Skeleton crew

Ferry to the far south

Starbucks south

New Zealand
13 Oct 2017

A ferry lumpy crossing

Foveaux Strait divides New Zealand’s South Island from Stewart Island, another thirty kilometres further south. Only twenty metres deep, it is fully exposed to the Roaring Forties and the Southern Ocean. A remarkably choppy piece of water.

Consequently, when I regarded the glorified dinghy that was to take us from Bluff across to Oban, Stewart Island’s tiny (and only) settlement, I was less than sanguine about retaining my breakfast of junk food and coffee.

Luggage was dumped into metal bins, which were loaded onto the cargo deck at the back and covered in tarps, and we were allowed one small bag each (and a skeleton).

Skeleton crew

skeleton crewBoarding was a casual affair. The dockside door was opened, a deckhand collected the green plastic cards we’d been given at check-in in lieu of boarding passes, and we filed aboard.

No assigned seating, and as we were pretty much first on, we sat around the table at the rear. Smaller tables at the sides for couples or quartets. The remainder of the seating is more or less standard public transit, albeit with a holder for seasickness bags on each seatback.

A bar at the back, dispensing snacks and free coffee. A crew of three: captain at a driving station in the front of the cabin, senior deckhand, and junior on the coffee machine. Two tiny toilets outside, opening off the cargo deck, such as it is.

skeleton crewJennifer, a veteran of many crossings, elected to stand outside. The warmth and confined seating inside was sudden death, she opined, and the cold and damp of the rear deck far more preferable. There were some metal bench seats there devoid of any comfort bar a tiny bit of overhead protection. And ready access to the facilities, or the railing.

Lesley, Megan, Fiona and husband Tom, Albert the skeleton, and I sat around the table and chatted. We’d all of us – apart from newcomer Albert – shared many adventures over the years. We were constantly online, but rarely together, and it was a tonic to sit around a table and catch up in person.


The ferry left the dock, we motored past Bluff’s largely industrial scenery – fishing and aluminium smelting dominate here – and soon enough we were in Foveaux Strait.

Our mate Julie had taken yesterday’s ferry and reported that it was a clear and calm crossing. Today, not so much, and the captain announced that “it might get a little bit lumpy out there today.”
skeleton crew
Lumpy? By jingo, once we were in the open water, just navigating the metre of floor between the bar and our table was a challenge. Even without a hot cup of coffee.

High spirits sank – apart from Albert, who grinned steadily and leered at other passengers, which didn’t really help – and the deckhand/coffee pourer advised us to remove items of clothing to lower our temperature.

I grinned and waggled my eyebrows at the ladies, which didn’t really help, and left to see how Lesley was doing outside.

Cool, sitting in the most protected niche – which wasn’t much – and dealing easily with the boat leaping about like a wild thing. A veteran, she assured me.

On a clear, calm day, it was probably a pleasant place to be. The strait is narrow enough that we’re never out of sight of land, and there is always the chance of wildlife. Penguins, albatrosses, sea lions, dolphins, whales…

Not today, not so much. All very grey and wet and windy. Scottish folk would feel right at home here.

Jennifer is made of sterner stuff than I. I retreated back inside, holding on to every railing and handle I could find.

The others were still seated, holding on for dear life – or grim death in Albert’s case – as the boat bounded across the waves. Megan had been given a cup of water, a sick bag, a damp towel for the back of the neck, and some comforting words from the deckhand/barista. Fiona, Scottish-born, was calmly reading the paper. She may have been doing the crossword.

The crossing took an hour, and the worst part was the first half. We sailed into the lee of Stewart Island, the boat steadied, and we watched as Oban approached, looking weatherbeaten and snug in a cove with forested hills looking down.

We filed off, a forklift retrieved the baggage bins, we hoisted our bags out – miraculously dry despite the water that had been flying happily around – and headed into town.

Peteskeleton crew