NZ and Australia reject cyclone refuge plea
New Zealand and Australia have rejected pleas from cruisers seeking refuge from Pacific cyclones. In a formal reply to the Ocean Cruising Club in mid-september, both countries refused to lift a ban on foreign ships other than cargo or fishing vessels. Most of the yachts that were sailing across the Pacific when COVID-19 struck will now be trapped in areas where they may not be insured.
New Zealand is, however, offering to exempt owners who commit to spending at least NZ$50,000 (€28,000) on refit and maintenance work. Meanwhile Australian officials said: ‘Travellers may wish to consider whether they may present as a significant economic activity for a State or Territory and seek their support.’
Around 700 yachts cross the Pacific each year, arriving from the US West Coast, Mexico and the Panama Canal. There are currently over 450 yachts in French Polynesia, the only South Pacific nation to allow sailors to enter when the world suddenly locked down in March. Since then, crews have been limited to movement around Tahiti and the Society Islands, though Port Denerau in Fiji has recently opened to arrivals complying with a complex protocol.
However, both these areas are at risk of cyclones between November and May and insurance-approved tie-down pits have long since been booked up. The Marquesas Islands, the furthest west of the Polynesian islands, lie outside the cyclone belt, but there are only two secure (and deep) anchorages. Skippers would need to stay with their yachts throughout the season and cruising groups predict a ‘mini crisis’ if hundreds of yachts arrive.
Organisations such as the Ocean Cruising Club (OCC), Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA), marina operators and rally organisers have warned authorities in Australia and New Zealand that, with a passage from Fiji taking up to four weeks, time for yachts to find refuge is fast running out.
“We wanted to go to Bundaberg in Queensland, we got five yachts to apply but they were all turned down. A lot of boats are under pressure now,” says Fiona Jones, the OCC’S support network co-ordinator for the Indo
Pacific. A group of cruising representatives had tried to persuade Australian health authorities to allow Bundaberg as a single port of entry, and for continuous, tracked time at sea to be counted as quarantine. In New Zealand, health authorities were reportedly discussing a quarantine dock for a small number of yachts in Opua.
“We were advocating for the ‘humanitarian and compelling reason’ exemption but they said cyclone refuge was not a compelling reason,” says Guy Chester from Australian tourism company Ecosustainability. “I think it is a 50:50 chance that New Zealand will let 50-100 boats in for the cyclone season. In Australia there is about 5% chance of us getting any boats in.”
In New Zealand, there is an underlying political dimension to the impasse, explains Viki Moore of Astrolabe Sailing. “We have an election coming up. Parliament has been dissolved and the politicians are trying to get votes from Kiwis. The appetite for letting people across the border is quite low as they see it as a risk. Letting foreign yachts in is low down on the priority list.”
The NZ Marine Industry Association is arguing for the extension of a special category created for yachts planning maintenance. “It’s for yachts to refit and the basic agreement is you have to spend [at least] NZ$50,000 and be sponsored by an agent or a shipyard,” explains Guy Chester.
“Some of the biggest boats are really disappointed because they have to put up 50% of the money.
One is being asked to put up half a million and another a couple of million. There is a crisis right now where the health bureaucrats are the ones assessing access for the maritime industry rather than the marine industry assessing it. The system is broken.”
Many American yachts have already made the 3,000-mile passage from French Polynesia to Hawaii. A number, including from the cancelled 2020 World ARC, are flying home while shipping their yachts onwards to Auckland or Sydney. Those who have no choice but to stay face a nervous season. Although Tahiti has not been hit by a cyclone for 50 years, a significant weather event comes within 200 miles every two-and-ahalf years on average.
The knock-on effect for next season is already being felt. Cruisers planning to cross the Atlantic this winter for a Pacific season in 2021 will have to check the ‘no vacancies’ signs across the South Pacific first.