Cook Strait is one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world and a voyage on a Cook Strait ferry can often be a gut churning experience but this is part of the allure of these voyages, especially with overseas tourists who love to capture towering seas and heaving decks on Tik Tok videos to show how exciting a trip to New Zealand can be!!


For over 80 years the overnight Wellington to Lyttelton ferry, or Steamer Express Service as the Union Steam Ship Company called it, was a vital link in New Zealand’s transport network and the ships that provided the service became symbols of certainty and stability. Their captains were household names. It is said that Wellingtonians and those in Lyttelton set their watches by the ships’ regular arrivals and departures (except when the company held up ships so politicians could get home to their electorates.)

The ferries were used by average Kiwis at a time when air fares were beyond the means of many of them. Over the years, the ferries carried every type of traveller from families on holiday to circus crews and bands, sports teams and overseas tourists. South Island school children saved for months to take a trip to the capital to see the skyscrapers that gave Wellington the appearance of a large, exciting place and to also experience a night onboard a ship. 


In 1895 the Union Steam Ship Company began a dedicated service between Lyttelton and Wellington using the 749-ton Penguin and then the Mararoa, both  adequate little ships for that period in New Zealand’s development. Since South Island politicians used them to get to and from their electorates, the ferries were well maintained.  However, on the evening of the 12th of February 1909, the Penguin was heading for Wellington in fine weather. Conditions quickly deteriorated as the little vessel pitched and rolled in Cook Strait. Unable to see Pencarrow light, Captain Naylor set a course to steer clear of danger. After changing direction a second time to ride out the storm, the ship struck rocks and began to sink in heavy seas. The order was given to abandon the doomed vessel but the lifeboats quickly capsized. Contemporary accounts put the number on board at 105, with 75 drowned in the sinking. This makes it the second worst shipping disaster in New Zealand. (The sinking of the Orpheus in 1863 remains the worst shipping disaster in NZ with the loss of 189 men).

The remaining ship on the Cook Strait service at this time was the 2,466-ton Mararoa which had been the Union Steamship Company’s first vessel on the trans-Pacific run before being transferred to the ferry service between Wellington & Lyttelton. The ship underwent improvements in 1924 to update passenger facilities and was converted to an oil burner. Coal powered ships tended to have gritty decks and the smut filled smoke from the funnel was an unpleasant addition to any voyage. Just seven years after the upgrade the Mararoa was scuttled in Cook Strait.

The 1,727-ton Rotomahana replaced the Mararoa. Known as the “Greyhound” of the Pacific, the Rotomahana was the first ship to be constructed of mild steel. Looking more like a private yacht than a future ferry with its pointy bow, the stylish ship made her maiden voyage from London on the 5th of August 1879 with 100 passengers and arrived in Port Chalmers two months later. The ship then serviced the Wellington – Sydney route for 15 years. From Oct 1897 to May 1907 the popular vessel was transferred to the Wellington – Lyttelton ferry service. Laid up in Dec 1920, the ship was scuttled at sea off the Australian coast on May 29th 1928.


The 3,400-ton Maori of 1907 and 4,400-ton Wahine of 1913, were the first purpose-built ships for the Cook Strait ferry run. They were large and twice as fast as previous ferries. In 1931 the new twin funnelled Rangatira entered service. The sleek looking vessel was really an ocean-going liner of 6,152 tons, capable of 22 knots. She was a favourite with the public for over 30 years. In 1946, a near-sister ship, the Hinemoa entered service.

Rangatira (left) and Hinemoa (NZhistory)

In the 1960s, with more people choosing to fly as airfares dipped, the inter-island ferry service fell on hard times. In 1965, the company converted the second ship named Maori, which arrived in 1953, to a roll-on roll-off ferry and in 1966 took delivery of a purpose-built RORO ferry, the 8,943-ton Wahine. But two years later the Wahine sank in Wellington Harbour drowning 51 people. The lost ship was replaced on the overnight service by the slightly larger and beautiful looking second Rangatira in 1972, but this coincided with passengers choosing the shorter, three hour daylight crossing on the Picton–Wellington ferries. The Maori was withdrawn in 1974 and the Rangatira followed two years later.


Picton’s first dedicated ferry was the Tamahine of 1925. Famous for her permanent list and unsettling corkscrew motion in heavy seas, the ‘Tam’ crossed Cook Strait until 1962, making this vessel one of the longest serving ferries to ply New Zealand waters. Her replacement, the RORO Aramoana, owned by the Railways Department, introduced a transport revolution. Her huge stern door enabled crews to load and discharge cargo in about an hour, linking the road and rail systems of the two main islands nearly seamlessly for the first time. By 1974 there were four government-owned RORO rail ferries.

The 1990s brought competition to the interisland ferry services. Strait Shipping entered service as a livestock carrier in 1992. In 2002, and rebranded as Blueridge, the company introduced an alternative to the government ferries by offering a ship designed for passenger service. Today, Blueridge has three decently sized vessels plying the Wellington-Picton run.

In 2009 the largest ferry operating in New Zealand waters was the 22,365-ton Kaitaki, which could carry 1,600 passengers. This, along with two other ships, are marketed by the government owned company as ‘Interislanders’. They are now tired ships prone to frequent breakdowns but new ones are planned with delivery dates put back on numerous occasions.


In the summer of 1994, Tranz Rail launched its fast ferry the Lynx which carried up to 760 passengers and 230 cars during the summer season. It could complete the 98km (61miles) Wellington to Picton crossing in one and three quarter hours, cutting the crossing time in half. It was known as the ‘vomit comet’ so there was a price to pay for speed. However, speed restrictions aimed at limiting coastal damage from the vessel’s wash resulted in a slower voyage saving just 45 minutes over the conventional ships. The service ended in 2005.

During the 1990s, a number of other fast ferries were introduced to service the Cook Strait traffic but all were dramatically short lived. In December 1994, Christchurch businessman Brooke McKenzie started the Sea Shuttle. It lasted the summer. The following December, the Straitrunner began a Paremata to Picton service but the company went bung five months later. In February 1998, the Mana Seacat catamaran re-introduced a Cook Strait service from Paremata to Picton which also lasted just five months. In May 1999 Fast Cat Ferries introduced the TopCat, which lasted for six months. The trouble with these vessels was they were passenger only and not able to transport vehicles.


With no rail links to other main centres, Nelson depended on ships, which by the early 1900s had a thrice-weekly service to and from Wellington via Picton. In 1908, however, to meet a demand by business travellers for a direct service, the Anchor Company built a small ship for an overnight run. In 1929, to meet increasing demand, the company bought two former West Coast ferries. However by 1949 when Anchor introduced the impressive 3,566-ton Ngaio, air travel was taking a toll on shipping passenger numbers. The last sailing between Nelson and Wellington was in 1953.

Recently, the Cook Strait ferries have been in the news due to frequent breakdowns creating chaos with the country’s transport network and frustration with thousands of passengers. It is hoped the new ships due in two years will run smoothly and keep goods and people flowing between the two islands.

Ceidrik Heward

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