Foveaux Strait: Rocking, rolling, riding ...

By Chris Samsara

The Foveaux Strait ferry is not for the faint-hearted, says Chris Samsara.

The Old Bluff Cemetery is in a striking location, straddling a hill that overlooks Bluff Harbour and town on one side and Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island on the other. Photo / Chris Samsara
The Old Bluff Cemetery is in a striking location, straddling a hill that overlooks Bluff Harbour and town on one side and Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island on the other. Photo / Chris Samsara

Catching the ferry to Stewart Island without leaving a part of you somewhere in Foveaux Strait is a good crossing. This strait has been stroppy from the start.

"Whirlpools are frequently to be met with and the position is one of great peril when the direction of the waves is contrary to that of the wind," Jules de Blosseville wrote in 1823, but Maori already knew about the wind. They called it hau-mate or death wind.

Fortunately, the weather today is sunny and clear, causing the ferry crew to predict: "It'll be calm as, no worries." Despite that, a haunting memory returns of my first crossing in the mid-80s on the Wairua.

The boat made me queasy while still tied to the Bluff wharf. It rolled and lurched into a head wind as the sea treated it like a punching bag, extending the voyage by an hour. That churned me up enough to be extremely sick.

Foveaux Strait offers no shelter, although some have sought it at Ruapuke Island. In the autumn of 1850, with three anchors down and engine at full steam, the Acheron rode out a gale here for five days. Toward the end, above the din of the tempest, there rose an even louder noise, sharp like a gun, as, "the violent strain upon the chain cable had torn up a large portion of the lower deck".

Remarkably, it survived and limped into Bluff Harbour.

Bluff's old cemetery tells some tragic tales. I found three headstones with "accidental drowning" and a fourth with "drowned attempting to save life". It's a stunning location, straddling a hill that looks over Bluff harbour and town on the leeward side and Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island on the exposed, west-facing side.

Bob Bowen, who has spent 14 years as a seaman, grew up in Bluff and lived close to the cemetery. He said: "My bedroom was on the southwest corner of the house and it was nothing to see the windows flex an inch and a half."

Stewart Islanders also talk of the wind in awe. Jack Frew said: "We went out fishing a couple of weeks ago. It was a 20-knot nor'wester. We come home and it was 50. It was smokin."

Margaret Hopkins and husband Colin built the first catamaran ferry, and she says: "When it blows here, it really blows. It's horrendous."

The skipper of the first ferry in 1877, William Joss, was said to take pride in sailing to schedule whatever the weather. When a larger vessel was needed in 1885, the paddle steamer, Awarua, took over. Its first crossing wasn't a good one.

About 130 invited guests were welcomed on the Bluff wharf by the Invercargill Garrison Band. But no sooner had the Awarua entered Foveaux Strait than most passengers regretted having a "sumptuous" breakfast. They didn't arrive back in Bluff until 9pm.

But today's ferries, catamarans that zip across the strait in an hour, offer a remarkably comfortable ride. I even heard snippets of commentary. But mostly, my head was poking out the side of the ferry, breathing in that fresh air, rather like a dog on a ute. It was not a bad crossing.

Margaret Hopkirk has heard of crossings so rough passengers were put below, hatches closed, and the women sang hymns.

Olga Sansom, who was born on Stewart Island in 1900, wrote this when she was 70: "I can remember some shocking crossings when we were all roped to the hatch and, of course, soaking wet."

Something sailors don't understand is that when a landlubber crosses Foveaux Strait, you don't so much arrive "well" as you do "non-sick". Landlubbers may want to take note of the wisdom from the skipper of the ferry I took and fifth-generation Stewart Islander, Tim Dawson. He reckons the best way not to get seasick is to stand under a tree.

Or, of course, you can fly to Stewart Island. Either way, you need to make that journey to appreciate what a remarkable place Stewart Island is.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: The Bluff-Stewart Island ferry crossing takes one hour.

If you'd rather fly, see stewartislandflights.com.

- NZ Herald

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