The Saga of the Stranded Sailors

As borders around the world closed down with the COVID-19 crisis, sailors around the world have been in a difficult situation. International travellers were encouraged to go home – to hunker down and wait it out, and of course that is what most people did.

But for many sailors their yachts are their only home. They can’t simply just pack their suitcase and head back to a house in their home country. Boats need constant maintenance and somewhere to be stored, and many places around the world – including the Pacific, are dangerous places to stay during the cyclone season.

New Zealand seemed like the perfect refuge. Traditionally this is where many sailors traversing the Pacific would have come during cyclone season (November – April). To get work done on their boats utilising our world class marine facilities, to travel around the country enjoying our incredible scenery, perhaps leave the boat and travel home to see friends and family over the Christmas period and to take a break from crossing oceans for a while.

As a nation of voyagers, New Zealand benefits greatly from these sailing visitors. I’ve heard that we get anywhere between 300 – 600 yachts entering New Zealand over our summer, and these cruisers would spend far in excess than your usual tourist. Our boat builders, sail makers, riggers, upholsterers, marina’s and tourism businesses all benefit from the funds that these independent travellers bring to the country. They stay for around six months and blend in to the community, shopping at the local farmers market, taking up yoga classes and encouraging other sailors fulfil their adventurous ambitions. They are generally fit and healthy people, and they have a passive income or savings of some kind to support their travelling lifestyles.

They are temporary visitors too. They are usually on global circumnavigations, or making a lap of the Pacific. New Zealand isn’t their end destination (although many do sell their boats here and head home). But they aren’t here taking jobs from kiwis, they’re financially stable, they aren’t here putting a burden on our society or resources, they don’t want to become overstayers, they have a whole world out there to go and explore.

Well at least they did – until – the borders all closed.

And that is when the problem started.

Immigration New Zealand very kindly gave a blanket extension to all the people in New Zealand at the time the COVID crisis really set in. Giving everyone an extra grace period through until 25 September 2020. Of course back in March when the whole country went in to lock-down everyone thought that the crisis would be over soon enough and they’d be able to carry on with their plans to sail to the Pacific in June.

Sailors in the Pacific thought the same thing. The borders would be closed for a while, but by the time cyclone season came along, then they’d be in a position to be able to sail either New Zealand or Australia to find some refuge. Many are in the difficult situation of having their boat insurance policies cancelled if they aren’t located somewhere safe during the dangerous period.

You’ll remember that when solo-circumnavigator Bill Norrie arrived in Lyttelton back in May, we managed to get a special dispensation for him to come in to the country. After all he’d been self-isolating alone for over 93 days since he left South Africa well before the COVID crisis set in. Thankfully our amazing Harbourmaster Jim Dilley was able to talk sense to the local authorities to allow his entry while our border was technically closed.

Jim is pragmatic about the possibilities of this happening again There is a high likelihood of other international sailors arriving in the country seeking refuge from cyclone season, and this is something that they are already planning for.

And for the sailors who are already here – the 25 September visa expiry date is ticking closer and closer by the day, and with no clear answers from Immigration New Zealand as to what will happen to them. Can they stay? Will they be forced to leave? If they can’t stay – then where will they go?

The rumour mill has been working overtime. Calls to Immigration NZ come back with different answers. People have been told “There’s no way that you’ll get thrown out!”, “You’ll have to apply for an extension but that will cost you a lot of money”, “The department that handles visitor visa extensions is in Beijing, but they are closed indefinitely”, “So long as you apply before 25 September, you’ll be ok”.

As you can imagine – the stress this is causing is immense. All anyone is asking for is some clarity on what needs to be done in order to get this sorted out.

So with the help of my former boss – Rt Hon David Carter MP, we put a call out to get a feel for how many people were in this situation. We were inundated with letters appealing for help. Not just for people here, and those in the Pacific, but also from sailors who were back in their home countries when lock-down started and who have no idea when they’ll be able to get back to their boats.

David has written to the Minister of Immigration appealing for a blanket extension through until June 2021. You can read more about how we went about that in this post. The letter went in a couple of weeks ago now, but as yet we haven’t had a response.

There have been lots of people advocating on behalf of the sailors, NZ Marine have done a brilliant job of getting dispensation of some of the larger commercial vessels being able to enter the country for refits etc. Jim Dilley – our Canterbury Harbourmaster – as a sailor himself he completely understand’s the issue. Guy and Fiona representing the Ocean Cruising Club have been advocating for those stuck in the Pacific, There has also been a petition from people on working holiday’s appealing for an extension.

