Chaos on the Cook Strait

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 21 April 2023

It's been far from smooth sailing over the last few months for the ferries that cross the Cook Strait. But as The Detail finds out, there's a decades-long history of things going wrong on this important transport and tourism route.

The Bluebridge's Connemara and Interislander's Kaiarahi in Picton.

The Bluebridge's Connemara and Interislander's Kaiarahi in Picton. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Cancelled crossings, mechanical problems, a mayday call - chaos on the Cook Strait ferries hasn't been far from the headlines this year.

"It is just incredibly disruptive," the NZ Herald's Wellington issues reporter Georgina Campbell tells The Detail.

She's investigating the ferry problems - their causes and the possible solutions - in a series called 'Dire Strait'.

"The problem with the Interislander fleet, which KiwiRail owns, is that their ferries are reaching the end of their 30-year life.

"This year alone we've had a mayday call, probably the scariest of any situation I've ever seen with the ferries. There were 864 people on board the Kaitaki, it lost power in the Cook Strait. It was drifting towards Wellington's rocky south coast. Luckily, in that case, they did narrowly avoid disaster."

Interislander's competitor, Bluebridge, has had its own mechanical issues.

"When one operator - being the Interislander - is already under significant pressure, if the other one starts having problems, then it just is carnage," Campbell says. 

As for a short-term solution to the disruption, Campbell says maintenance is the big priority.

"They want to have more time for maintenance for these ships, which means the ships will be out of service more regularly, but the point being this will be planned maintenance so we're not going to see these last-minute cancellations hopefully as often."

Longer-term, two "mega-ferries" are being built, but the first won't be here until 2025. 

Campbell says the disruption of the last few months has been a "wake-up call in terms of the repercussions of not proactively investing in a timely manner".

"We can't let it get to breaking point before you invest in all the new stuff. Preferably you'd have quite a smooth transition without the pain of the gap in between." 

Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand acting chief executive Dom Kalasih says the ferry problems are also creating headaches for freight transportation.

"[There are] two areas where those delays can be significant - one would be time-sensitive food and produce. Clearly, whilst we can keep those goods refrigerated for a period of time, at the end of the day, depending on the length of delay, in the worst case those goods will perish or at least they will lose value because they're getting to market slower.

"The other area I think which is even more problematic is the transport of livestock - I'm talking sheep, cattle, deer that travel over in livestock crates. The risk to them with uncertain delays, particularly on hot days in Wellington with little breeze - which believe it or not, there's many more than you think - due to that lack of air circulation, that can lead to those animals overheating and literally dying, and heat exhaustion." 

Although he'd like to think the new ferries could help, he says climate change could bring additional problems.

"We would certainly not expect there would be the same levels of technical-related unreliability. That said, weather events are likely to increase.

"Regardless of the new ferries, I think it would be really helpful across the supply chain if everyone was much more aware of what contingencies were being developed... and that's the frustrating thing for us at the moment, we're just not satisfied or confident that every practical avenue has been explored." 

To hear more about the issues plaguing the Cook Strait, listen to the full podcast.

You can find out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter