Bluebridge Stock Transportation

November 2015

The independent freight operator taking stock and passengers across Cook Strait

Strait Shipping was formed by Jim Barker of Otorohanga Transport in May 1992. It was a time of rapid dairy expansion with large numbers of stock being shifted across Cook Strait from the North to the South Island. Unable to book the space he needed, Jim and three other shareholders chartered a ship from Tasmania to do the job. Other trucking companies shipping goods as well as livestock started making bookings and the company rapidly expanded, buying its own ships and in 2002 added its Bluebridge passenger service.

Otorohanga Transport began in 1963 when Jim Barker, his sister Cynthia Dow and their families developed the business and merged with other carriers. It was later restructured into the Jim Barker Group of Companies including Strait Shipping Ltd and trucking companies Freight Lines Ltd and Stock Lines Ltd, all headed by family members. The Dow family has retained Otorohanga Transport.

The Bluebridge-Strait Shipping Service carries passengers and vehicles between downtown Wellington and Picton, with around 26 return sailings across Cook Strait each week. Every year, its two ships carry over 300,000 passengers, 100,000 cars and 35,000 trucks, with about 4500 carrying livestock. The company has grown to meet demand for a competitive service in what was once a monopoly market for shifting livestock, freight and passengers.

Strait Shipping managing director Sheryl Ellison, says what’s made the company successful is its people and their drive to constantly provide a safe, competitive, reliable and customer focused service. When her father started Strait Shipping, people were shifting large numbers of cows from the North to the South Island to stock newly converted farms, as the dairy industry expanded. Coming up to late May-early June, when sharemilkers move cows and equipment to new farms, Jim was struggling to book space on the sole Cook Strait ferry service. With no competition, shifting freight on the NZ Railways Corporation-owned Interisland Line was expensive with frequent delays.

Jim chartered, then 12 months later bought the MV Straitsman from Tasmania, with space for 400 cattle loaded into pens. Strait Shipping was formed with Jim owning 50% of shares and the remainder split between business partners with relevant skills.

On the back of a more competitive Cook Strait service, an inter-island trade for livestock has grown. The company has had a long standing history with Taylor Preston Ltd., who started buying sheep and cattle in the South Island for slaughter at its Wellington plant. During droughts, large numbers of stock and fodder are shifted between islands, for example at the beginning of 2005 a lot of animals went north.

Strait Shipping has continued to grow on strong demand although freight including fruit and vegetables, retail items and households on the move take up about 90% of space. Drivers are well looked after with a cabin and a meal as soon as they come on board.

The company is running two vessels, the Straitsman named after the original Straitsman and the newly acquired Strait Feronia.

The 125 metre, 13,906 tonne Straitsman was designed in Denmark and built in the Netherlands. It has 1200 lane metres (one car fills 5 lane metres and a truck 14-23 lane metres) plus there’s room for 400 passengers.

The Strait Feronia began service in late June 2015, spelling retirement of the smaller Santa Regina. This Italian-built 186 metre 21,856 tonne roll-on roll-off freight has over 2000 lane metres for trucks and cars and 400 passengers with 60 cabins.

Sheryl says Strait Shipping’s background in agricultural freight has built strong loyalty from livestock and other trucking companies. Staff know that drivers shifting sheep and cattle need plenty of warning if disruptions are expected, to arrange grazing. A close eye is kept on long-term forecasts and transport companies kept informed when sailings are likely to be cancelled. Any sailing that is too rough for people is also too rough for sheep and cattle, she says.

Animal welfare codes are met, including ensuring parking trucks where there is good ventilation. Drivers are responsible for checking the condition of stock 15 minutes before and after trucks are loaded, but are not allowed on vehicle decks during sailings when crews keep an eye out on the trucks. Drivers are called if there are any issues.

Seventy per cent of staff work on board ships and 30 per cent on shore.