The cause has also started to attract media attention. Some stories published just this week can be found below.


Yachties & backpackers desperate to stay in New Zealand. An interview on Radio New Zealand.

Read the article here

Listen here.

Chris Gailbraith was interviewed in Radio New Zealand about the yachts in the Pacific wanting to come to New Zealand to escape Pacific Cyclone Season.

You can listen to his interview here.

Karoline Tuckey at RNZ has also written an article about the situation for the Yachties in the Pacific.

You can read her article here.

Kim Hill is due to do an episode about the situation on her Saturday morning radio show on Radio New Zealand. This is scheduled for Saturday 8 August at 8.30am.

You can listen online here.

Other Options

While options for sailors are very limited, there are some other countries who obviously see the benefit that these sailors bring to their economies and they’ve already got policies in place:

Australia seems to have a much more pragmatic approach already sorted, as you can see from my friends at the Downunder Rally, there is already a very clear pathway for allowing sailors in to Australia and John and Leanne from Downunder Rally will help sailors navigate through the process. This is a brilliant example for how things could be done here.

You can read more here.

Fiji is also now welcoming visiting sailors. They also have strict entry requirements but remember that Fiji is not considered a safe place to stay during cyclone season.

More info about entry requirements here.


For me – this issue seems like a no-brainer. This is a humanitarian issue.

  1. Simply issue a blanket extension to everyone in the country on a visitors visa through until June 2021. This will give all the cruisers already here some clarity and reassurance that they and their vessels are not going to be forced to leave New Zealand and head out to some unknown Pacific destination right at the start of Pacific Cyclone Season. This will save the hassle of them having to complete the visitors visa extension forms which come at a large expense and hassle – and potentially overloading the office that handles them – which for some reason is in Beijing and is currently shut…?! (How weird is that?!)
  2. Allow the sailors in the Pacific to come in to the country. Give them strict requirements to follow in regards to quarantine period, COVID testing on arrival etc, to ensure that our border is not breached by anyone who could possibly be infectious. Remember that many of the places they’ll be coming from are also COVID free. This will also give some reassurance to our Pacific neighbours that they aren’t going to potentially be burdened by potentially additional wrecked vessels or further damage to property should they be hit by a cyclone over the season. It will also give a much required boost to the economy especially benefitting both our marine and tourism industries with these vessels in our country spending money. .
  3. Give some thought to those who have been locked out of the country but their boat/home is here. Currently only a limited number of New Zealand citizens are allowed in to the country at present due to the lack of quarantine facilities to accomodate people wanting to come in.

I like to try and look at all sides of the story. For the average New Zealander asking “But what’s in it for me?” Here are some of the things that I see as a benefit:

  • More money for our economy – not just the marine industry, but local businesses, and the tourism industry.
  • Sailors are generally fit and healthy and are financially independent, they are unlikely to pose any burden to our society or social services.
  • Providing a safe refuge for sailors who have no other home to go to at present.
  • Relieving the burden on the Pacific Nations (and NZ funded aid) during the cyclone season – potentially avoiding an even larger clean up bill if there are a large number of international vessels hit in a storm.
  • Avoiding the risk of our Rescue Coordination Centre having to go to the aid of vessels in distress in the Pacific during cyclone season. (The RCCNZ area covers a huge part of the Pacific).
  • Having more sailors here to enjoy and support the Americas Cup!

As far as drawbacks go – I am having trouble thinking of any. Of course there are concerns that visitors may bring the virus back in to our community, and given what is happening in places like Melbourne at the moment, I can totally understand those concerns. This needs to be controlled and as you can see above from the procedures outlined by Australia and Fiji – these risks can be managed.

Finally – as always I love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Please comment below or email me. I will of course update when we get a response from the Minister.


26 thoughts on “The Saga of the Stranded Sailors

  1. Thank you for this well written clear piece- and it ‘s straightforward approach to the situation. I am not a boat owner but was crew on an all female yacht taking part in the World ARC, the boat I was on is NZ registered but the crew were UK citizens. With all the uncertainty and after crossing the Pacific during the voyage the world changed, we were locked down in the Marquesas, we couldn’t continue to Tahiti till parts for our broken rig arrived. Then as Tonga remains closed one of our friend’s boats was escorted into Fiji by military vessels after entering their waters, and more uncertainty about travel. We knew the owner would possibly get into NZ but there was no assurances for the rest of us I felt my only option was to return to Europe, but as I do not have a home in the UK my options are limited!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your feedback, such a shame that you had to head home given the uncertainty! If only the NZ Government could make a concise decision one way or another as soon as possible to reassure everyone else in your situation. Fingers crossed you get to come back sometime soon and resume your adventure! Cheers Viki


