A Ferry Crossing from Hell
Wellington to Picton
4am; 5am; 6.30am.
I checked the clock at every one of those hours.
How could I not? It would soon be time to leave and the Wellington wind wasn’t giving up, no matter how hard I wished it would stop. Gusting at around 48 knots, it had been howling for most of the night, breaking my sleep and leaving me anxious for the day ahead. Adding to my anxiety was the knowledge that I had to catch the morning ferry across the notorious Cook Strait, to the South Island of New Zealand.
We were due to sail on Arahura Inter-islander, from Wellington to Picton, that takes passengers from the bottom of the North Island of New Zealand to the tip of the South Island. Not that far, in terms of distance, but far enough given the awful weather and a ferry crossing synonymous with wild seas.
The first ferry of the morning had been completely cancelled, due to the deteriorating weather conditions, so when I arrived at the Aotea Quay, I glanced at the sign describing the 10 am sailing conditions, as ‘HEAVY,’ and gulped.
Would we survive this, I pondered as we loaded our bags onto the check-in counter? Was it too late to change our minds?
The weather seemed okay for the minute, moored in the protected expanse of Wellington’s harbour, but the foreboding words of my cousin’s husband, rang loudly in my ears, “You’ll be okay for the first hour!” he’d declared, the previous night.
Eek! It was a three hour journey.
Nevertheless, we headed on board and explored a bit of the boat; the apparently jovial mood of the fellow passengers, infectious. None appeared overly worried about sailing conditions. As I perused the various seating areas, keen to find a seat with views of the ocean, I spotted a bar, several bars in fact, and noted it was well patronised by various male patrons.
Did people really drink alcohol, when the sea promised to get rough? I thought.
The ferry wasn’t a small boat; in fact, it housed a large cafeteria style kiosk, souvenir shop and a full scale cinema. The thought of watching a movie in the dark, whilst the ship was being tossed around in Neptune’s domain like a top, was more terrifying for me than being thrown overboard! Instead, we settled on a window seat, on the lower passenger deck, watching the cars and trucks drive nonchalantly into the vessel’s nether regions.
I noticed the build sign informed all, who took interest, that the ferry had been built in the Danish town of Aalborg. Good Danish design was reassuring. The Vikings were used to storms at sea, weren’t they? Even so, I couldn’t help but check the state of the weather, again, and how many life rafts the ship had – just in case. I tried to avoid looking to the horizon which still confirmed a bad storm was approaching. Darn.
But the little girl was happy. What an adventure, she innocently thought posing for the camera. Unfortunately, she was about to change her mind.
When the Captain’s voice crackled over the loud speaker, welcoming passengers aboard, he warned us our crossing would get, “a bit rough out there,” once we were in the open sea. In fact, he said, it was “blowing a gale and we should expect 8 – 10 metre waves.”
Good Lord, I thought, muffling a gasp, this was a bit different to an afternoon outing on the bay, home in Australia.
The swell became heavier, waves crashing over the bow, winds had increased and the boat started listing to and fro like a inflatable toy in a baby’s bath. At times, the hull would rise up in to the air before slamming down hard, against the waves so loudly I feared it would surely break in two. Terrifying.
The passengers who had been enjoying a tipple at the bar filed hurriedly past us towards the rear of the boat, looking a tad green around the gills.
Glass and bottles crashed to the floor while the crew stumbled around handing out ice chips to anxious passengers, including said daughter. She was terrified, vowing never ever to go on a boat again. I decided to move upstairs with her. A dangerous move I would not repeat again.
Have you ever tried to climb the metal stairs of a ship, holding a seven year old securely around the waist, a heavy back pack strapped to your back, (which changes one’s centre of gravity completely), whilst simultaneously opening one of those heavy metal doors the ships have to hold back the water, in the event the boat sinks. You know the ones with the metal ring you turn on them? What are they called?
All this and also protect your daughter from being squashed in said door, as the boat listed to and fro, swinging the heavy door open and shut. I had no wish to have my fingers and toes severed by the wildly swinging chunk of metal.
I daren’t go out on deck to take a photo, as I was fearful I’d be thrown overboard by the violent metronome like lurches of the vessel. In those seas, I would not stand a chance of survival.
This was the last photos I snapped through a crack in the outside door. It was a difficult job to hold the door open and not be slammed in the back with it when the boat listed in the opposite direction. I would not be taking any more photos.
Taking the photo did however, momentarily take my mind off my stomach which was doing its best impression of a cirque de soleil trampoline specialist.
IWith no more photos to take and my time spent reassuring my daughter it was all fine and dandy, I phoned my husband, (the Moth), back in Australia, to say goodbye, in case we didn’t make it to the South Island. He laughed at me over the phone – encouragingly so though, as he was positive that we would prevail.
I reminded him of the Wahine disaster. He scoffed. It would have been quite a different matter, if he was in situ beside me on that ferry, I assure you!
Just when I thought I was going to have to re-visit those eggs I’d eaten for breakfast, a second time around, I spotted the heads of Queen Charlotte Sound and the angry sea began to simmer considerably, the closer we got. We were going to make it.
I had never been so glad to see land.
Amazingly so – it was completely calm on the other side of the heads!
And the two sounds are really stunning.
Our disembarkation port of Picton, was in sight. We had survived a horror ferry ride.
To this day, I cannot watch a movie with a plot centered around a ship capsizing or battling stormy seas. I just cannot.
Next time I would fly into the South Island.
Have you ever experienced a frightening ride, where you feared for your life?
How did you cope with the fears?
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