A catamaran and a plan: Desperate to return home, New Zealanders set sail for the Tasman | New Zealand

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New Zealanders stranded in Australia cross the Tasman Sea aboard small boats with seasick foreigners in a desperate attempt to return home, saying the notoriously perilous journey is easier to navigate than the busy border system from the country.

The country’s borders have been tightly controlled since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – only citizens, permanent residents and a handful of essential workers can enter, and all must make reservations to spend two weeks in government-controlled quarantine (MIQ).

Demand for these spaces far exceeded supply, with some hopeful returnees spending weeks refreshing the site, employing “MIQ assistants” or using robots to help them secure a space.

In September, the government opened a “lobby” system to reserve quarantine spaces, showing where people are in the queue. Many took to social media to express their frustration by posting screenshots showing thousands of people in front of them.

“It’s just a gimmick,” says Andrew Bates, who returned to New Zealand’s shores this week after making the 10-day trip across the Tasman Sea.

“The way our government controls the virus entering New Zealand is actually controlling the number of people entering New Zealand. They see us primarily as carriers of viruses. You know, how they keep the virus out of New Zealand by keeping us Kiwis that are overseas, out of New Zealand.

Bates, who had been living in Australia since March, had tried for months to secure a place in managed segregation without success.

“I was just thinking, you know what, that just doesn’t happen. Essentially, you need to relax and take charge of the situation yourself. You can’t wait for the government to let you come back or come and save you, you have to do it yourself.

When Bates, an experienced sailor, posted on social media to ask if anyone in the same position was interested in sailing to New Zealand, he was inundated with requests. He joined a group of five others, including skippers and engineers, and set sail from Coffs Harbor on a catamaran on October 15.

People arriving by sea are required to self-isolate or quarantine on board their ship or at the MIQ for at least 14 days from the last port of call. Photograph: Author’s Image Ltd / Alamy

After 10 days of fierce storms narrowly missed, with the crew bedridden by seasickness and anxious wait during the calm waters, the exhausted crew arrived at Opua in the Bay of Islands.

People arriving by sea are required to self-isolate or quarantine on board their ship or at the MIQ for at least 14 days since the last port of call or since the last crewing, and must return a negative Covid-19 test before entering the community. As Bates’ boat arrived 14 days earlier, the crew were placed in managed isolation, at their own expense.

Bates has since created a Facebook group called Trans-Tasman Transits, to help set up other New Zealanders stranded with crews traveling across the ditch. He relayed the stories of people desperate to return home, including those whose parents are dying, mothers of three-month-old babies and others ready to endure extreme seasickness.

“I still felt an obligation to the people I left behind,” he said, adding that he had connected desperate returnees to about five boats scheduled to make the trip.

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Bates isn’t the only frustrated New Zealander taking desperate steps to get home. This week, RNZ reported the story of a woman taking a yacht from Tahiti to Opua, and Stuff reported another group of seven boarding a catamaran in Australia.

The government is due to announce changes to MIQ parameters on Thursday.

A company that connects New Zealanders to sailing crews, Island Cruising, has also been inundated with hundreds of requests from people desperate to return home. But her owner, Viki Moore, said people with no navigation experience were unlikely to secure a place on board.

“I’m afraid people are getting so desperate now that they are considering buying boats they know nothing about and accepting this passage.”

Moore said many experienced sailors had “failed in crossing the Pacific”.

“It breaks my heart that people are almost forced to make decisions like this when the MIQ system is clearly down and these people cannot go home, it’s horrible.”

Ocean Sailing Expeditions organizes trips between countries but is not specifically aimed at transporting people who cannot book a room at MIQ.

Its spokesperson, David Hows, said the company only takes people with sailing experience who have completed a two-day coastguard-approved sea safety and survival training.

Hows said he encountered waves of six to eight meters and high winds of up to 56 knots (103 km / h) on his last two crossings of Tasman.

“Inexperienced crews with ill-prepared vessels are risking the lives of people crossing the Tasman Sea. Maritime New Zealand has very strict safety standards for offshore sailing vessels and they are in place for good reason, as past tragedies have proven, ”he said.

He has sympathized with those separated from their loved ones, as he too has been estranged from his family for 10 of the past 14 months due to IQ issues.

But, he warned, “it’s always better to arrive late than dead.”


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