Aratere barred from sailing over engine trouble

SHANE COWLISHAW AND KATE NEWTON
Last updated 17:10 02/11/2011

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LATEST: Maritime New Zealand has barred the Aratere from sailing after the troubled ship suffered another engine failure during trials today.

Maritime Services general manager Sharyn Forsyth said conditions had been imposed on the Aratere this afternoon meaning the vessel would not sail until the director of Maritime NZ and surveyors were satisfied that the ongoing problems had been resolved and it was safe.

Today's trials to re-enact the engine faults experienced on Monday night led to a different engine failing, which was thought to be unrelated.

KiwiRail will have to present a plan outlining the safety of the vessel before any further trials can be carried out.

The troubled Aratere did not make its 2.05pm sailing as maritime inspectors continue their work onboard.

Two senior inspectors and a technical engineer had boarded the ship at 8.30am while the ship performed tests in Wellington harbour, a Maritime NZ spokeswoman said.

The transport minister has demanded an "urgent briefing" after Interislander's trouble-plagued ferry Aratere was left without power in Cook Strait.

Sailings have been cancelled after two engines failed in an incident that maritime officials say could have been much worse.

The breakdown was the latest in a slew of problems, including rats, ballast problems and electrical faults, after the ship returned to service following a $53.8million upgrade in Singapore earlier this year.

The spokeswoman said inspectors also looked at the boat yesterday afternoon and would decide later today if sailing could resume.

The inspectors had the power to ground the ship if they were not satisfied with its safety or impose other conditions on sailings.

KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn yesterday defended the Aratere saying it was a "bloody good ship" and it would not sail if there were concerns.

The Aratere was travelling through Tory Channel on Monday when an engine broke down at 7.20pm. Conditions were good so the master continued, but after about 500m the second engine failed. The 142 passengers were left in darkness for about 30 minutes. The ship then limped toward Wellington but a fuel pipe broke, triggering a fire alarm.

When the ship reached Wellington Harbour, it waited for a tugboat to escort it in.

KiwiRail engineers were yesterday trying to determine the cause of the breakdown. The 2.05pm sailing to Picton was cancelled, leaving more than 100 passengers to make alternative plans. Some were able to book with rival ferry company Bluebridge's afternoon sailing. Others waited for Interislander's 6.25pm sailing of the Arahura.

Both Wellington and Picton harbourmasters said it was extremely lucky the breakdown had not occurred in bad weather.

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Wellington harbourmaster Mike Pryce said the master had done the correct thing by calling for a tugboat as an escort.

A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Steven Joyce confirmed yesterday that he had asked for an "urgent briefing" on the causes of the event, but was satisfied KiwiRail was taking safety seriously.

Mr Quinn passionately denied there were any safety concerns about the Aratere, saying sailings would be stopped immediately if there were.

"We would not be sailing the ship if it wasn't safe, we've got the public to think about, we've got our staff to think about and our reputation to think about. We would not start a ship that was unsafe, it would just never happen, not knowingly."

He admitted the problems since the refit had been frustrating and a review into the work, involving naval architects, was under way.

But some of the mechanical problems were not related to the refit and were simply a case of wear and tear.

The Transport Accident and Investigation Commission has yet to decide whether to investigate.

Aratere's 11-year history sailing Cook Strait has been a troubled one.

December 1998: The $106 million Spanish-built ferry had so many problems after entering service in 1999 that the crew nicknamed it "El Lemon". Problems first arose on the delivery voyage from Spain in December 1998 when the vessel experienced several minor technical problems.

February 1999: Power failure leaves the Aratere languishing in Wellington Harbour.

May 1999: Electrical failure cuts power to engines and brings ship to a virtual standstill.

September 1999: Smoke in engine room sends 250 passengers and 40 crew scurrying to emergency stations.

November 1999: Bow plateshave to be strengthened.

June 2000: Liferaft falls from the Aratere while docked in Wellington.

December 2000: Aratere blows an engine piston, causing delays for several weeks.

July 2003: Aratere crashes in to a rail ramp while docking in Wellington.

July 2004: Passengers on Aratere had a nightmare eight-hour journey from Picton to Wellington after the ship broke down in mountainous seas.

April 2005: Aratere, on a late-night freight sailing, is involved in a near miss with chemical tanker Bow De Jin off Eastbourne in Wellington Harbour.

July 2006: Aratere rams the trawler San Domenico in high winds while berthing in Wellington Harbour.

February 2009: More than 100 passengers bumped off Aratere sailing after coupling holding a lifeboat fails.

April 2011: Aratere sails for Singapore for major $54 million (approx) refurbishment. Returns behind schedule in September 2011 with Singapore rats on board.

September 2011: MAF Biosecurity prevents Aratere from discharging possibly contaminated ballast water. MAF later relents and allows Interislander to dump the ballast in Cook Strait.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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