By RNZ

Hundreds of boaties stranded in the Pacific are making a humanitarian appeal to be allowed safe refuge in New Zealand from the dangerous cyclone season.

Normally hundreds of small yachts sail here from the South Pacific each year to wait the cyclone season out, from September to May.

But this year, with the borders closed because of the pandemic, they're stranded with nowhere to go.

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Guy Chester is moored at the island of Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia, and is growing increasingly anxious as the window closes for the yachts to make the voyage here. He says they only have a few weeks left, and still need planning and application time.

He's been appealing to the New Zealand Government since April to create a border entry exemption process for those on small yachts in the Pacific to come to New Zealand before the cyclone season starts.

There's only room for a few yachts to stay in sheltered spots in the Islands, he says, and describes it as "a game of Russian Roulette", as each new cyclone risks the yachts and the lives of those on board.

"The whole fleet is very worried and scared about being stuck in the South Pacific, cyclones can have 70, 90, 120, 150 knot winds - that's 200 to 300 kilometre-an-hour winds."

Chester is Rear Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club, which has members from many countries, most from Australia and Europe.

Boats at Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia. Photo / RNZ
Boats at Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia. Photo / RNZ

He says their members don't own rich superyachts - the vessels range from seven to 20 metres long, and aren't capable of riding out a cyclone at sea.

He's registered about 200 crews desperate to come to New Zealand - about 1000 people - but thinks there's at least another 100 crews on top of that.

Gillian Hall is moored in Marquesas in French Polynesia with her husband and 17-year-old son.

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The Californians' visas run out shortly, so they expect to be made to leave soon, but can't make it to most destinations before the cyclones are due - and they're worried.

"None of the choices are very good. We could go to Hawaii, but right now is the hurricane season there," she says.

Fiji has a long application process, costing more than $1000, and they also risk sailing into the cyclones if they head in that direction. And Australia is another 4000km further than New Zealand.

"Or we could just abandon our house - that's obviously a possibility, but not one most people would do, whether their house is on land or if their boat is their house.

"For us, we're feeling the situation's very dire."

Hall says without the yacht they'll be homeless, and effectively become refugees.

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Chris Galbraith is chair of the NZ Marine Operators Association and general manager at the first place 70 per cent of small yachts arrive in, when they come to New Zealand - the Bay of Islands Marina. He's been supporting the Ocean Cruising Club's appeal.

He says places of first arrival are already well equipped to receive the small yachts, and he's confident they can be supervised to quarantine safely on their own boats in New Zealand marinas.

The situation is a humanitarian problem the New Zealand Government shouldn't turn its back on. If it does, it will be a party to what happens next, Galbraith says.

"We're all very hopeful the Government will see that it is low risk, that we're able to manage the border situation well, and then we can get these people in."

He also points out the yachties bring income some seaside communities depend on, and the country's reputation could be badly damaged if we don't open the borders to those in need "in time".

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"New Zealand's been seen as a safe haven to yachties for a long long time, it's a dream to enter this part of the world, and we're seen as a safe place to enter - that's a brand image that's really important, our marine sector trades on that.

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A Maritime New Zealand spokeswoman says the agency expects the Government will deal with the issue before the cyclone season.

"The whole point of this work is to reduce the number of small craft out in the South Pacific during cyclone season, thereby minimising the need for search and rescue efforts in the region," she said.

Chester says a clear application process must be created, but the yachties will obey quarantine rules.

"The criteria of 'humanitarian and compelling need' must be set up urgently, and there needs to be a policy decision that it is a humanitarian and compelling need for yachts to be able to seek refuge in New Zealand from the south Pacific cyclone season."

The Ministry for Health is in charge of the process, and says it is "developing guidelines for the 'humanitarian and other compelling needs' exemption category; this will be published on the website once completed".

Currently any foreign vessel must apply to the director general of health for approval to come to New Zealand.

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If that's granted, those on board must then each apply for permission to Immigration New Zealand.