Can you not hear the ships talking?

In Newsletter Editorial9 MinutesBy Dave McCoidMarch 24, 2023

“The issues of ferries is ultimately a matter for KiwiRail, Bluebridge, and the relevant authorities.

“We’ve got a programme of work to deal with the underlying issue, which is the age of the Cook Strait ferry fleet.

“New ships are on the way, unfortunately those inter-island ferries take a number of years to manufacture. The work to do that is under way now and that’s going to provide us a more reliable Cook Strait service in the future – but in the meantime of course I know both the Interislander and Bluebridge are working hard to provide as reliable a service as they possibly can.”

That was the answer our prime minister gave two days ago to RNZ questions about our inability to support a Cook Strait ferry in trouble mid-crossing, in open water.

If you can find any relevance to the question in his answer, let me know. It certainly confirmed my suspicion of what a post-honeymoon Hipkins looks like.

Just to qualify what support means. It means tow it…rescue it, save it. Save people. Save assets. Save the environment.

When he’s been questioned, the good Transport Minister Wood has gone straight for his reliable and venerable old chestnut of blaming every other administration back to the arrival of the first settlers for the current situation. That’s perfectly understandable given his foundational beliefs.

Back to the PM, and his citing new ships as the panacea. Yes, it would be difficult for them not to be more reliable, and demoralising if they weren’t. However, a few cautions. Firstly, being new, you have factor in some level of potential teething issues regardless of sea trials undertaken. Secondly, beyond being new, they’re machines. And any transport operator will tell you that entrusting a machine to be its own failsafe mechanism and contain all the risk for the welfare of souls and assets is dangerous poker. Third, they’re bigger at 50,000 tonne compared to Interislander’s biggest, currently at 22,365 tonne. The point here is, the bigger and more complex a vessel is the greater is the potential for something to go wrong. Any issue also becomes twice the size.

A mayday call was made from the Kaitaki at the time of the 28 January drift incident. According to Georgina Campbell’s piece in the Herald on 01 February, Regional Harbourmaster in Wellington, Grant Nader, said a mayday call was “the most serious of radio calls and was only made if peoples’ lives were in imminent danger”. Thankfully, a humble anchor managed to grab hold of something and imminent became potential, and eventually zero. We must keep front of mind in this, that a mayday call was deployed, and the level of concern that initiates such action. Neither of these two things should be allowed marginalisation as a result of post event PR spin.

And let’s not forget that just over two weeks later the Aratere lost power momentarily approaching Tory Channel.

In the wake of the Kaitaki’s drama it came to light via Tom Hunts piece in Stuff, also on 1 Feb, that maritime lawyer John Burton from Izard Wilson had sent a letter to the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) in August 2022 expressing concern at our inability to rescue a large vessel that had lost power in Wellington harbour or the open water beyond. In response, chair of the Commission Jane Mears said TAIC didn’t have the powers of investigation or recommendation until there’s an incident of concern.

Fair enough. I do get that – she can only operate within her brief, but how will 800-odd, drowned people do? Concerning? After 2025, that might be 1200, or more?

At least the letter made it to the Transport Minister’s office in October 2022. Then came a real doozy. According to Hunt’s piece, an unnamed Ministry of Transport representative issued a statement pointing out the impracticalities of having a salvage tug covering New Zealand’s entire coastline.

He or she needs to go visit the Pyke memorial and meet the families of those who perished, or speak to the families of those lost in the Wahine disaster.

It was an interesting response considering Burton was only talking Wellington and the Cook Strait essentially, which is also the maritime section of SH1 and the main trunk line, not to mention one of the most unpredictable stretches of water in the world.

This brings me to us – the road transport industry. These obsolete, defunct, warn-out tubs on Cook Strait aren’t going anywhere for almost two years. What we’re seeing now is going to keep on going for at least that long. Every single transport operator who puts staff on one of those ships is doing so knowing that in the event it craps itself in big seas, and the ‘manky’ old anchor doesn’t grab onto something and hold, their staff have a better than good chance of…as they love to say, ‘not making it home’.  Bear in mind also that under PCBU, you’ll probably wear it because you knowingly put them in an unsafe position, on a ship with a known and fraught reliability record, with no means of open water salvage available. Make no mistake, nothing will stick to the agencies, or government.

Like we did in Covid, the trucking industry holds power here to potentially save the lives of hundreds of New Zealanders in a Wahine-like incident.

The government, its agencies and regulators obviously don’t give a monkey’s Uncle about a Cook Strait Ferry in real strife in the Cook Strait. Hipkins doesn’t even know what the issue is, he just reads the from the script he was given; the regulators and agencies appear to be passing the hot ember from one to another, and there’s no mention anywhere in Kiwirail’s IReX project information about anything other than the new ferries, new terminals, and saving carbon. Nothing I could see about saving lives.

What we as the trucking industry need to do is give a date by which we want proof that a heavy sea rescue tug has been secured and leased, and on its way, otherwise there’ll be a series of rolling freight stoppages between the islands on the run up to election, and then Christmas, and if that doesn’t work, beyond. We should also want confidence that a vessel capable of rescuing the new boats is also part of future plans – even if it puffs a bit of smoke. It’s a workplace safety issue, and there’s no safe zones.

In closing, back to Hipkins. No, prime minister, the new ferries don’t take years to manufacture, I know for a fact they take months. What takes years is the procrastination and time wasting on the lead up to laying the keel, or the investigation into why half a thousand people drowned in Cook Strait. I guess we’ve always got Pyke River as a yardstick for knowing where to commence the investigation.

All the best

Dave McCoid
Editorial Director