After four years fulfilling their long-held dream of sailing the world, Kiwi Max Kindler and his wife Bianca made the decision in January to end their travels and move their young family to New Zealand.
Their stint on the high seas had followed nine years in Qatar - Kindler working for an oil company and Bianca for a university - where they'd amassed enough money to buy a boat and quit their jobs.
Taking their three young boys - the eldest now nine, the younger twins aged seven - they set sail from Spain, travelling the globe and taking in some of the most famous coastlines the world over.
But at the turn of the year, it was time to settle somewhere permanently. With neither of them working, money was getting tight, and they'd always intended to settle in New Zealand eventually.
They began enquiring in January about a partnership visa for Bianca, a Dutch citizen who had visited New Zealand several times but never applied for residency.
They had no idea then that their move would be fraught with bureaucracy and poor communication spanning several months, leaving them frustrated and requiring the intervention of several government agencies.
Adding to their desperation is a race against time to sail the thousands of kilometres to New Zealand from Tahiti, where they're currently based, before cyclone season hits and it's too dangerous to make the voyage.
More than four months on from their first visa application, they are still waiting on final sign-off allowing them to disembark their boat onto New Zealand soil.
How COVID-19 'changed everything'
When coronavirus spread beyond China, forcing countries all over the world to shut their borders, the family were in Central America preparing to transit the Panama Canal.
Very quickly, Panama reacted by shutting its borders and closing its airports. There would be no chance of them flying home, and they quickly realised they'd need to travel to New Zealand by boat.
On May 16, following several emails and phone calls to clarify what was required, the couple paid $2250 to apply for Bianca's resident visa, notifying officials of their intention to arrive in the country by November.
A reply the following day said an immigration officer would assess their application, and that they would be contacted if they needed to do anything.
Thinking their application was being followed up, the family set sail for Tahiti, arriving in mid-July. It was only then, after enquiring about the application's status with Immigration New Zealand (INZ), that they learned the visa process had changed.
"I asked what was going on and they said 'your visas have been put on hold because of COVID-19'. So I said, 'Why didn't you tell us?'" Kindler recounted.
"I don't know the ins and outs of the INZ regulations... they should really tell us what we need to be doing."
INZ told Kindler that Bianca would need to request an invitation to apply (ITA) for a Critical Purpose Visitor Visa. After a review lasting weeks, they were informed on August 7 that their request had been successful and that they could now send in the documentation to get it finalised.
"It took us about 10 days to get the supporting documents together. We sent that off and were told the processing time would be about two weeks," he said.
"So we set off sailing for two weeks, thinking when we came back [to Tahiti] we'd have a response. But instead of that, we'd received an email saying they'd changed their process and we could no longer apply using the method we'd been told to."
'The clock's ticking': A race with a hurricane
The setback was of real concern to the family, who now faced the very real prospect of either sailing 4000km across the South Pacific to New Zealand after November 1 - when tropical cyclone season officially begins - or waiting months for it to be safe again.
Kindler said he and Bianca had tried to keep what was going on away from their children, but they'd "picked up the vibes" that something wasn't quite right.
"I was upset because we'd lost two weeks, and the clock was ticking for us to get home," Kindler said.
"We wouldn't like to travel through the Pacific waters during the hurricane season, so we'd have to hunker down somewhere in French Polynesia and then assess the situation when it's safe to sail again."
The family had been asked to fill out an online form - but were frustrated to learn it was detailed, repeated much of what they'd already sent in their previous visa application, and required responses to questions they were unable to answer.
"It asks for the country of residence for both the applicant and the applicant's spouse - we are non-resident in any country," Kindler said.
"Similarly I was told to supply a covering letter [explaining] why I couldn't supply a health certificate for my wife, and why we couldn't supply a police record - less than six months old - from the time we lived in Qatar, which was almost five years ago."
After a series of frustrating phone calls with INZ - compounded by their remote location - Kindler and Bianca were finally able to submit their Critical Purpose Visitor Visa application, shelling out another $246 to send it off on September 4.
But growing increasingly worried by the speed at which the application was being processed - and for his family's safety if they weren't able to sail to New Zealand within the next two months - Kindler began doing all he could to expedite the process.
In his desperation last week, he contacted his local MP Phil Twyford, Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin and Associate Immigration Minister Poto Williams. He even asked INZ what the consequences would be if they sailed to New Zealand without a visa. No one could help.
"People within each department openly admit that they have limited knowledge of the workings, processes, and requirements of the other departments involved," Kindler lamented.
"I haven't got a case manager. No one has even reviewed the file to date."
Some good news - but frustration at months of red tape
On Wednesday, September 16 - exactly four months to the day since they first applied for a visa - the family received the news they'd been waiting for.
Bianca had permission to enter New Zealand.
It was a massive relief after such a protracted application process - but it's not the final obstacle in the family's long-awaited return to New Zealand.
Kindler discovered last week there's yet another application to file, as he needs special permission from the Ministry of Health and Maritime NZ to arrive in the country by boat.
"This is a separate process and something that's only been around since COVID. They said it could take three weeks to process it, but that's just the first part," Kindler said.
"There's three or four different stages - once I've got approval from the Ministry of Health, I've got to send a Customs form and get approval; then, when I've got that together, I go to Maritime; then I go back to INZ."
It's not lost on Kindler that he's tried to move his family home in the middle of a global pandemic.
He recognises that the Government has had to adapt rapidly to the changing environment, and supports its efforts to protect the country from COVID-19. He also understands they're "among the 1 percent that doesn't fit all the normal rules" because they're travelling by boat.
But he says the entire immigration process has been unnecessarily confusing and believes his experience has exposed a lack of clarity between government agencies - and even within a single agency.
"If you talk to INZ, you get different responses within themselves - it seems like they're not up-to-date with what the latest policy is or what the implications are," he said.
"From the outset, [Prime Minister] Jacinda [Ardern] made clear that spouses of New Zealand citizens would be able to enter," he said.
"I don't understand why our application process has to go through the same route as everybody else who doesn't qualify [for residency]. I would've thought it would've been automatic approval."
Immigration Minister responds
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi refused to comment on Kindler's case directly, but said the Government's top priority throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been to keep Kiwis safe.
"That has meant we have prioritised those coming back into the country - in particular, New Zealand citizens and residents and those normally resident here and had a partnership-based visa.
"As of Wednesday, Immigration NZ began processing partnership applications from individuals who are offshore if they are the partner of a New Zealand citizen or resident but didn't already have a partnership-based visa. That policy therefore has recently changed.
"In relation to Customs requirements for people arriving across the maritime border, while it can be time-consuming for those who have to deal with different Government departments, our priority is to keep COVID out.
"People who arrive in small craft will have the same obligations as everyone else to isolate and quarantine to keep New Zealanders safe."