'Lemon' ferry's saga of woe

03:25, May 17 2014
The salvaged propeller from the Aratere is brought back to Picton by barge and lifted by crane out of the water at Waitohi wharf.

This was a ship launched with great hopes and minor misgivings. The Aratere steamed into a huge summer welcome at Wellington Harbour in early 1999. There to greet her were helicopters, boats and tugs, a Maori welcoming party and prime minister Jenny Shipley.

In fact, the new ferry, whose Maori name means "rapid path", was running on only one engine and had had various troubles on its way from the shipyard in Spain. But these were just teething problems, it was said.

The press hailed the $106 million ship for its impressive technology. "From bridge to engine room, TranzRail's new ferry Aratere bristles with technology to help it make light work of Cook Strait," wrote The Dominion's Infotech Weekly.

"With the amount of technology on this ship you'll never have another Wahine."

And Shipley saw it as a symbol of the success of privatisation. If she had to decide between spending money on a ship "compared with building hospitals and schools, I wonder how difficult it would be to make that choice", she said.

But the hopes soon died. The Aratere was plagued by mechanical problems that quickly earned it the nickname El Lemon. The problems continued for years.


And last year the ship, whose performance had in the past few years markedly improved, got into trouble again. A propeller shaft broke and the starboard propeller fell off just outside the mouth of Tory Channel.

Losing a propeller is a rare maritime event, akin to an engine falling off a jumbo jet.

So the Aratere went off to dry dock in Singapore and a replacement ship, the Stena Alegra, was brought from Poland.

But the replacement also had problems. It broke down in Wellington Harbour in January, forcing a cancellation of the crossing. And it too had problems with its propeller, prompting jokes about Lemon Two.

This month about a metre of one of its propeller blades was found to be missing. The jinx of the Aratere, it seemed, was back.

Today, however, the Stena Alegra is temporarily back in service and KiwiRail says the Aratere will be sailing the strait again next month.

Has the company finally lifted the curse of the Aratere?


New ships routinely have mechanical problems. "When I was at sea," jokes Wellington regional harbourmaster Mike Pryce, "we used to joke that for the first two years it was teething trouble and after that it was caused by old age."

The Aratere's problems, however, were far more than teething troubles.

"The list of problems that the Aratere had is quite exceptionally large," Pryce says. "I had quite a few calls at 2am about that vessel over my times here."

These were not minor glitches but potentially dangerous problems such as complete loss of engine power or steering problems. And they went on for years.

"We kept saying to ourselves, 'One day that ship will do it in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong weather, and it will be all on'," Pryce says.

But then the ship underwent an overhaul in dry dock in Brisbane and "it was actually all right for about two years", Pryce says.

In 2011 it was refurbished for nearly $54m, and its hull lengthened by 30m.

Rod Grout, retired chief executive of Pacifica Shipping, warned Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee that the lengthening could cause problems.

"In over 40 years' experience with cargo ships, I know that lengthening a vessel can lead to major stability, reliability and safety issues - any of which can prove extremely costly to resolve," he said in a letter to Brownlee in December 2010.

Lengthening the ship can put extra strains on the engine, propellers and shafts, Grout told The Dominion Post.

The loss of the propeller in November clearly caused anguish within the company. Then chief executive Jim Quinn rejected the idea, however, that it was linked to the lengthening of the ship.

"They're in the same part of the ship, as they always were. They were not moved, no disruption to that in the fit-out. It doesn't make sense to me that this is the issue," he said after the accident.

"We don't know the bloody answer to this, that's the problem. Speculating isn't going to help."

This week the company said an independent external investigation indicated that "the broken propeller shaft has nothing to do with extending the Aratere".


So what did cause the breakage?

KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy says the inquiry is not finished yet. A team of six different specialists, including Lloyds of London, had carried out "a very detailed forensic investigation".

There has been speculation the trouble might lie with the decision to fit larger propellers to the shafts following the lengthening.

This move, which was done to save fuel, could have put extra strains on the propeller shafts, according to one marine industry source.

However, Reidy refused to "speculate". The broken shaft, he said, "is also subject to an insurance claim and possible litigation".

KiwiRail does say, however, that it has got to the bottom of its other propeller problem, affecting the Stena Alegra.

An investigation shows the cause was a previous repair to the propeller. The company had no reason to believe there was a fault with the propeller when it chartered the ship, says Interislander general manager Thomas Davis.

