Television adverts make ‘Cruising on The Interislander’ look like a luxury Aegean cruise under balmy skies. White-hulled ships glide peacefully across millpond-calm seas, carrying happy passengers to the Marlborough vineyards or to visit Te Papa. ‘Easy come, easy go,’ the Warratahs warble. Often the crossing is idyllic, and many days are at least comfortable since only a portion of the average three-hour voyage time is spent in open water. The rest of the time passengers cruise through Wellington Harbour and the sheltered Queen Charlotte Sound in Marlborough.
Cook Strait can also be one of the world’s roughest stretches of water. It’s part of the westerly wind belt known as the Roaring Forties. As the only gap between the mountainous main islands of the country, the strait acts like a huge wind tunnel. It was the scene of two of New Zealand's worst maritime catastrophes, the 1909 Penguin disaster and the 1968 sinking of the Wellington–Lyttelton ferry Wahine.
In 1983 the Aratika’s Captain John Mansell was interviewed on a strait crossing:
The strait has a bad reputation because the wind can change so quickly. A southerly gale can blow up a big swell very quickly, and then you will be heading straight into the seas when you leave the sounds. That’s when you have a rough trip. You get this patch of unnatural water called the Karori Rip, where the wind and seas meet the tide head-on. We can even pick it up on radar.
Pick a day when the weather forecaster utters the dreaded words ‘fresh about Cook Strait’, and your cruise may seem more like riding a steel bucking bronco.
Is it as bad as the newspapers sometimes make out? Seasoned Cook Strait observers urge caution when reading news reports of each latest ‘worst storm since the Wahine’. In 2004, after reading a recent batch of press clippings, Captain Michael Pryce observed in New Zealand Marine News that ‘for the ferry operator, the most dangerous aspect of such an event is the ferry passenger with a cellphone!’
Waves "X feet high" become "X metres high", windspeeds in kilometres per hour are expressed as knots. And always, "thousands" are stranded on both sides of Cook Strait, although strangely, when sailings resume, only a few hundred are often on the first ferry.
It is understandable that we are awed by the power of these forces of nature. Each generation discovers seasickness and the discomfort of a rough crossing. But it is something as old as time.