The Stewart Island ferry: New Zealand’s greatest stomach test

Proud of his ability to withhold sea-sickness, David Whitley took on his greatest challenge – the ferry across the Foveaux Strait

The forewarning had been ample. Before stepping on the catamaran, I knew that if one boat trip was going to force me to reconsider my opinion of my constitution, this would be it.

While not claiming an iron stomach, I have generally been sick about once every three years during my adult life – and this includes some fearsome binge drinking as a student and backpacker. Sea sickness, though? I’ve a pretty darned strong record. I vaguely remember a small maritime upchuck as a child, but beyond that I’ve been a model of seaborne fortitude.

The Foveaux Strait between New Zealand’s South Island and Stewart Island, a 39km stretch of often vicious, wind-swept sea, has a long track record of destroying such reputations. Smack bang in the middle of the Roaring Forties – a latitude that gives albatrosses much delight and sailors the tremors – the Strait is something only reluctantly tackled by the Stewart Islanders themselves.

It only took a few minutes for things to get somewhat lurchy. The skipper had set course across some might big swells, the catamaran bounding upwards and downwards like a carriage on a big dipper. Huge dousings of spray splashed violently all the way up the glass windows, everyone inside rather thankful that they didn’t have to be out on deck. And any thoughts of going to the bar for a pint were quickly disregarded.

Spotting the regulars was a fairly simple task. One old guy slurped merrily at his coffee looking entirely unperturbed. The skipper stared out to the horizon with sturdy determination. The couple in front seemed to enter a well-honed meditation technique.

Elsewhere, however, the inexperience was shining through like a beacon. One woman and her daughter sat out at the back, clearly hoping that fresh air would make things less grotesque, yet failing to follow the standard advice of looking out directly at the horizon. The Japanese couple in the middle didn’t seem to have any strategy at all. They simply looked terrified.

There was a crushing inevitability hanging in the air. Once someone’s stomach gave way, everyone’s would.

After about 20 minutes, the first victim fell. The Japanese woman reached for the sick bag, and sent the wafting smell of vomit across the boat. She spent the next 40 minutes making her way through an impressive collection of bags, most dutifully handed to her by her husband until he too succumbed.

Behind, the bravery of a couple taking four children on the ferry quickly started to look like foolhardiness. The crying started, the stomachs churned and the junior travellers started adding to the victim count. At one delightful moment, one poor boy missed the sick bag and coated his mother’s hand.

As the journey began to draw to an end, I was left thankful that the one hour catamaran trip had replaced the two-to-three hour ferry ordeal of days gone by. My stomach was giving notice. I wasn’t going to last too much longer. Around 50% of the passengers had gone, and I was pretty sure I’d be next.

Then came merciful relief. The battering calmed as the catamaran eased into port at Bluff. I was a survivor. Brimming with pride, as I stepped off, I asked one of the crew how bad that journey was, comparatively.

“Ah, only about a four out of ten,” came the nonchalant reply.

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley



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