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Once out of the defined pilotage area in Wellington Harbour, the bridge crew reduce to an officer on watch and lookout

An inside view of a Bluebridge sailing – By Iain MacIntyre

FTD writer Iain MacIntyre had the privilege of being hosted onboard a return crossing of the Cook Strait ferry Strait Feronia late last year by Bluebridge marine operations general manager Clive Glover. As well as receiving a tour of the vessel and full explanation of operations, the experience included gaining exclusive observation of a working bridge team.

On a very pleasant Thursday summer morning, I was greeted at Bluebridge’s terminal in Wellington by Mr Glover before we were soon driving up the stern ramp of the Strait Feronia amidst a procession of truck trailers being towed onboard by tractor units.

Invited onto the bridge, the multicultural crew – consisting of ship’s master Captain Simon Radford, a second mate and two deck ratings – was observed to be actioning a series of time-instigated checklists in the lead-up to departure.

With all aspects overseen via constant communications, loading operations and paperwork were completed, the stern door was closed, mooring lines were released and the vessel’s pending departure on the approx three-and-a-half-hour crossing was announced to the Beacon Hill Signal Station.

Moving the ferry off the wharf involved control being transferred to the manoeuvring console in the port wing of the bridge, which is located immediately adjacent to a glass viewing panel in the floor. The importance of having precise power over the vessel’s controllable pitch propellers and bow thrusters was emphasised when manoeuvring amidst Wellington southerlies or northerlies attempting to blow the Strait Feronia onto or off the wharf.

Red line navigation

Once out of the defined pilotage area in Wellington Harbour, the bridge crew reduced to an officer on watch and lookout. Mr Glover noted that although autopilot is permissible in the pilotage areas, Bluebridge has opted for manual helming, given regulations also dictate someone has to still be on permanent standby. Autopilot is only used across Cook Strait itself.

It was noted the bridge crew essentially attempts to follow the same route plan on every journey via ‘red line’ navigation – i.e. plotting towards navigation lights, lining up the beams through bow and stern, and then plotting towards the next.

Captain Radford commented that “fixed obstacles are known”, whereas small craft create a hazard. In that vein, although the Marlborough Sounds is a narrow channel, it was observed to be a “more defined” aspect of the journey compared to the unpredictable hazards with small craft in Wellington Harbour.

“The regulations say small craft cannot impede us, but ultimately we are the professionals [and so will take evasive action to avoid obstacles if necessary],” he said.

Concurred Mr Glover: “They haven’t had their boat in the water all year, they’re doing 25 knots and decide to have a cup of tea!”

Master/mate master system

Bluebridge’s skippers are master mariners – the professional qualification required for someone to serve as the captain of a commercial vessel of any size, of any type, operating anywhere in the world – and have pilot exemption for both Wellington Harbour and the Marlborough Sounds. 

Achieving this exemption entails three months in Bluebridge’s Maritime New Zealand-approved training programme, as well as harbourmaster assessment, with a certain number of crossings required each year to maintain currency.
Approaching Tory Channel and the Marlborough Sounds pilotage area, the full bridge team return and the atmosphere intensifies – only one vessel of the Strait Feronia’s size is permitted to cross the controlled navigation area at a time

Bluebridge operates a master and mate master system on the bridge, instead of the alternative of having one master ‘sign off’ when handing over to the other, with similar hierarchy observed in the engine room.

On this sailing, the Strait Feronia was carrying about 250 passengers and 35 crew/hospitality staff, as well as 500 lane metres each of trucks (23) and passenger vehicles (70), including one bike and ten minivans.

The ferry’s standard crew/hospitality staffing entails 12 people working on deck (six of which are ‘turned in’ – i.e. off-duty – at any given time) and four deck officers (two turned in) which live on the ferry for two-week periods. Additionally, there are eight walk-on/walk-off (wowo) hospitality staff on the day shift and three wowo on the night dangerous goods sailing.

Customer-focused team

Mr Glover, who joined Bluebridge in 1992 after emigrating from the UK where he had served Princess Cruises for 12 years, said he regularly journeys on the Jim Barker Group firm’s two ferries. He noted that enables him to keep abreast of operational matters and, as a case in point, a discussion during this journey with Captain Radford saw him taking notes to address a potential cargo processing and documentation issue.

He considers the closeness of the communication and relationship between the shore and ship staff to be a particular strength of the Bluebridge operation, as is the ‘can do’ service and customer-focused attitude of the team.

The former chief engineer described being part of the vessel’s crew – which generally entails working 12-hour days over two-week periods onboard – as a “good life”.

“There are not many jobs which provide equal time away from work as at work,” he said. “The two weeks aboard a ship and working, and the two weeks at home and doing your own thing, is a lifestyle choice which seafarers enjoy.”

However, he also noted the operation does not run by itself. “The challenges are always the weather, the maintenance of vessels to operate continuously 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and the recruitment of skilled staff.”

Precise navigation

Approaching Tory Channel and the Marlborough Sounds pilotage area, the full bridge team returned and the atmosphere notably intensified. As required when ten minutes’ steaming time away, an announcement of the ferry’s pending arrival at the entrance was publicly broadcast on radio channels 16 and 18 – only one vessel of the Strait Feronia’s size being permitted to cross the controlled navigation area at a time.

From a layperson’s perspective, the entrance appears very narrow, with a tight port turn required immediately after entering to commence the remaining one-and-a-quarter-hour journey through the Sounds.

A small craft passing nearby on starboard caused a minor course deviation and soon after the Wellington-bound Aratere passed to port about 200 m away.

Returning to a two-person operation, the bridge team continued to manually log the time and position of the vessel as it passed specific points. Completed throughout the journey, this exercise was noted to provide an easily accessible reference compared to the other automated logging devices onboard.

Picton bound

The bridge team was later relieved by mate master Captain Wayne Osmond and second mate Matt Osmond further into the Sounds. Captain Osmond observed they could be the first father-and-son helm team in Cook Strait ferry service.

Answering a navigation question, he said that because the Sounds had been formed by glaciers, the waterway had a very ‘square edge’ aspect: “Don’t touch the vegetation and you won’t touch the bottom,” he noted.
Approaching Picton – the bridge team are in constant communication as the ferry is turned a full 180 degrees prior to berthing

Approaching Picton – and with the bridge team in constant communication as small craft made narrow passing manoeuvres on the vessel’s port side – Captain Osmond explained that he was observing if consistent angles could be seen in the moored craft ahead as an aid to assessing wind conditions.

Having safely completed a 180-degree turn of the ferry immediately prior to berthing – again with the pair working in close collaboration – Captain Osmond began publicly broadcasting a countdown of the closing distance to the wharf to aid the crew below working the mooring lines.

With Matt Osmond observing that “timing is good” and as the bridge berthing mark soon after came into perfect alignment with the corresponding mark on the wharf, the vessel was moored and the disembarking process commenced.

About two hours later, the Strait Feronia had been reloaded, cleaned and restocked, and was embarking on the return journey to Wellington.

Iain MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealand; he can be contacted at i.macintyre@xtra.co.nz

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