Foveaux Strait is regarded as one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the entire world. The 32km (20 mile) stretch of unfriendly sea separates Southland from Stewart Island. It was first discovered by American sealer Owen Smith in 1804 who named it unabashedly, Smith’s Straits. The American’s map was delivered to Philip King, who was the Governor of New South Wales during 1808/9. He changed the name to Foveaux Strait, in honour of his aide Major Joseph Foveaux. For some reason, the name was changed to Tees Strait in 1824 but the original name was easier to say and sounded better so it stuck. The prevailing westerly winds that frequently batter this part of southern New Zealand make the strait infamous for the mountainous seas that effect it throughout the year. French explorer Jules de Blosseville visited the area in his sailing ship in 1823 and wrote, “Whirlpools are frequently confronted and the place is of great peril when the direction of the waves is contrary to that of the wind,” Local Maori already knew about the dangers of the region. They called the frequent gales, ‘death winds’. Despite the treacherous conditions and strong surface currents on Foveaux Strait, Dutch immigrant, John van Leeuwen took 13 hours and 40 minutes to swim across it on 7 February 1963. The gruelling venture has been repeated 11 times with even a teenager making the dangerous swim. The most recent attempt across the strait took place on the 22nd of February this year by Kiwi swimmer Jonathan Rider.


Conditions in the sea here favour the growth of abundant oyster beds, which are the basis of a thriving industry centred at Bluff. The prized Bluff oysters are valued for their size and quality around New Zealand and are harvested by fishing vessels using steel mesh ‘dredges’. I spent a day on one of these boats while it was harvesting and shiver as I recall the freezing wind attacking me as the boat rolled and pitched in the grey waters, not to mention the seasickness I endured the whole time. It has to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of my entire life. Apart from oysters, quantities of scallops are also harvested from the coastal waters off Stewart Island. In addition to these marine activities, a group of Maori licence holders visit small islands to the south of Foveaux Strait during an annual mutton bird season to kill the young sea birds which they grab from underground nests while the parent birds are at sea to gather food for them. Maori people regard the mutton bird as a delicacy. I once spent two weeks on one of these islands to film a documentary on the annual muttonbird hunt. The families who spend the whole season hunting on these undeveloped islands really enjoy the experience and feel privileged to be able to re-live the lifestyle of their ancestors. The oily birds are preserved and sold around southern New Zealand. The pungent stench made while cooking has to be smelt to be believed. My mother was given the job of boiling the odd one which my dad brought home from the local butcher shop during their short availability. She disliked the task and the whole house stunk for a day after the cooking was over. I have to admit, the mutton bird is an acquired taste and not one that my mother, sister or I ever shared with my Anglo-Saxon father.


The first vessel to operate on Foveaux Strait commenced a weekly mail service between Bluff and Stewart Island in 1877. The small vessel soon became the de facto ferry. The fearless skipper, William Joss, was said to take pride in sailing to schedule whatever the weather. I can only imagine how terrifying some of these crossings in his small, wooden boat must have been for any poor, hapless passenger he carried. By 1885, a larger vessel was needed so the steam tug Awarua took over. Its first crossing proved a good example of how unpleasant sailing across Foveaux Strait can be. It all started splendidly when about 130 invited guests were welcomed on the Bluff wharf by the Invercargill Garrison Band. But as soon as they had entered the angry waters of Foveaux Strait most passengers regretted having eaten their extravagant pre-voyage breakfast as most of it ended up being baffed overboard. They didn’t arrive back in Bluff until 9pm. I would imagine it was the last time any of them ever ventured back into Foveaux Strait. Olga Sansom, who was born on Stewart Island in 1900, wrote when she was 70: “I can remember some shocking crossings when we were all roped to the hatch and, of course, soaking wet. With regards to Foveaux Strait, you don’t so much arrive ‘well’ as you do ‘non-sick’.” I know what she means as I have suffered a crossing on more than one occasion. The ferry was tossed around like a cork on one particularly hair-raising trip I experienced. It was impossible to stand up for most of the voyage as mountainous waves attacked the deck while my terrified fellow passengers (mainly Australian tourists) gripped anything fixed to the ship. I ended up cowering between two steel pipes on the central deck. Vomit danced in the air like drunken seagulls from passengers spewing their last meal as they clung on for grim death. It was impossible to grip the railings around the deck as the sea was too violent to even approach any side of the ship. When we finally arrived in Halfmoon Bay, and staggered ashore at Oban, the island’s only settlement, the Australians declared to those waiting that they had just experienced a voyage in hell. To the 408 locals who live permanently on Stewart Island it was just a standard rough crossing, nothing to make a fuss about!!

NZ Stormy Sea (Amazing Ezone)

Aware of the treacherous seas in Foveaux Strait, the government in 1961 funded a robust vessel to cope with the challenging conditions. Built in Auckland, the GMV Wairua (the one I sailed on) was the largest welded steel ship built in New Zealand up to that time. The sturdy little ship plied Foveaux Strait for 24 years and the 9th of September 1985 was a sad day for the people of Stewart Island, Bluff and Invercargill when the much-loved passenger/cargo ship sailed on the last Foveaux Strait crossing. After a spruce up, Wairua was sold privately to Fijians and operated out of Suva under the same name. The ship was poorly serviced and began to age rapidly in the tropical climate. In 1992 the Fijians sold the tired ferry to their Rotuma Island cousins for $250,000 which was a big investment for them. All went well until a year later when they sailed it into their Kadavu Reef. The once plucky little Foveaux Strait ferry now rests as a wreck off the promontory at Naikorokoro on the coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island.


In the past decade, the trip time across Foveaux Strait has been halved. It now takes an hour in a modern catamaran. Homeopathic drops are available at the ferry terminal in Bluff to assist in limiting seasickness for those making the crossing. Passengers are warned about the challenging conditions so I guess the Strait’s reputation for nail biting conditions is also a selling point for jaded tourists who have ‘been-there-done-that’. They will discover the world’s top leisure park thrill rides are kid’s play compared to a voyage on the angry seas that have made Foveaux Strait a drawcard for adrenaline junkies (and Australians who want to experience the most tempestuous seas in the world).

You can avoid the wild sea crossing to Stewart Island by flying there.The island’s Ryan’s Creek landing strip was built on a hilltop above Oban in the late 1970s. Two tourist airlines use the runway and on a fine day there are great views of the island from the nine-seat Britten-Norman aircraft, which takes approximately 20 minutes to cross Foveaux Strait from Invercargill. However, even by air, it can be a nail-biting trip. I have flown across to the island on a number of occasions and have received a large bruise on my head when it hit the cabin ceiling after the plane was thrown about in the updrafts straight after taking off. I have also experienced the aircraft approaching the single, short, exposed runway at right angles then suddenly lining up with it moments before touching down. This breath-holding manoeuvre is quite common while navigating the shifting winds that blast across the runway. The pilots who fly across Foveaux Strait in the ever-challenging conditions are highly experienced and I have to say, slightly crazy.

As you can now appreciate, getting to Stewart Island is often an adventure in itself but if I had the choice, I’d fly there afterall it’s only 20 minutes of air turbulence against an hour of sea turbulence.

Ceidrik Heward

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