Australia, New Zealand deny safe refuge

Published on September 21st, 2020

The Ocean Cruising Club exists to encourage long-distance sailing in small boats, with members required to complete a continuous ocean passage of at least 1000 nautical miles in a vessel not more than 70 feet overall length.

The OCC seeks to be the true ‘Home Port’ for the ocean-going sailor, and with the cyclone season approaching the Southern Hemisphere on November 1, there is concern for those in the region.

After last-ditch effort letters to both Prime Ministers, OCC received formal rejections by both Australia and New Zealand on September 18, 2020. Here is their report:

The OCC initially wrote to the Health Minister in April and again more recently has written to the Minister and Prime Minister. When asked about providing cyclone season refuge for cruising yachts in COVID-19 limbo in the South Pacific, two weeks ago the Prime Minister said on live television that she would speak with the Health Minister about taking into account seasonal conditions (TV3 AM).

Despite the Prime Ministers’ remarks, the Director General for Health wrote September 18:

“The legal basis for the current restrictions at the Maritime Border is the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Maritime Border) Order (No 2) (the Order). The foundational rule of the Order is a ban on all foreign ships from arriving in New Zealand, unless explicitly exempt or granted permission by the Director-General of Health.

“There are a number of limited exemptions in place, such as for cargo vessels to unload and load cargo, fishing vessels to unload catch and resupply, Defence and State vessels to enter and depart New Zealand. As the Director-General of Health, I can also grant permission for ships to enter if there is a compelling need for the ship to arrive in New Zealand for reprovisioning or refuelling , carrying out a refit, refurbishment or repair to a ship or for humanitarian reasons.

“Having received advice from Ministry of Health officials, I have determined that a potential future cyclone does not provide sufficient basis to warrant an exemption from the Order.

“While I will determine whether permission is granted for a ship to arrive in New Zealand for humanitarian reasons on a case-by-case basis, my assessment is that the vessels in question are not facing a cyclone at present, but rather the prospect of a potential cyclone or cyclones in future. Therefore, there is no compelling need for the ships in question to arrive in New Zealand for humanitarian reasons.

“I will still determine whether there is a compelling reason for a ship to arrive in New Zealand for humanitarian reasons on a case-by-case basis, should a cyclone arise in anyone location. I appreciate that my decision will come as a disappointment to you and your members. However, I hope that clarity on my decision will allow your members to make immediate alternative arrangements, enabling them all to secure safe harbour (e.g. in their home countries) in a timely fashion.”

Unfortunately, despite many explanatory letters and emails, health officials do not appreciate most cannot sail to safe harbor in their own country, nor understand yachts need to be safely out of the cyclone zone, not at sea and seeking shelter in New Zealand when one occurs!

The yachts in Fiji and French Polynesia and other Pacific islands must now risk tropical cyclones in locations which do not have the capacity for safe mooring or dry storage. Prudent and safe navigation is to move small yachts out of the cyclone zone before the cyclone season occurs, this takes many weeks of sailing. These yachts are the home of families and couples.

NZ Health has a number of exemption applications before it, many for two months. The outcome of these remains to be seen. Yachts with plans for refit and/or who have a compelling need other than cyclone refuge can still apply for an exemption.

Since April, OCC has been working with Sail South Pacific and the Marina Operators Association and has been liaising with immigration and maritime agencies. COVID safe and quarantine protocols were developed and have been put into place. The OCC would particularly like to thank John Martin and Chris Galbraith for their efforts for the cruising community.

The OCC initially wrote to the Health and Border Force Ministers in April and again more recently has written to the Prime Minister. After receiving a letter in June advising of the exemption process available, the OCC conducted a pilot, all five boats were rejected.

The OCC has been supported by a Senator who has advocated at the highest possible levels for cruising yachts. Recently, one last attempt was made with the group exemption application, involving a letter to the Prime Minster and a groups of over 20 yachts.

The Senator ensured this was again considered at the highest possible levels, but to date the only known exemption granted for a cruiser is a US crew member on an Australian owned/skippered yacht, apparently gained with Fiji High Commissioners’ assistance.

The OCC received the following from Australian Border Force on September 18:

“The Commissioner has considered the request and has decided the following:

• There is no impediment to the Australian citizen and permanent residents travelling to Australia.
• The grounds for compelling/compassionate circumstances are not met.
• The inability to get insurance is not on a basis on which to grant an exemption.
• There is no information to support the proposition that any of the travellers or vessels regularly come to Australia.
• The travellers may wish to consider other options in relation to the travel/cyclone season.
• The travellers may wish to consider whether they may present as a significant economic activity for a State or Territory and seek their support.”

Yachts may still apply for an exemption.

The OCC has been working with Down Under Rally and Bundaberg Port Marina. COVID-19 safe and quarantine protocols were developed and have been put into place. The OCC would particularly like to thank John Hembrow and Brett Hensler for their efforts on behalf of the cruising community. We especially wish to thank our Senator (who remains eager to assist), hopefully, we can do this publicly soon!

There is little more the OCC can do. With the impending cyclone season, crews should be considering the best possible location to sit out the season and have a cyclone refuge plan in the event one occurs.

Whilst we have run out of time, crews with ongoing concerns can contact their embassy/consulate to seek their assistance.

Source: OCC

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