There was no evidence on the outside of the propeller of cracking or of a previous repair. Inside the propeller, however, a previous weld could be seen - and "not a particularly good weld".

"It was only evident once the thing broke open," he says. "It was like borer or a piece of rot inside wood."

Shouldn't the company have picked up the problem when it inspected the ship before bringing it across the world to New Zealand?

No, says Davis, because it was not visible and there was nothing about the repair in the ship's available records.

"We were very unlucky."


So what has caused the jinx of the Aratere?

Captain John Brown, a now- retired but long-serving captain on the ferries, sailed the Aratere to New Zealand from the Barreras Shipyard in northwest Spain.

The ship was not properly finished, he says. "It should really have had another two or three months in the shipyard, probably."

The problems began in the journey Down Under.

"We drifted around the Atlantic for about a day with no engines," he recalls. "And then we went on one engine all the way to Panama. We were there for a week trying to fix that up.

"The other engine had broken down before we got to Wellington. We came into Wellington on one engine."

Brown, who oversaw other railway ferries when they were built in Europe, thinks things would have been handled differently if the company had been still in state ownership.

He had been to pick up a couple of the ferries before "under railways management and they were beautiful ships".

"They [Railways] made sure everything was all right." They would have ensured the problems were sorted out before the ship set sail for New Zealand.

Barreras was a good shipyard, he believes. And the ship included many examples of advanced technology.

"The bridge equipment was the best you could get but it came from a whole lot of manufacturers in China and so on."

Putting it all together was probably a very difficult job for the Spanish shipyard, Brown says.

TranzRail, the new private owner of Railways and the rail ferries, was keen to cut costs in the business. Many saw Railways and the ferries as overmanned and the staff overpaid.

But the Interislander's Thomas Davis doesn't buy the idea that cost-cutting went too far and produced a problematic ship.

"If [private owner TranzRail] were really concerned about costs then I suggest they could have just carried on running the [older ferries] Aratika and the Arahunga," he said.

"If you wanted a low-cost approach you could have saved yourself what the ship cost [reportedly $106m]. But they didn't. They said, 'We're going to make an investment in Cook Strait' - and they actually invested quite a lot of money."

In hindsight, however, "they could have done better".

And that is surely an understatement. "The name 'The Lemon' didn't come from nowhere," as one senior maritime industry figure put it.


KiwiRail is anxious to put the Aratere's problems "in perspective". The ferry is the workhorse of the fleet, says chief executive Reidy. It does six crossings of the strait and 12 berthings a day.

"It's not like Air New Zealand, where the planes don't fly from one o'clock at night till six in the morning and you've got time to do maintenance."

The ferries are crossing one of the toughest straits in the world, he notes.

Since the ship's extension it has carried significantly more passengers and freight across Cook Strait safely and reliably, the company says.

"There has been a major improvement in Aratere's on-time performance, which was previously a significant contributor to scheduling-related disruptions."

The company is anxious to reject claims by politicians such as Winston Peters that the Aratere is unsafe.

"Safety is a critical principle of my leadership," says Reidy, and KiwiRail is committed to safety in everything it does.

The company has also said its performance compares well with its competition. Between 2011 and 2013, it says, the Interislander accounted for 64 per cent of the total crossings but only 53 per cent of the reported incidents.

And it points out that it complies with all national and international maritime rules and its ships are regularly inspected and audited by independent authorities.

The company, says Reidy, is not cavalier about safety and is transparent and open.

The loss of the Aratere's propeller was "regrettable", he says. "We've had a major issue on the Aratere, but anyone knowledgeable about shipping or mechanical engineering aspects know that mechanical issues happen."

And despite the problems it has with the ferry, the company says that its reputation remains sound.

It says four out of five passengers surveyed in April "rated us above average or excellent. Only 2 per cent rated us as below average or poor."

And it says recent annual brand research showed overall trust in Interislander remains strong.

It says 39 per cent of respondents trusted Interislander "a great deal", while 31 per cent trusted it "a little". Twenty per cent "neither trust nor distrusted", and 5 per cent distrusted it a little. One per cent distrusted it "a great deal".

KiwiRail clearly wants to put the saga of the Aratere behind it. "We need to move on," says Reidy.

The company's problem, however, is that the Aratere has a long history of trouble and its loss of a propeller only six months ago was an extraordinary event. It was, says Brown, "amazing".

Given all this, it will probably be some time before the public is ready to "move on".

The Dominion Post