New Zealanders stranded in Australia are sailing across the Tasman Sea aboard small boats with seasick strangers in a desperate bid to get home, saying the notoriously perilous trip is easier to navigate than the country’s fraught border system.
The country’s borders have been strictly controlled since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic – only citizens, permanent residents and a handful of essential workers can enter, and all of them must make a booking to spend two weeks in government-controlled quarantine (MIQ).
Demand for those spaces has vastly outpaced supply, with some hopeful returnees spending weeks refreshing the site, employing “MIQ assistants” or using bots to assist them secure a space.
In September, the government opened a “lobby” system for booking quarantine spaces, showing where people are in the queue. Many took to social media to express their frustration posting screenshots showing thousands of people ahead of them.
“That’s just a gimmick,” says Andrew Bates, who arrived back on New Zealand shores this week after making the 10-day trip across the Tasman Sea.
“The way that our government is controlling the virus coming into New Zealand is actually by controlling the number of people coming into New Zealand. They basically see us as virus carriers. You know, like they’re keeping the virus out of New Zealand by keeping us Kiwis who are abroad, out of New Zealand.”
Bates, who had been living in Australia since March, had tried for months to secure a spot in managed isolation without success.
“I just thought, you know what, this is just not happening. You’ve got to basically get to get off your chuff and take charge of the situation yourself. You can’t wait for government to allow you back in or come rescue you, you’ve got to do it yourself.”
When Bates, an experienced sailor, posted to social media inquiring if anyone in the same position was interested in sailing to New Zealand, he was inundated with requests. He linked up with a group of five others, including skippers and engineers and set sail from Coffs Harbour on a catamaran on 15 October.
After 10 days of narrowly missing ferocious storms, crew members being bedridden with sea sickness and anxious waits during becalmed waters, the exhausted crew arrived at Opua in the Bay of Islands.
People arriving by sea are required to isolate or quarantine on board their ship or at MIQ for at least 14 days since the last port of call or since it last took crew, and must return a negative Covid-19 test before entering the community. Because Bates’s boat arrived ahead of 14 days, the crew was moved into managed isolation, at their own expense.
Bates has since set up a Facebook group called Trans-Tasman Transits, to help set up other stranded New Zealanders with crews travelling across the ditch. He relayed the stories of people desperate to get home, including those with dying parents, mothers with three-month-old babies, and others willing to put up with extreme sea sickness.
“I still felt an obligation to the people I was leaving behind,” he said, adding that he had connected desperate returnees to about five boats scheduled to make the trip.
Bates is not the only frustrated New Zealander going to desperate measures to get home. This week, RNZ reported the story of a woman taking a yacht from Tahiti to Opua, and Stuff reported on another group of seven boarding a catamaran in Australia.
The government is due to announce changes to the MIQ settings on Thursday.
A company that has been connecting New Zealanders to sailing crews, Island Cruising, has also been inundated with hundreds of requests from people desperate to get home. But its owner, Viki Moore, said people without sailing experience were unlikely to get a spot on board.
“I am concerned that people are getting so desperate now that they are looking at buying boats that they don’t know anything about and taking on this passage.”
Moore said many experienced sailors have “come to grief coming across the Pacific”.
“It just breaks my heart that people are almost forced into making decisions like this when the MIQ system is clearly broken and then these people can’t get home, it’s horrible.”
Ocean Sailing Expeditions runs trips between the countries but does not specifically set out to transport people who cannot secure a room in MIQ.
Its spokesperson, David Hows, said the company takes only those people with existing sailing experience, and who have completed a Coastguard-approved, two-day sea safety and survival training course.
Hows said he encountered six- to eight-metre waves and storm force winds up to 56 knots (103km/h) during his last two Tasman crossings.
“Inexperienced crew with poorly prepared vessels are risking people’s lives crossing the Tasman Sea. Maritime New Zealand has very strict safety standards for sailing vessels going offshore and they are in place for good reason, as past tragedies have proven,” he said.
He sympathised with people separated from their loved ones, because he too has been away from his family for 10 of the past 14 months due to MIQ issues.
But, he warned “it’s still better to arrive home late, than dead”.