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Both companies offer three levels of fares, and at similar prices.

As for the weather, well, on a nice day, it is a beautiful 3 hr 10 minute journey.  But not all days are nice....

 
 
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Taking the Ferry between NZ's Islands

Part 3 :  Weather, Fares, Miscellaneous

This classic picture shows the Aramoana battling its way through heavy seas off the coast of Wellington in 1974.

Part of a three part series on New Zealand's Interisland ferries - see also :
1.  History and Route Information
2.  Vessels, Journeys, Bookings
3.  Fares, Weather, Misc

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.

 

 

Sometimes it is more expensive to take the ferry than to fly between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and if you are paying to take a rental car with you, then the cost equation can move further in favor of flying.

But the ferry is as much an experience as it is a functional and low-cost means of transportation and so you shouldn't limit your travel decision merely to which way is the least expensive.

On the other hand, particularly in NZ's winter, you need to consider the possibility of bad weather making for a delayed, cancelled, and/or very rough crossing.

Weather

Because Cook Strait is a narrow stretch of water some 13 miles across at its narrowest point, with a huge 'funnel' effect for the winds and tides and weather in general caused by the 500 mile long islands on either side of it, it can be, at times, very rough, as shown in the above picture of the Aramoana struggling her way through high seas off the coast of Wellington in 1974.

Some studies have claimed Cook Strait to be the second roughest stretch of water in the world (and these same studies have suggested that Foveaux Strait between the South Island and tiny Stewart Island at the bottom of the South Island is the world's roughest stretch of water).

Of course, on a calm day, it can be 'as smooth as a millpond' and you'll barely know you are at sea, perhaps with just a brief couple of unexpected plunges up and down as the vessel crosses the Terawhiti Rip around a bit from the entrance to Wellington Harbor (you can often see a line across the water where this rip is) and perhaps also, for those passengers traveling from Picton to Wellington, a couple of anxiety inspiring tosses of the ship as it goes through narrow Tory Channel out of the Marlborough Sounds and into Cook Strait.

But on a bad day, you could be in for a very 'interesting' journey, particularly for the slightly more than one hour that you are in open waters (you spend an hour in the Marlborough Sounds, about 40 minutes in Wellington Harbor, and the balance crossing Cook Strait).

How to know if the sea will be calm or rough

First of all, if you look at a map, you'll see that the two islands are slightly offset, and to travel from the North Island to the South Island, the ship actually sails northwards over Cook Strait.

The opening in Cook Strait is not so much in a north/south direction as it is more in a west/east direction.

Look at the map again, and you can see how the most exposed quarter leading to Cook Strait is slightly east of from the south.  And this is why it is the southerly winds, blowing unobstructed up from the Antarctica, that make the sea the roughest.

If the weather on the day you are scheduled to cross shows strong to galeforce southerly winds, get ready for a bumpy crossing.  If the weather has been blowing southerly winds for a day or more, then it will have really whipped the sea up into a fury, and you should expect a memorably wild crossing.  And if there were strong southerly winds yesterday but mild/moderate winds today, expect some 'hangover' effect still passing on to the current day's sea state.

Don't worry about winds from the north or west.  It is the southerly winds that make the crossing bad.

Delays and cancellations

Particularly after the Wahine disaster (see below) the ferry operators are more willing to cancel sailings if weather conditions are severe and safety issues potentially compromised.  Fortunately cancellations are very rare - perhaps once a year or so, and when the services are suspended, it is usually only for a day or so.

What to do about seasickness

See our two part series about the causes and cures of seasickness.  This information and advice will help you minimize the chance of getting unwell.

Schedules

Neither company operates an easy to understand schedule which is the same every day in both directions.  Instead, there are various changes during the week, and so you need to carefully make sure that the sailing you wish to use will be available on the day you wish to travel.

Most people will start their journey somewhere other than Picton if going north, and so will want to take a crossing sometime after late morning, giving them time to get to Picton first.

In the other direction, most people will start their journey after overnighting in Wellington, and so the morning sailings are more popular in the southern direction.

You should check the two company's websites for current schedule information.

Costs

In general, the cost of a one way sailing across Cook Strait ranges from about NZ$45 - NZ$75 per person, depending on if you can get a discounted fare or not, and subject to occasional special discounts.

