Two Cook Strait ferry captains have been stood down after allegations of two near-misses involving the Arahura in the past five days.
The absence of the two masters while Maritime New Zealand investigates the incidents means the Arahura's embattled sister ferry Stena Alegra seems unlikely to return to a routine timetable before the weekend.
"There's no-one to drive the thing," a maritime source said yesterday.
A KiwiRail spokeswoman confirmed last night that the suspensions would stand even if they caused further disruption to ferry services. "We have sufficient masters to sail Stena for the trials and for later this week, although there may be limited sailings."
The near-misses under investigation are alleged to have happened at Picton at 2am on Friday, and in Wellington Harbour about 7am on Sunday.
Friday's incident involved the Interislander ferry Kaitaki as it was leaving Picton and the Arahura was arriving.
Maritime sources said the complaint originated from the deck of Kaitaki, and the official notification to Maritime NZ came from parent company KiwiRail itself.
Sunday morning's incident occurred after the Arahura, under a different master, sailed between the cruise ship Dawn Princess and South Korean-bound tanker Citrus Express in Wellington Harbour.
The incident was reported to Maritime NZ by the Wellington CentrePort pilot on the Citrus Express.
Interislander general manager Thomas Davis emphasised in a statement last night that staff involved in Maritime NZ inquiries were always routinely stood down as part of standard operating procedure.
The two skippers also undertook routine drug and alcohol testing before standing down, he said.
NZ First leader Winston Peters yesterday accused KiwiRail of covering up the two incidents, as well as another allegedly involving the Stena Alegra hitting a wharf in Picton. He said KiwiRail seemed to be operating from the script of a television comedy. "It is clear the company cannot be allowed to continue to operate in such a potentially dangerous fashion."
Peters said that, in the incident involving the Arahura in Wellington Harbour on Sunday, the pilot on the Dawn Princess told Arahura's skipper to take a certain bearing. "But the skipper turned in the opposite direction and nearly hit a third ship called Citrus Express."
Davis emphatically denied any coverup and said Peters' claim about the Stena Alegra hitting a wharf "is quite simply wrong".
Safety was Interislander's top priority and it encouraged a culture of full incident-reporting as a matter of practice, he said.
"It is also important to remember that reporting in itself doesn't necessarily mean a safety incident has occurred. Investigations need to be undertaken to prove or disprove an allegation."
He said reports of near-misses had to be put into the context of about 4600 Cook Strait crossings a year by Interislander ferries.
Between January 2011 and December 2013, Maritime New Zealand received 68 incident reports of all types, of which 15 were reported as near-misses. Interislander was involved in 36 of the reported incidents, and 10 of the near-misses.
Stena Alegra sailings were cancelled last Thursday after maritime sources said divers had discovered about a metre of a starboard propeller blade had fallen off when the ship sailed into Wellington Harbour.
The Swedish-owned, British-registered ferry has been dogged by problems since it replaced the crippled Aratere on the Cook Strait run. Earlier this year it broke down in Wellington Harbour. Early last month it was out of action for a week when it received a substantial gash to its port side after hitting the ferry terminal wharf in Wellington.
Stena Alegra is on a six-month replacement charter for the Aratere, which lost its starboard propeller when a shaft broke on a sailing from Picton to Wellington in November.
- The Dominion Post
Are you being careful with your water usage?Related story: (See story)