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.
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.
Karoline Tuckey at RNZ has also written an article about the situation for the Yachties in the Pacific.
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.
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.
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.
For me – this issue seems like a no-brainer. This is a humanitarian issue.
- 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?!)
- 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. .
- 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.