Our interisland treasure

Last updated 13:51 17/11/2013

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OPINION: I reckon I'm not the only one outside of Picton breathing a sigh of relief that the mad plan to move the Cook Strait ferry terminal to Clifford Bay has finally been abandoned.

Like many New Zealanders I grew up with the interisland ferries and to me they are synonymous with Picton, gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, Tory Channel and Wellington, seemingly a world away but in reality around 30km of usually stomach-churning open sea.

Picton, with its brightly painted art deco buildings, palm trees, sidewalk cafes and waterfront pubs was an exotic place to a Christchurch boy. It may have been a one-horse town but it was awash with anticipation; a pretty place to await the voyage ahead.

And voyages they were. You never knew quite what the Cook Strait was going to throw at you; at times so calm you could watch fizz- boats hitching a ride in the ferry wake, at others so rough you could do little more than hang on for grim death as the ship pitched and rolled through 15-metre swells.

The ferry ride between Picton and Wellington was a rite of passage for young Kiwis long before it became an international tourist attraction.

Seagulls, pies, fish and chips from the serving hatch on the back of the Arahura, burly English (always English) stewards in crisp white, boozed and sunburned old men. Strikes, delays, near-misses and conspiracy theories over alleged groundings - the ferries were never far from the public consciousness.

While I don't remember the terrible storm that sunk the interisland ferry Wahine, I was nearly born during it, being just a couple of weeks old when it went down with the loss of 51 lives. The ship's foundering and the rescues that followed were covered live and represented a coming-of-age for television journalism.

I did sail on her replacement, the Rangatira, which plied the route between Christchurch and Wellington overnight. You got your own cabin, lulled to sleep in a bunk by the waves and the thrum-thrum of the engines. Hungry, too, because the crew refused to serve food after a dispute with management - a common enough occurrence in the 70s.

I took the ferry to my first job in journalism at the late-lamented Evening Post in the capital; hung over from a farewell bash the night before and already homesick, the trip took five and a half miserable hours in a storm so fierce even the crew looked ill.

I was on the ferry when it decided to inadvertently weigh anchor at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The crew couldn't haul it back up and we sat there for two hours while I unhelpfully provided live reports to Radio New Zealand.

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Add to this countless crossings for summer holidays in the Sounds and Golden Bay and I think I can lay claim to Frequent Sailor status. "Cruising on the Interislander" remains for me and many others the way we move our cars, our trailers, our caravans - our lives - between the North and South Islands.

So I'm glad the shadow of Clifford Bay, that windswept and sunburned Marlborough coastline miles from nowhere that successive governments since the 1920s have mulled as a new ferry port, has finally gone.

Picton may have survived without the ferry terminal - but it might not have, and was it really worth the risk, just to shave half an hour off the sea journey? And shifting to Clifford Bay, besides costing half a billion dollars, would have deprived locals and tourists alike of the scenic splendour of the Sounds - surely one of the world's great ferry passages.

The Government's final rejection of Clifford Bay also provides an opportunity. Now that they know Picton will remain the southern terminus for at least the next 30 years, it's time KiwiRail and its taxpayer owners focused their attention on bringing the ferry service back up to scratch.

Capital investment in the ferries was sorely neglected during the years it was owned by Australian Toll Holdings but as a state-owned company there's no excuse for the current state of affairs.

KiwiRail is facing a summer season with just two boats after a propeller recently fell off the Aratere, the Spanish boat known as "El Lemon" by its crew because it's had so many problems. This leaves just the ageing Arahura - in service since 1983 - and that ugly brute of a boat, the Kaitaki (which can't take rail and takes forever to berth) to handle the load.

This isn't good enough, either for the travelling public, the freight companies that rely on the ferries, or the many thousands of tourists that will use the ships over summer (assuming they can even get a booking).

As someone who's travelled reasonably widely, it's always staggered me that we don't regard Cook Strait as part of the state highway network and fund it accordingly. High priority is currently being given to the national road network as a key infrastructural asset but the bit of water in between the two main islands is seldom mentioned.

Air travel may be ubiquitous and (relatively) cheap but you can't fly your car across the country. It's time the Government recognised the ferries are still our nation's bridge - and fund them accordingly.

- Sunday Star Times

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