This slide show depicts the Aratere in good and bad weather.
In 1999 the Dominion’s Infotech Weekly enthused about Tranz Rail’s latest ferry, the first ship in 16 years built specially for the Cook Strait run. ‘From bridge to engine room, Tranz Rail’s new ferry Aratere bristles with technology to help it make light work of Cook Strait … With the amount of technology on this ship you’ll never have another Wahine [disaster].’
The Spanish-built Aratere had all the bells and whistles. The quest for automation even did away with the traditional mooring rope. Instead, New Zealand company Mooring Systems’ innovative vacuum system, nicknamed the ‘Ironsailor’, automatically connected up to the ship.
There were no major incidents during the old Railways Department’s time as a ferry operator. In fact the first serious accident did not occur until March 1994 when the Aratika grounded in Tory Strait. It was refloated quickly.
The Aratere upped the game for headline writers. On 24 February 1999, just days after Infotech raved about all those gadgets, the ship lost all power on Wellington Harbour and was left drifting. The problem was repeated the next day … and again in February and March. By now, the waterfront dubbed the ship ‘El Lemon’, ‘Aradago’ or ‘Aratanic’.
After more problems in 2000, there was a relatively long break until 2003 when the ship crashed into the trawler San Domenico in Wellington Harbour. In late 2004, in the space of less than a month, the ship had two power failures in the Marlborough Sounds and cut off the ferry Kent.
In February 2005 the Aratere panicked passengers by doing an unscheduled 360-degree turn in Wellington Harbour. More steering problems developed in Queen Charlotte Sound that month. No one was injured, and the crew performed well, but the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report noted that:
The fault was an intermittent one, so it may still exist or it may have been accidentally fixed while fault-finding. The problem was that the documentation did not accurately reflect the installed equipment of the Aratere, so fault-finding is a process of educated guesses.
In April 2005 the Aratere almost hit a tanker, and in June propulsion problems re-emerged.
On 3 March 2006 the Aratere hit heavy waves and rolled unexpectedly and heavily to starboard soon after leaving Wellington on an afternoon crossing. It then lurched suddenly to port. Thirty minutes later, the ship again rolled heavily to starboard and sheared to port. Four passengers and one crewman were lightly injured. Five rail-freight carriages were toppled, and several cars and trucks were damaged. The normal three-hour crossing took seven and a half hours and generated widespread publicity, with newspapers printing startling computer-generated images of the ship rolling 45 and 50 degrees. This was ‘the voyage from hell’ for frightened passengers. Safety authorities stood down the master.
Although the available evidence showed that the safety of the ship was unlikely to have been compromised, the suddenness and extent of each of the rolls were uncomfortable for all on board, frightening for some and injurious for a few.
In the wake of that incident, ferry operators have introduced new heavy weather operating protocols. And the ship has completed thousands of smooth sailings.