Fifty-nine days after it departed Timaru on a mission to retrieve stranded fishermen from the Falkland Islands, the San Aotea II returned to the port on Tuesday morning - its passengers and crew ecstatic to finally be home.
The longliner departed Timaru on June 6, to collect 15 fishermen who had been fishing in the South Atlantic for toothfish when Covid-19 forced the closure of international borders, leaving them stranded in the Falklands.
Crew members would usually fly back to New Zealand from the Falklands via South America but, by the time they were ready to head home, there was just one flight a week leaving the Islands for the United Kingdom.
Sanford deep water fleet manager Darryn Shaw said the option of flying crew back via the UK was ruled out due to the risk of exposing them to Covid-19 and the need for lengthy quarantine periods.
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And so, the decision was made to take the San Aotea II south on a challenging voyage to collect the stranded crew and deliver a fresh crew to the San Aspiring so it could continue operating to the end of the fishing season.
Nelson-based skipper John Bennet was in charge of the journey south which took the San Aotea II down the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, to the Falkland Islands - a trip he did not take lightly despite having completed it 18 times.
The crew experienced rough waters in the first days of the voyage in June.
Bennett said the first night at sea had been a "rolly old night" as the crew dealt with a significant swell, and spent the night "basically zig-zagging like a yacht tacking to avoid the worst of the swells".
The skipper "adjusted the route slightly" to give them smoother conditions. He later returned to the intended route and made up lost time.
Once at Port Stanley, Bennet changed places with San Aspiring skipper Shane Cottle - with Cottle in charge of bringing his crew home aboard the San Aotea II.
"We had a big feeling of having the pressure lifted when we heard Sanford were sending a boat (to get us) home, instead of flying through the UK," Cottle said.
Many of the crew had been at sea and away from their families for almost six months.
Arriving back in New Zealand on Tuesday, Cottle expressed his gratitude to Sanford for embarking on the mission to bring them home.
"The crew are ecstatic about being home. It was a good feeling," he said.
Crew member Jesse Kroupa, of Nelson, said he had been out on the ocean for six months and was "very happy" to be back.
"The first thing I'm going to do is spend some time with my niece and nephew, and relax and barbecue."
Kroupa thanked Sanford for getting him home.
Thomas Woolley, of Balclutha, said he was looking forward to giving his partner and three-year-old son, Isaac, a big hug when he got home.
Not all 15 of the San Aspiring crew members made the return journey as intended, with two staying behind after pleading guilty to charges of violent conduct in the Magistrate's Court of Falkland Islands after an incident in a Port Stanley bar.
However, Cottle did have two extra passengers on board for the trip home - honeymooners Feeonaa and Neville Clifton, of Auckland.
Feeonaa Clifton said she was grateful to Sanford bringing her and her husband Neville home. The couple had been stuck in the Falklands since the first week of March after heading there for the first leg of their honeymoon.
Clifton said she was looking forward to seeing her family in Auckland later on Tuesday.
Coming into Timaru on Tuesday morning had felt "surreal", she said.
"It's amazing to be back in New Zealand after so long away."
She said they tried not to think about stepping back on dry land while they were anchored off the coast of Timaru for more than four days awaiting Covid-19 test results. while completing their quarantine off the coast of Timaru since Friday, they "tried to put thoughts of land out of their minds".
"We just tried to enjoy the scenery. It looked amazing and I've never seen Timaru like that before, and I was thinking I was just a tourist."
There was a tinge of sadness that the prolonged honeymoon had come to an end but being together was more important, she said.
"It will just be different, same story, different chapter."
She said as well as seeing family, she was looking forward to getting back to work and completing a project she started with Pacific Sisters when she returned to Auckland.
"There's some research and development that we're doing and Neville will be continuing with work [as a telecommunications engineer]."
Shaw said he was also pleased they had been able to help the Cliftons and the retrieval mission had been a success.
"We had some issues but those things are being worked through.
"Weather was great on the way over and back.
"We are relieved to have brought them home port-to-port with no risk of getting any Covid infection," he said.
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