Cable crews on alert in Cook Strait

CABLE ALERT: Ken Bedford, front, and Richard Leppard work on the Seapatroller.
CABLE ALERT: Ken Bedford, front, and Richard Leppard work on the Seapatroller.

Cook Strait is a notorious stretch of water and, as many ferry passengers know, it can be a frightening stomach-churning ride.

It's a rough patch of sea with fierce tides. Thirty-knot winds are routine, it can get up to 80 knots and waves get up to 7 metres - the height of a two-storey house.

Fortunately for landlubbers the rough bit of the passage between Wellington heads and Tory Channel lasts only about an hour.

But for a small cadre of seamen this is their patch and they are out there day and night in all weather, 365 days a year, in the Seapatroller, a 27m converted old navy inshore patrol boat.

Their job is to patrol the cable protection zone, a 7-kilometre-wide strip running 40km from Oteranga Bay, on Wellington's southeastern extremity, to the nearest convenient South Island landfall at Fighting Bay.

The Seapatroller has a crew of three at a time - crew work a two-week-on and two-week-off roster - and their job is to be ever vigilant.

During four-hour watches, they keep their eyes peeled for any boats that are a potential threat to the cables by dropping an anchor, dragging a net or even dangling a fishing line that could break, damage or even just snag some of New Zealand's most vital power and telecommunication lifelines.

The three Transpower power cables and four telecommunication cables are expensive but vulnerable and a careless boatie could wreak havoc, says Seapatroller skipper Ken Bedford, who has been on the strait for 10 years, now.

He is out there for two weeks at a time, sharing the lookout with two other crew, and he seems to have lost none of his love of the sea or his commitment to making sure the cables aren't damaged.

"You have to keep paying attention and looking because the strait is constantly changing and there are vessels coming and going all the time.

"So you're always going ‘Who is that?' - our job is to be nosy and know what everybody is doing, who they are, what they're doing and why."

Even in the middle of the night one crewman is always on watch, ready to call up a vessel and, if necessary, warn them off.

"It could be a yacht that's getting closer that you need to pay attention to because it might be in trouble, or it could be a fishing vessel with nets in the water that could snag or even break a cable.

"A yacht that sinks and lands on the cable could easily ruin it - and a lot of vessels sink out there - so if a vessel starts to founder we want to be there to help them pump it out or tow them away from the cable zone. Anything that impacts on a submarine cable will reduce its life, even if it just goes donk. Even a fishhook will cause damage."

But trawlers were the biggest threat and just a few weeks ago they ordered a trawler that was approaching the cable zone to turn around.

Penalties are steep for damaging a cable - forfeiture of the vessel and fines of up to $250,000.

Mr Bedford said there were lots of cables across the strait. The earliest, now abandoned post and telegraph cables, were laid a century ago by sailing ships.

But the most crucial were the Transpower cables, which carry up to a third of the North Island power supply. It would cost $90m to lay a new power cable or $15m to replace a communications cable.

The last major incident was in 1991 when a fishing trawler snagged a communications cable and broke it.

Mr Bedford said a key part of the job was educating seafarers and making sure they knew the rules. Catching people was just a small part of the job and prosecution was always a last resort. Just in case, they kept a database of nearly 1000 vessels that have approached over the years, so errant skippers cannot plead ignorance.

Before the sea patrols the cable zone was protected only by law.

In those days fishermen used to go up and down the cables, rather than cross them, to make sure they did not snag them, but they would not get away with that now.

The Dominion Post