Taranaki is welcoming some very big guests this summer. A steady stream of cruise ships will deliver nearly eight thousand visitors to the region.
Getting the monsters-of-the-deep safely into the West Coast port takes real skill. The coastline is known for its big surf – and often, for its big winds, too.
Daniel Satherley is a marine pilot at Port Taranaki. His job is getting vessels in and out of the port safely — and he doesn’t do it from an office.
“We board [the ship] three miles out from our main breakwater,” he said.
“We go out to sea on our pilot launch, and they’ll rig a ladder. Here, we normally rig it on their port side, so the left-hand side, a couple of metres above the water. Then we give them a pretty good heading so they can create shelter on that one side so we can climb on up.
“Our little boat comes alongside, and the ship stays moving at about six knots, then we can safely climb up the ladder and make our way up to the bridge.”
Satherley admits it can be scary. “Yeah, it definitely is. Especially on cold and dark mornings.
“The heart rate is certainly pumping by the time you get to the top. It requires full focus.
“Cruise ships aren’t too bad because the ladder is usually not too long to get into the ship, but on other vessels, the rope ladder can be about eight metres long.”
Once on board, the marine pilot is taken to the bridge where they exchange information with the ship’s master.
“He’ll tell us if anything’s not working that we need to know about.”
The marine pilot then assumes control of the ship.
“I’ll tell him the detailed plan of what we’re going to do and how we are going to manoeuvre, where our tugs will be and how we’re going to tie up alongside,” he said.
“I’ll then take the conduct of the ship and give directions on what heading to steer and what speed to maintain, and balance everything as we come down into the channel. Then it’s just slowing things down to spin around and come alongside.”
A highly-skilled job
Under the marine pilot’s instruction, tugboats push and pull, working together to turn the massive ships around so they can be brought in backwards.
“We have to turn them in that circle and back them alongside. That way if anything goes wrong during their stay they’re already pointing in the right direction.”
It’s a highly-skilled job that Satherly does with quite an audience. Each time a cruise ship visits, hundreds of people gather at New Plymouth’s vantage points — including the beaches and the port’s breakwater — to watch it all unfold.
“The town’s fully buzzing when a cruise ship is in. It’s great to see the public come out and watch.”
He admits to a big sigh of relief when it’s done.
“We have a tight channel — 190 metres. It’s quite dynamic as well because we have swell rolling through that gap along with wind, and cruise ships have such a high ship side. They’re affected by the wind a lot.
“So we have to keep on our toes, and keep pointing in the right direction to make us as skinny as possible to get through the narrow bit,” he said.
“You can forget how big a cruise ship is when you’re in the bridge standing over the bow because it’s all trailing behind you. It’s only when you start to swing it around you go, ‘Oh there’s the rest of it way back there’.
“I guess it’s kind of like conducting an orchestra.”
‘A cruise visit is like a wedding’
Port Taranaki’s Amy Wilson handles things on land.
“I tell the pilots they’re just glorified valets,” she laughed.
“I guess I’m in charge of just getting everyone off the wharf, and that’s the measure of our success really, how fast we can get them off the wharf so they can go and make the most of the rest of their day.”
Busses wait to take passengers to explore the sights, including seaside markets showing an array of locally-made products.
“I liken a cruise visit to a wedding a little bit. There’s so much prep that goes into the day — you just hope everyone runs smoothly and has a good time.”
Wilson is used to dealing with logging ships, not luxury liners. The port doesn’t have a dedicated cruise berth, something she was initially concerned about.
“But the passengers find it interesting to see the workings of a port, unfortunately, the public doesn’t generally have access to ports these days, so it’s a bit of an insight to what goes on behind the gate.”
Wilson said many arrivals find it so fascinating she’s had to race after passengers who’ve ventured off.
“I have had multiple trips chasing passengers who want a slightly different angle for their photo.”
On the day the Seabourn Odyssey arrives in port, Taranaki Maunga is on display, which is a relief for the port crew.
“Lots of our passengers ask where it is — it’s kind of a running joke that it’s a figment of our imagination,” Wilson joked.
Satherley admits it’s a big job for the whole team, but one that comes with plenty of enjoyment.
“It’s about trying to find that balance and keep within a safety bubble. It’s very high risk, you could say. It’s huge job satisfaction out of it. Being able to achieve something like that regularly is quite cool.
“It’s all about the plan. You’ve got to be prepared for what-ifs. We haven’t had any yet, and we don’t plan on it.“
Plus, it’s a job that comes with a perk.
“We normally get escorted down to the buffet for breakfast,” he said.
Seven ships bound for Taranaki
This summer a total of seven cruise ships are visiting Taranaki. The largest is the 294m Island Princess with a capacity for 2200 passengers and 900 crew.
Venture Taranaki’s Brylee Flutey says the region is loving it and plans to welcome many more.
“We’re looking to contribute 10.5 million dollars into the economy by 2028, so we are all excited and it’s a great opportunity for our region.
“We’re fortunate to have the only deep-water port on the West Coast and we want to maximise that,” Flutey said.
“We are off the beaten track, but we’re here to say we are open for business, we want to welcome our visitors.
“Nau mai, haere mai.”