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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

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PictonA trip across the Cook Strait, that notorious stretch of water that separates New Zealand’s North and South Islands, on one of the regular passenger ferries from Wellington, the Nation’s capital, to Picton in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, is what many travel writers have described as one of the most picturesque short sea voyages in the world.

I would certainly recommend it as a must, to any travellers that have not yet undertaken this iconic and scenic journey of unrivalled magnificence.

New Zealanders, now depend so much on this “highway on the sea”, as the main link between the Islands. This service has over time grown far beyond the expectations of what the original planners could ever have envisaged, when inaugurated by the Government Railways in August 1962 with the roll-on roll-off rail ferry the Aramoana – Maori for “Pathway over the Sea”. It was a milestone in New Zealand’s maritime history, as this service then enabled rail wagons for the very first time, to be able to go from one end of the country to the other; a divided rail system was no more. Prior to that, Cook Strait was served in a very limited capacity by the Union Steam Ship Company’s Tamahine that had been on the run since 1925.

The Aramoana was built by William Denny & Brothers Ltd, at Dumbarton in Scotland and was delivered in May, 1962. At 3,968 gross tons and a length of 112.2 metres, it had a capacity for 788 passengers, 70 cars and 30 railway wagons. In order to ensure the highest level of reliability, the Aramoana was diesel-electric powered, with a unique multi-engine setup. This consisted of 6 diesel engines, each 1,750 bhp, coupled to 6 generators supplying power to 4 electric motors on the 2 propeller shafts, giving a maximum speed of 19.5 knots. The diesel units were similar to those on the locomotives operated at the time by the New Zealand Railways, and if need be could be removed for major servicing. The system was also designed to allow the vessel to operate safely when down to 3 engines whilst the others were temporarily out for maintenance purposes.

The Aramoana proved to be an instant success, with the passenger and freight figures way above the initial projections. Being a small nation completely surrounded by sea, New Zealand has always been predisposed to developing its shipping services right from its very early days, and for many years the country was well provided for, by a very extensive coastal shipping network which included an overnight inter-islander ferry service between Lyttelton, (the port for Christchurch) and Wellington. The “Steamer Express” as it had come to be known as in the latter years, was operated by the Union Steam Ship Company and was then the main link between both of the Islands. This service was first established back in 1895 by the Penguin, and was well served by such magnificent vessels of more recent times; such as the Rangatira, Hinemoa, Maori, Wahine & finally the new Rangatira until the service was terminated in 1976.

Cook Strait Map

I fondly remember travelling in the early sixties on both the immaculately kept Hinemoa and the Maori; it was then a well patronised, fast and reliable service. Both the vessels were equipped with powerful turbo-electric engines, which helped to ensure their excellent sea keeping qualities, were maintained for a smooth overnight passage. For many passengers it was the “journey” rather than the destination, of experiencing a sea voyage that contributed to keeping this service viable for as long as it was. It was sad but inevitable, with the increasing competition from the Cook Strait service and the then government domestic airline NAC – later to become part of Air New Zealand, that would see this service end after 81 years.

During the period from 1994 until 2005, the service experimented over the summer months with small fast ferries. These were introduced initially by an outside operator with such craft as the Incat 050, which was capable of speeds of over 40 knots. The Interislander Company was then forced to compete with similar and equally fast craft, such as the Condor 10 which was also an Incat. However, due to the ensuing environmental issues caused by the wash from these vessels in the Marlborough Sounds and also to protect the ships at the exposed berths in Wellington Harbour such as at Aotea Quay, a speed restriction of 18 knots was then enforced. As a consequence the huge margin of time saving, when compared to that of the conventional ferries’ transit times, was then reduced down to a mere 45 minutes. It was no surprise that these vessels were eventually phased out, because of their unsuitability to be able to operate year round in the heavy swells that were often encountered in Cook Strait, with a restriction already applied of sailing in swells in excess of 4 metres. These high speed ferries had become over time economically unviable. The high running costs, environmental restrictions and the dwindling appeal from the travelling public, whose preferences were then for a more comfortable journey, that the larger ferries had to offer – eventually sealed the fate of these “greyhounds” of the ocean.

The Interislander’s current logo as displayed on their ship’s hulls, depicting a dolphin, is very appropriate because it signifies a unique link with the past, with a very special dolphin affectionately known as “Pelorus Jack”. This remarkable dolphin first came to the attention of the ships in 1888 and would meet the vessels on the Wellington to Nelson service at the entrance to Pelorus Sound in the Marlborough Sounds and “escort” them through the treacherous passage to French Pass, constantly riding the bow wave as it alternated from side to side of the vessel. He would also wait for the ships on their return journey at French Pass. “Pelorus Jack’s” fame spread far and wide including internationally, and for many passengers this was their main reason for undertaking the voyage, so that they could see for themselves this legendary dolphin in action.

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