  2. Greetings from the other side of the world, from Finland! And thanks for your very well written and clear post. I am especially glad that you mentioned sailors who are forcely separated from their floating homes – me and my husband are one of those.
    Our boat is in Whangarei, we are in Finland. Borders got closed almost in front of our noses. We had flights in April, now re-scheduled to January.
    We have now experienced a tornado and a flood from distance. No damage to our yacht, but the feeling of helplessness is excrusiating. You cannot prevent a natural phenomenon being at site either, but you can sort the mess out by yourself after. Many things can happen in a secure place as well.
    We are lucky to have a place to live while we are waiting. Another positive thing is to be near the family.
    Despite these things, we’d rather be in NZ.
    Certainly, the sailors’ situation out in Pacific is worse than ours (we have friends in French Pol. waiting, waiting), and all publicity and efforts are needed to help them.
    I appreciate that you reminded that not all sailors enter by sea, some like to return by air. Ready for tests and (managed) isolation, if it’s not too costly.
    Greetings to Lyttelton, we were there in 2003 on our first long-distance trip! It was the place to head for Kodiak, Alaska 🙂
    Auli, sv Manta

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fabulous article, thoughtfully written. We have a lot of overseas sailors, in Opua, caught here on their boats at the moment. Hard enough to be stuck here, but the extended Visa expiring soon must be such a worry for them. How absolutely stupid regulations are, in the face of a pandemic that’s laughing at all of us, when none of the current situation is something that any person can easily overcome.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As one of those ‘boat home’ sailors forbidden to return, thank you for your thoughtful message. I pray to return soon. There is no hurtle I would not jump to return!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Viki,

    As usual your clear, concise thinking and writing makes everything so doable!! Between you and Jim and David I am confident that the NZ officials will see the light and just extend everyone’s visas. Full stop. You are so right in that this is a good news story if people can stay – it adds to the economy and of course with proper restrictions and quarantines everyone will be safe.

    You are the best and Bill and I will be forever grateful to you for all that you did for him whilst he was in NZ.

    Big hugs from Calgary, Alberta, Canada!!

    P.S. Bill and Pixie are hoping to have an ETA of August 31 in Victoria.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this article. We are from the US, have been on our boat for 5 years and are currently in French Polynesia. Our plan was to be in NZL for the America’s Cup (arriving October). We’d planned to take a year traveling NZL and spend at least $40,000+ USD in country.
    We are currently working on 3 years in FP and the boat will need to be out of the country by May 2021 or we will have to import it. Since NZL is not open to us at the moment we are seriously thinking of shipping the boat back to the US.
    Am having a hard time understanding why NZL sees us ocean voyagers as such a risk to their country. We are easily controlled and monitored as we arrive.
    Where is the common sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lisa,
      I will email you and copy in Jim our Harbourmaster. I am hoping he might be able to come up with some solutions for you! We are in Lyttelton – but once you cleared in to the country you’d be able to move around. Hopefully we might be able to come up with a solution for you! Cheers Viki


  7. Hi Viki,

    Congratulations for this brilliant post.
    I would add a comment :
    – if you belong to an America cup syndicate you are granted a visa. The US challenger is currently training in Auckland waters. Fabulous videos are on Internet. I have no figures but clearly the syndicate will spend a bunch of millions of NZ $.
    – If I book for at least 50 000 NZ$ in a NZ yard I will be granted a visa.

    Unfortunately I cannot afford such an expense and I have neither the financial area of an America Cup syndicate. But I don’t really see the connection with a legitimate concern for the health protection of the NZ population.
    Cheers Eric,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree! It shouldn’t just be a matter of buying yourself in! I believe there is a pathway being worked on, but what we really need is some clarity so that those in the Pacific can start making some plans. Time is marching on! Fingers crossed for some progress soon.


  8. Viki , We are filling our visa extension form now , Is it true this information we give goes to China . Immigration are asking for alot of detail ie 6 months bank statements,personal relationships, pension details . Quite a worry if the details we give go to a third party

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am not sure on the truth in that – but apparently that was what one of the people was told when they called Immigration. I don’t imagine it would be given to anyone other than NZ authorities though.


  9. Pingback: COVID Stranded Sailors Update | Astrolabe Sailing

  10. Pingback: Separated from your Boat | Astrolabe Sailing

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