Devonport man David Slack glides across the harbour to the central business district, Auckland

Angry ferry user David Slack sizes up Fullers’ plan for a harbour revolution

The operator is pushing for major investment across the Hauraki Gulf to overhaul the ferry network. David Slack wants to know why his ferry home to Devonport is so often out of service. Can they find a common dream? 

I have a dream that we will one day live in a city where you can cross the Waitemata harbour not by boat, but below the waves. Any old time you like you’ll get on an airport-style travelator and glide back and forwards between Devonport and the bottom of Queen St, under perspex, just like Kelly Tarlton’s.

I have written about it again and again, in blogs, in newspapers, in an optometry magazine. People roll their eyes. They say you’re dreaming mate.

But I’m not the only one. Mike Horne, CEO of Fullers360, has a dream. He dreams of a harbour full of ferries. New ferries. Fast, sleek electric ferries. Ferries that glide in and hook up to the charging station while you board. Ferries carrying eight million tourists and commuters between many more destinations in the city of sails and a thousand lovers. They call it Gulf 2025. And because you can’t have all that without a whole lot of infrastructure, he also dreams of a whole lot of infrastructure.

Let’s talk about that first, because it turns out that infrastructure is a large part of the answer to the question people like me ask in loud voices and in block letters on Twitter: “FFS Fullers why do your ferries break down so much, like almost every day?”

The great difficulty for Fullers360, it turns out, is that there aren’t enough places in Auckland to get a boat out of the water and fix it; not enough slipways to go around. A job that could have taken just two hours can turn into a barge trip to Whangārei and back, taking your vessel is out of service for two weeks. And it doesn’t happen just now and then, it’s a recurring problem.

What would solve this headache? A dedicated boatyard for Auckland ferries where you could always be sure of getting your vessels out of the water and fixed in quick order.

Also needed: more boats and somewhere to park them at night, if NZIER is correct in its predictions of a couple million or more harbour journeys per year by 2025.

They have a dream, Fullers360, and they call it Gulf 2025 which they presented to various interested parties and stakeholders one beautiful sunny morning in Britomart last week, looking out to the water over coffee and Danish pastries.

What do they want? “Commercial and public collaboration and investment across the Hauraki Gulf to foster a better ferry network for a growing Auckland.” When would they like it? Quick as you can, really, because (and you might find these words oddly familiar as an incantation to bring on public investment) we need to be ready for the America’s Cup and we need to be ready for APEC.

Their message is: demand for ferry travel is rising, which is of course excellent news because a person in a boat is a person who’s not in a car getting stressed out and emitting carbon.

Their further message is that Auckland will need more of two things to satisfy this growing demand, and those two things are: frequency and capacity.

Hence their dream of more vessels, more routes. You should see the map. Look! There’s a tourist ferry to Mission Bay! A commuter ferry to Browns Bay! And one to spooky eerie Millwater! What’s not to like? There are more routes for underserved places like Hobsonville Point, there’s a tourist-style hub for ferries in the Wynyard Quarter area.

Let’s get started today! Are we getting started today? Well we could, if someone would like to open up their cheque book.

I discovered, on a beautiful sunny morning in Britomart last week, looking out to the water, that deep down we are the same, Mike Horne and Fullers360 and me. We have a dream and we hope it will be funded by …someone. There’s no such thing as a free coffee and Danish pastry, stakeholders.

“We don’t as a sole operator have the bandwidth to unlock the potential of the gulf,” said Mike Horne, and set out various good arguments in favour of the concept of ferries and, by implication, public investment in them. Do ferries decrease road traffic congestion? Yes, they do. Do they help reduce carbon emissions, increase productivity and contribute to the economy, boost tourism spending, and improve social and community connectivity and wellbeing. Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Even though you might hold these propositions to be self evident, fair play to them for saying it, because you never know where you’re going to find a car lover who thinks people who advocate for public transport are commies.

Meanwhile for those of us already sold on ferry travel as a better way to move, yes please to Gulf 2025, but also please allow us a moment to vent about the ferry-going life right now.

When we passengers sit and fume about ferries not turning up, not running often enough, not enough of them, we ask aloud in angry voices “WTF Fullers?” And we ask: why do they not have more fit-for-purpose vessels on the Devonport run and why do they not make the sailings more frequent, abundant even, so that people currently driving across the bridge might consider leaving their car at home? And given how much money they make on the Devonport run, couldn’t they be putting more money into making it work properly?

I put this in non-irate terms to Mike Horne after the coffee and Danish.

Yes, he said, a fit for purpose ferry for Devonport is of course what the route should have, and they have plans on paper right now for a new edition of Kea, the 30-year-old workhorse of the run that doesn’t have to turn around and has a huge gangway in the model wide enough for everyone to pour off the boat in about a minute, and is generally excellent except for the fact that it breaks down and then there is often no Kea.

Kea MkII has four engines, no less, meaning you can have an engine failure and keep right on tramping. It has many other excellent features as well. However, it also comes with a price tag in the range of $13 million and Mike Horne says they can’t make that stack up.

“Really?” I asked on behalf of Devonport passengers who know how much they’re paying to use the service. “That’s not enough to make it pay?”

No, he said, it’s not; not when you add everything up. They make plenty on Devonport and on Waiheke. The rest of the runs only work thanks to government subsidies to the tune of 9 million a year. Devonport and Waiheke certainly pay their way, “but they’re not the gold mine people think it is. You can see it in our public accounts.”

Readers, take a look for yourself. The bare numbers appear to tell us that in the last financial year ferry passengers were worth a bit over $48 million in revenue; wages and salaries were in the order of $25 million, fuel cost $9 million and repairs and maintenance $10 million. Before you know it, you’re looking at a reported loss for the year of about $7 million.

I’m no ferry company CEO, so I can’t say for certain whether they could they do better on revenue, or find a way to spending less on wages, salaries and repairs and maintenance but if that were possible then obviously you get a different answer to the question: “can you get a payback on 13 million for a new Kea?”

The Fullers360 message to all comers appears to be, do by all means join in, have a go if you’re game. What seems to be the part of the Gulf2025 that matters to them most a dedicated boatyard, and that certainly makes sense.

Auckland Transport, Mike Horne says, has been looking at all its options, including the possibility that it become the owner of a fleet of ferries and run them itself or pay a contractor such as – let’s say, Fullers360 – to do it for them. The Fullers360 CEO seems relatively at ease with all of this, although he does have a word of caution: when you’re buying boats you want to be very, very sure you know what you’re buying before you go for the lowest price.

Is it hard to make a ferry service pay enough to get a decent return on a 13 mill ferry? If it is, then perhaps the answer to this Gulf2025 question of who will pay?” should be: let’s spend public money on new vessels and a dedicated yard and let’s get an abundance of vessels and routes and services, because $13 million for a new ferry might sound like a lot of public money, but wait until you hear how much we’re spending on roads.

The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.

Sign up now

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.