Ferries a pair of lemons

TIM DONOGHUE
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014

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First we had El Lemon, now it looks like we've got the Swedish citron.

The chartered Swedish ferry Stena Alegra, brought in by Interislander at short notice to replace the crippled Aratere, broke down in Wellington Harbour yesterday in its first week of service.

Both Labour and NZ First raised questions about the ferry company's management, with Labour's Darien Fenton saying: "It looks like we've got another floating dunger."

It was a sorry sight on the wharf yesterday morning as the two broken-down ferries sat one behind the other, both unable to sail. Engine problems had forced the cancellation of Stena Alegra's 5am freight sailing to Picton.

That meant its return sailing, with 148 passenger vehicles booked on it, had to be cancelled too.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said Interislander owner KiwiRail had "an uncanny knack of picking lemons".

"The Cook Strait ferry service is a farce. KiwiRail simply cannot get it right and it keeps making mistakes that are costing millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

"The Aratere was a floating shambles and KiwiRail has simply replaced one mistake with another."

He called on the Government to "step in immediately and put a qualified person in charge".

Fenton, Labour's transport spokeswoman, said: "There are serious questions to be answered . . . The latest incident gives rise to questions about people running the Interislander, and whether or not they are competent to make important decisions."

The Aratere, built in Spain and dubbed El Lemon by its crew after a series of early mishaps, lost its propeller on a sailing from Picton to Wellington on the night of November 5.

The Stena Alegra is a Swedish-owned, British-registered ferry that was running between Poland and Sweden before it was chartered as a replacement. In October, it ran aground off Sweden in a severe storm.

Its engine problems were repaired enough to satisfy Maritime NZ to give it conditional support to resume passenger sailings last night, and it left for Picton shortly before 6pm.

By then, Twitter users were already having fun at its expense. Dovil tweeted: "Interislander to now issue kick boards and water wings," while Hamish Mack wrote: "But they have lovely ads don't they? Part of the nostalgia is that the boats used to go."

Destination Marlborough general manager Tracy Johnston described the latest breakdown as an "incredibly unfortunate" incident. "We are concerned about the reputation of travelling the Cook Strait by ferry." In general, tourists held up by the ferry fleet's various problems had not expressed frustration, she said, although there were always some passengers who would be put out by the disruptions.

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"It's one of those things you take in your stride, just as on some days you can have disruptions with air travel."

Coincidentally, Absolutely Positively Wellington chief executive David Perks was waiting to get on the delayed Stena Alegra sailing out of Wellington last night.

He said problems with the Aratere would have created some caution among travellers over the summer, but did not think there would be a big impact on tourism.

- The Dominion Post

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