zealand incident controller Kenny Crawford said the organisation was working on its options to strengthen its emergency response capability in the event of a maritime disaster. They will be presented to the government by the end of the year.
"New Zealand is not alone in this situation, this is a common problem around the world."
Crawford said a maritime incident response team had been monitoring the situation since the mayday call, working with regional harbourmasters, port operators, the Skandi Emerald's owners and other international experts on the Shiling's rescue. He would not be drawn on whether the ship could have been towed to safety without an open ocean tug.
"As it happened, on this occasion the Skandi Emerald was the nearest vessel and it was the best vessel of opportunity for this incident."
Maritime New Zealand and Singaporean authorities will be investigating the incident. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) launched an inquiry after the Shiling first suffered a loss of propulsion and steering while leaving Wellington Harbour on 15 April.
It was able to anchor and maintain its position until it received assistance from tugs, which towed it back to CentrePort in Wellington. After repair work it departed the capital on 10 May, but lost power the following day and issued the mayday call during rough sea conditions on 12 May.
A TAIC spokesperson said the second incident off Farewell Spit, reportedly occurred outside NZ territorial waters, outside its jurisdiction. Crawford said it was not yet known if the two incidents were related.
In need of major repair work, it is not known how long the Shiling will remain in Wellington.
"Maritime inspectors will be looking to ensure that any repairs are undertaken with the flag state oversight and that this is done correctly, and then once the vessel departs again we will obviously keep a monitoring role in this as well, until it leaves New Zealand waters."
Wellington harbourmaster Grant Nalder said the Shiling's breakdown was one of several recent serious incidents.
"We've had in the last 12 months a bulk carrier off the West Coast, we've had the Kaitaki on the south coast and now we've had the Shiling, that had she been allowed to drift, was heading up towards the Taranaki coastline, not actually that far from the Māui B oil rig."
He was scoping what an open ocean tug for the capital might look like.
"If we have a tug in Cook Strait, how big does it need to be? Because that's the starting point - we need to know how big the solution is to the problem and then we have discussions around how it might be provided or how it might be funded."
Government might be called on to help
Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter said after the Kaitaki lost power in January, it was "extremely lucky" the ferry, with 800 passengers onboard had not run aground. He said luck could no longer be relied upon to avoid a maritime disaster.
Ponter and Marlborough Mayor Nadine Taylor have written to Transport Minister Michael Wood outlining their concerns about the lack of a tug capable of an open water rescue.
"Clearly in the past people have determined that the risk wasn't sufficient to be able to have the tow capability on the Cook Strait
"We're saying that with climate change, with more severe events with more traffic on the Cook Strait we have to have another look at that."
Ponter and Taylor are meeting with Associate Transport Minister Kiri Allan next week to outline their concerns.