One of the biggest builds attempted by Q-West boat builders in Wanganui headed for open water this week.

The 34-metre passenger ferry Te Kotuku slipped into the Whanganui River on Tuesday, and headed over the bar and into the Tasman Sea on its maiden voyage.

The sea trial lasted about two hours but marked a significant step for both the Gilberd St company and its customer, the Fullers Group in Auckland.

The 334-passenger ferry, built for an undisclosed sum, will continue engine commissioning and sea trials over the next fortnight. An Auckland crew will arrive next week to familiarise themselves with the Te Kotuku, before sailing it to the Hauraki Gulf, where it will join other Fullers ferries.

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Fullers chief executive Doug Hudson was on board for the ferry's maiden voyage and said the company was "really happy" with the new vessel.

"It's been designed as a multi-purpose ferry, so we'll do mainly from the city to Waiheke Island as well as Devonport," Mr Hudson said.

He said it was the first ferry the company had built in New Zealand.

"Through the 1980s and'90s, yards in Australia were pumping out a lot of high-speed aluminium boats. They had the volume and efficiencies then but that market's changed. The exchange rates have changed too. Our owners said: if we're building a ship for our waters, why not get it built in New Zealand?"

Q-West managing director Myles Fothergill said that while the Australian yards had been active the Kiwi industry was busy accommodating the fishing industry but that had "pretty much dried up now".

Fullers Group chief executive Doug Hudson (left) and Q-West managing director Myles Fothergill frame the 34-metre ferry. Photo/Stuart Munro
Fullers Group chief executive Doug Hudson (left) and Q-West managing director Myles Fothergill frame the 34-metre ferry. Photo/Stuart Munro

"We changed the way we did things and there's no one else in New Zealand who would have tackled this contract, apart from us," Mr Fothergill said.

Mr Hudson said there was potential for more contracts for similar vessels from Fullers Group.

He said Auckland Transport managed the ferry routes and those were up for tender next year. "The authority is going to the market for the first time in 10 years and tender all those routes. We've got five of them.

"But once we see the outcome of that tender round, we'll have a better idea of where we're going in the next decade at least and what our requirements will be," he said.

"We've got the option of building more ferries like Te Kotuku to replace the existing fleet."

Earlier, Mr Fothergill said winning the contract had added to Q-West's national and international portfolio and would meant a significant boost for Wanganui's economy.

The Australian-designed catamaran is powered by twin Cummins diesel marine engines and has a cruising speed of 26 knots. Passengers are accommodated on two levels, with 212 seated in the main cabin. A feature of the ferry will be extra-large doors to help speed up boarding and discharging passengers.

Te Kotuku will join the fleet of 15 ferries Fullers already has operating in and around the Gulf, transporting close to 4.5 million passengers a year.

The company operates commuter ferry services from downtown Auckland, the North Shore and Waiheke Island as well as tourist services.