The two companies both have three fare categories, and Interislander also has premium fares too.  Although the fares are similar, Bluebridge is usually about $10 less per person.

The cheaper categories of fares have limited availability and more restrictions on them if you wish to change or cancel your booking.

The cost of taking a car with you also varies depending on the type of ticket, ranging from about NZ$105 - NZ$170.  Bluebridge again is the slightly cheaper choice (although its cheapest car rate is a few dollars more than the Interislander rate, the saving on the passenger ticket more than compensates for this).

The fare for a car does not include the passenger(s) traveling with the car.

If you are taking a larger vehicle (eg a motorhome or a trailer) then the cost will increase based on its length and possibly its height too.

Both companies offer senior citizen and child discounts.  The Interislander fares have some additional discounts for, eg, families, and also for people wishing to do a roundtrip sailing the same day as a lovely day's outing (I used to often do this when living in Wellington).

Rental Cars

The complexities of what to do with rental cars when traveling between islands will be discussed subsequently in this series.  Suffice it to say that some rental car companies don't allow you to take their cars across Cook Strait, whereas others require you to do so.

In the former case, you swap cars on either side, returning one car somewhere close to the ferry terminal and picking up another somewhere close on the other side (the rental car companies typically provide pickup/dropoff/transfer type services between their depots and the ferry terminals.

You'll save yourself NZ$100+ by not taking the rental car with you, and will also make it easier to get the crossing of your choice without the additional constraint of having to take your car with you.

A Personal Note

I had the great good fortune to work part-time and semi-fulltime on what were then known as 'the rail ferries' in the mid 1970s, combining work at sea variously with my academic studies and also with doing work with one of the maritime union groups, helping to create a transformational new 'Composite Agreement' between the various shipping companies and the union.  My first ship was the lovely old Aramoana, and over several years I got to serve on all four of the then ferries (plus the absolutely gorgeous Rangatira on the Wellington-Lyttleton route), but Aramoana has always been my sentimental favorite.

It was - well - an overwhelming experience for someone variously slightly less than and slightly more than 20 years old; and for one vulnerable to seasickness, it was also fraught with occasional challenges.

But, strangely, on the roughest sailing I ever experienced, it was so 'exciting' and awe-inspiring (I'll never forget looking out the porthole from my cabin at one stage (we lived onboard for a week at a time) and seeing an enormous wave about to crash over the ship - it was so huge that it was deep sea green in color) that I completely forgot to feel seasick!

That sailing had us scheduled to do a typical 3 hr 20 minute crossing from Picton to Wellington (these days it is slightly faster at 3 hr 10 mins), but after very heavy going across Cook Strait, the Master decided it was too risky to attempt going through the narrow channel into Wellington harbor, and so turned us back to Picton, only to decide that it was also too treacherous to try going through Tory Channel and into the safety of the always placid Marlborough Sounds and back to Picton.

Eventually we ended up sheltering in Nelson, tied up there until the storm abated - I forget how long in total we were at sea for, but I believe the record for an interrupted journey is something like 25 hours.

The 1968 Wahine Tragedy

Talking about the bad weather makes it unavoidable to mention NZ's tragedy in 1968 when one of the much larger ferries that used to travel between Lyttleton (the port serving Christchurch) and Wellington was thrown onto the rocks after entering Wellington harbor in a severe storm with 100+ mph winds.

The vessel - Wahine - a modern state of the art ship barely two years old - sunk some hours later, with 51 passengers and crew (including one stowaway!) losing their lives.

This website offers a fascinating and detailed analysis of the events.

For More Information

You can visit the websites for the Interislander ferries and the Bluebridge ferries for the latest on schedules, fares, and other related things.

You might also want to visit the TranzScenic website (the passenger rail operator in New Zealand) because they sometimes have discounted combination ferry and train tickets for a complete journey between Christchurch and Wellington available - see also our page about rail travel in New Zealand for more information about this and trains in general.

Part of a three part series on New Zealand's Interisland ferries - see also :
1.  History and Route Information
2.  Vessels, Journeys, Bookings
3.  Fares, Weather, Misc

 

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Originally published 20 Aug 2010, last update 28 Nov 2012

 
 
 
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