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Delays and cancelled services have disrupted Cook Strait crossings for much of this year. (Photo: Getty / Design: Archi Banal)

SocietyMarch 9, 2023

Approved, cancelled, on standby: A ‘horrific’ 24 hours trying to board the Interislander

Delays and cancelled services have disrupted Cook Strait crossings for much of this year. (Photo: Getty / Design: Archi Banal)

An Auckland couple just wanted to move their family to Christchurch. The only thing standing in their way? The Cook Strait and a cancelled ferry service.

When Andrea and Matt* sold their Auckland home, the first thing they did was book ferry tickets. This was at the start of February, a time when the Interislander ferry service was making headlines for breakdowns stranding passengers either side of Cook Strait, including one scary incident in which the ship Kaitaki broke down and drifted close to shore.

The couple were moving their family and all their stuff – that’s two adults, three kids, two cars and all of their possessions – to Christchurch to a new home and a new life. That’s when the first problems arose. Thanks to a backlog caused by all the breakdowns during January and February, the only ferry slots Andrea could book were more than a month away.

Undeterred, she booked a ferry for their family and two cars for the evening of March 7, and began planning an impromptu summer holiday around the North Island. Movers came and took their stuff so they packed everything they’d need for their adventure into their two cars. They bathed in Taupō’s hot pools. They rode Whanganui’s Kowhai Park rocket ship. And they took smiling selfies in front of Ohakune’s giant carrot. 

Andrea, Matt and their children Harry, George and Morgan. (Photo: Supplied)

They arrived in Wellington this past Sunday, a full two days ahead of their ferry trip. They’d booked two nights in a holiday park before catching their ferry to the South Island. In this time they planned see the city’s sights, visit Te Papa and ride scooters along the waterfront if it wasn’t too windy. Their ferry was scheduled to leave on Tuesday at 8.30pm.

Then the email landed. Short and concise, it arrived in Andrea’s inbox on Monday afternoon, informing that her ferry booking was cancelled. “The Kaitaki has a mechanical fault and won’t sail for at least two weeks,” it said. “We have no space available on other ferries and we are sorry but we have no option but to cancel your booking and provide a full refund.”

It sent Andrea into a mad panic. First, she tried to call and see if there were any free spots in the coming days, but a recorded message told her there were no standbys so she shouldn’t bother trying. Next, she tried to rebook online, but the earliest slot was on March 30. She snapped it up, then, during her family’s Te Papa visit, spent another hour on hold, trying to plead her case.

Realising it was fruitless, she tried to rebook the family’s accommodation, but the holiday park was all booked out. It was then that it dawned on her: she and Matt faced three weeks in Wellington with two cars, three kids, none of their stuff and nowhere to live. “It’s very stressful,” she told The Spinoff in the middle of all this. “It’s horrific.”

Andrea and her family aren’t the only ones affected by the delays. Many have been left stranded by Cook Strait crossing delays. “The past few weeks have been rough for our customers, for our passengers and for our own people who have been working above and beyond to get as many people and as much freight as possible across Cook Strait,” admitted executive general manager Walter Rushbrook at the start of March.

In another press release, the Interislander announced the Kaitaki was fixed from the problems that saw it drift close to shore and would begin taking passengers again from March 4. It also confirmed a long-term plan to solve all these delays. “Our ships are ageing and this is why we are bringing two new ships into service in 2025 and 2026,” it said.

Then, on March 5, one day after resuming services, the Kaitaki broke down again. According to Interislander, the latest fault was mechanical and caused by a gearbox bearing. The Interislander apologised and said extra services were being added to cover the shortfalls. “It’s really disappointing for our crew as we take real pride in the service we deliver,” it posted in a message on its website.

Waiting on standby to board the Interislander passenger ferry in Wellington. (Photo: Supplied)

A technician is travelling from overseas to inspect the Kaitaki’s gearbox, the Interislander said, and it is talking to manufacturers in the Netherlands in an attempt to solve the issue. “We are contacting all the affected passengers and will do all we can to ensure they are re-allocated to other sailings with as little disruption as possible.”

But Andrea says there was no contact, and no attempts were made to rebook them. When she tried calling again, she was put through to a staff member who sounded close to tears. “She was going, ‘I don’t know, I’m not the person who books, you’ll probably get a text.'” It has, she admits, been a tough 24 hours dealing with all the admin while soothing upset kids. “Yesterday was a bit rough. It was all a bit sad. We didn’t know what was happening.”

She may be able to claim compensation. According to Consumer NZ, which has lodged a complaint to the Commerce Commission about the Interislander’s delays this year, customers could be able to claim any costs caused by cancelled ferry services. “It’s our view that when someone makes a booking, they do so expecting the ferry to arrive at its destination at the scheduled arrival time,” says CEO John Duffy.

“Once people start having to fork out for accommodation and alternative travel arrangements, because of a cancellation or delay due to mechanical issues, we think the disrupted passengers are legally entitled to claim those costs back from the operator.”

Andrea, Matt, Harry, George and Morgan finally board an Interislander ferry. (Photo: Supplied)

Late yesterday, nearly 24 hours after their first ferry was cancelled, Andrea and her family received some good news. Despite being told standby tickets weren’t available, when they arrived at port to attempt to talk to Interislander staff, they were told they did have standby spots after all. After waiting in a queue for several hours, they managed to get both cars on board and depart the day they were booked to depart all along.

The family celebrated with a group hug, warm cups of noodles and another selfie for their holiday photo album. “All five cars on standby made it,” Andrea said. She encourages all others desperate to cross Cook Strait to try and do the same thing. “The people who are showing up are sometimes getting a spot … You’ve just got to show up.”

* The family’s last name has been withheld to protect identities.

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