IN A case of immaculately unfortunate timing the Interisland Line rail/ropax Aratere ran aground on the eastern side of Picton harbour at around 2215 hrs NZ time on Friday night [21 June] after apparently suffering steering failure.

The ground occurred the same day NZ transport minister Simeon Brown told a Parliamentary committee the government was “highly unimpressed” with KiwiRail’s maintenance of its Cook Strait ferry fleet but had been recently  assured protocols had been significantly improved in recent months.

Interislander EGM Duncan Roy had publicly insisted KiwiRail would continue to run a safe and reliable service for passengers and their cars, and freight, while working with stakeholders on the ferry replacement project (following the government’s abandonment of the over-budget iReX plan, which would have delivered two rail/ro-paxes in 2026).

Conditions were mild on Friday night when Aratere departed Picton for Wellington on a freight-only sailing, with 47 crew and drivers on board, when it veered to starboard towards a cliff face in Titoki Bay. There were no injuries, no pollution and the vessel remained watertight, although photo coverage showed it well aground on sand and mud.

Plans to pull the ferry off on Saturday morning were postponed in order to make further preparations and it was successfully refloated at high tide just after 2100 that night with assistance from Port Marlborough tugs Monowai and Maungatea and taken to anchorage overnight for inspection. All drivers and some crewmembers had already been disembarked and taken to Picton.

Mr Roy said the successful refloat was the result of meticulous, co-ordination and planning from a full team of experts, and with the great effort of Masters, crews, onshore staff and the support of PMNZ.  

“We’re extremely grateful for the help and support of MNZ, PMNZ, the Harbour Master, our people, experts and customers, and authorities on the ground in Picton,” he said. 

“This afternoon, we drained ballast and, with detailed calculations from Australian stabilisation experts and advice from Maritime New Zealand, we transferred other weight within the ship to raise the bow. PMNZ’s tugs were then able to rock the vessel away from the shore. 

“We know this incident is extremely disruptive for our customers and appreciate their patience as we work with them to organise alternative arrangements.”  Mr Roy said the company was working with urgency to understand what had happened.  

“This is an incredibly unfortunate incident, especially coming after an intensive investment in an enhanced maintenance regime, supported by global asset management peer reviews during 2023 and 2024.”

Aratere was re-berthed at Picton around 1600 Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the three-person, independent Ministerial Advisory Group appointed in February to recommend to the government plans for ‘affordable’ replacement ferries late last week handed up its report, which is now under consideration by ministers before proposals are taken to Cabinet.

Chairman resigns

In a development said to be unrelated, KiwiRail board chairman Donald MacLean has advised he will truncate his appointment, expected to have run until October, and depart on 31 July.

Finance minister Nicola Willis said Mr McLean’s “early retirement” was “unrelated” to the Aratere incident. 

“As an SOE [State Owned Enterprise], KiwiRail is governed by its board. As ministers, we exercise our influence through our appointments to the Board and the expectations we set for it,” she said. “We will now conduct a search for his replacement and are considering additional changes to further refresh the KiwiRail Board.” 

“My current term on the Board was due to finish on October 31… I advised shareholding ministers last week that, in my view, stepping aside from the start of the new financial year is best for the organisation as it enters a new phase of its development,” Mr McLean said in a separate statement, which he said was brought forward because of the Government’s intention to announce the news. 

“I understand the Government intends to announce my retirement today, so I have brought my announcement forward. 

“I leave with confidence in a team and an organisation that has dealt with many major challenges and is now in a much stronger and more stable position. 

“In my two and a half years as chair we have appointed a new CEO in Peter Reidy, refreshed the board, strengthened the management team, and built stronger relationships with stakeholders.”