The ferry, carrying more than 700 passengers and cargo, was travelling in rough seas due to tropical Cyclone Harold despite warnings from the weather bureau not to set sail.
A slow-moving front, now sitting over Fiordland, sluggishly moves north tomorrow (Tuesday) to sit around Cook Strait by midnight before continuing its journey over the North Island on Wednesday.
The authorities lifted a few of these restrictions because the cyclone approached with a objective to enable individuals to assemble at mass evacuation centres, with Durpaire saying it was a query of prioritising the best menace to life.
The Joint Typhoon Warning Center projects Harold will move slowly through the Republic of Vanuatu with strong winds, heavy rain and storm surge and could track near Fiji next week.
The winds blew roofs off houses, tore down trees and destroyed a council building in Luganville, which has a population of 16,000, according to a Radio New Zealand report. Cyclone Harold approached Sanma province, an island north of the capital Port Vila, with winds of up to 215 kmph at about 1pm local time (0200 GMT), as the country of 2,76,000 persons bunkered down.
A major global relief effort was needed the last time a category-five system, Cyclone Pam, hit Vanuatu in 2015. "It's been very slow the past six hours, but now it's beginning to pick up speed", Jockley told RNZ Pacific.
"The winds range is covering the whole of Santo and part of northern Malekula". Some people took shelter in caves. On Monday morning, authorities evacuated people from remote areas where rivers had burst their banks into villages.
Luganville has been cut off from the wider Santo area by flooding, landslides and debris.
The official number of people in evacuation centres is so far unknown. It is expected to hit landfall in Vanuatu overnight on Monday.
Vanuatu has reported no cases of the new coronavirus but has nonetheless declared a state of emergency, banned most worldwide and domestic air travel and limited public gatherings to five people as it tries to prevent a local outbreak of the flu-like illness that has infected almost 1.3 million people and resulted in about 70,000 deaths globally.
Forecast tracking map for Tropical Cyclone Harold across Vanuatu towards Fiji.