The old fable about the tortoise and the hare was replayed on Cook Strait for a decade from 1994 as a series of fast ferries – dubbed ‘vomit comets’ – offered travellers a quick dash across the ditch.
It began when Christchurch businessman Brooke McKenzie took a punt that people would pay to zip across the Strait ‘on a high-speed ferry for an hour’ in preference to ‘one of their [Interisland Line’s] buckets for three and a half hours’. Unfortunately, Sea Shuttles NZ’s fast monohull Albayzin was a dog. Its unreliable engines quickly made a fable of its timetable. By February 1995 it ‘lay immobile at Waterloo Quay Wharf, a tattered and blackened Bahamas flag fluttering from the stern'. Exit Sea Shuttles. McKenzie returned four years later with the 42-knot Incat 050. This ‘Top Cat’ also lost money and was withdrawn a couple of years later.
McKenzie forced Interisland Line to add fast ferries to its fleet. The first was the 37-knot wave-piercing catamaran Condor 10. Like its successors, it was marketed as The Lynx. The ship hit rough weather on its first voyage, causing passenger distress, but the Condor 10 returned each summer from 1994/95 until replaced by the 41-knot Condor Vitesse in 1999/2000.
In 2000 Interisland Line chartered the 98-metre Incat 057, a 42-knot sprinter, for a year-round service. It was followed in 2003 by the Incat 046, but this last hare was withdrawn in 2005. This left the field to Interisland's tortoises, as well as the Bluebridge ferries of its new competitor, Strait Shipping.
Sadly, the vomit comets were environmental disasters as well as financial ones, chomping up the shoreline while chewing through the gas. ‘The four water jets spew a huge amount of water per second,’ a reporter said as the Albayzin made an early run.
Standing on the engineers’ deck at the rear of the vehicle deck is a phenomenal experience – similar to the noise and sight of the Huka Falls.
In 1994 Wellington’s harbourmaster imposed speed restrictions to reduce ferry wash and protect ships berthed at Aotea Quay. Things were worse on the other side of Cook Strait where Sounds residents complained of shoreline damage. In May 2000 the Marlborough District imposed an 18-knot speed restriction between Picton and the Tory Channel entrance. With the voyage now extended to 2 hours 15 minutes, the fast ferries offered a small time saving over the ‘buckets’, which were larger, more comfortable and could sail in swells higher than the four-metre limit for the fast ferries.