MORE than 300 passengers had to be rescued from a stricken ferry in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf yesterday amid fears it was on fire.
The passengers had to clamber from one ferry on to another, which came to their aid as they drifted in the middle of the gulf, fearing a fire had started in the engine room.
"It was pretty calm but there were a few people who were sort of stressing out and what not and looking a little bit agitated," said passenger Sean Geary.
"It was quite interesting having to jump a couple of feet gap between the boats and wait for the boats to be close enough for people to jump between them."
The ferry was packed with more than the usual number of tourists as day trippers and musicians headed to Waiheke for the annual Winter Blues Festival.
Jet Raider, a Fullers ferry, was in the Motuihe Channel travelling between Auckland and Waiheke Island, when it suddenly stopped.
"Ferry just went BANG and stopped," Chris Parkinson quickly tweeted from the ferry as he waited to get off it.
Passenger Hans Versluys said the captain announced the boat had lost power and another ferry, the Starflyte, would be along shortly to evacuate the 316 people on board.
"They didn't say why the engine stopped," he said, but he overheard a staff member tell another passenger it may have been a fire.
Geary, an audio engineer travelling to the Blues Festival, said: "We were probably 15 minutes out from arriving on Waiheke and there was just an almighty sort of thud. Initially we thought we'd gone over something or dragged something into the intake. We found out after we'd transferred over that there'd been a fire."
Versluys said everyone on board remained calm throughout the incident. "There was no panic whatsoever. There were a lot of children on board and a lot of older people and tourists but everyone stayed really calm, and as soon as they said we were going to be transferred, it took about 30 minutes to get everybody off onto the other boat."
Northern fire communications shift manager Jaron Phillips said the master of the ferry called the Wellington Rescue Coordination centre to say there had been an engine fire but the ferry's automatic extinguishers put out the fire.
Firefighters from Parnell fire station went out to the ferry with a thermal imaging camera to ensure the fire was fully extinguished.
But Fullers CEO Douglas Hudson said there was no fire, just a major engine failure.
"What's happened is the engine's failed and in the process it's set off the fire alarms. There's been no actual fire damage done but there's been a major engine failure which has triggered the fire alarms," he said.
Hudson said there were no concerns the ferry being out of commission would affect preparedness for tourists during the Rugby World Cup, saying Jet Raider was one of the company's three spare vessels. He said the cause of the problem was not yet known.
"All the authorities have been notified. Maritime New Zealand have been notified and they'll decide what further investigation has to occur. We'll be involved in that and we'll conduct our own investigation."
- Sunday News