May 12, 2009

Wakatu: first chapter in a family saga of maritime loss

The last of the Lyttelton to Wellington passenger ferries to make the 280 kilometere voyage via Kaikoura ended her eventful 45 year career very close to where she had previously attended the tragic wreck of notable predecessor. Her demise would be the first chapter in a tale of the loss of two inter-island ferries by father and son captains

At the beginning of November 1878 John Currie Moutray and Robert Martin Crosbie of Nelson's Soho Foundry laid the keel of a cargo-passenger vessel for the local shipping enterprise of the Cross brothers and Burchard Franzen. Completed for a contract price of £6,000 and christened with the Maori name for Nelson Bay, the Wakatu was launched on the evening of the 6th of July 1879 from the foundry's Bridge Street slipway, near the Nelson Post Office.

In as much as Moutray and Crosbie had previously built a replacement engine and boiler for Captain G. Cross's paddle steamer Result, it may be surmised that they also constructed the compound steam engines for the propulsion and steam winches of the new vessel. With a boiler pressure of 65 pounds of steam per square inch, her engine developed a nominal 25 horsepower, therby maintaining a service speed of 9 knots.

Built for Cross and Company's Nelson to Wellington and Wanganui service, the 90 ton (78 tons net) steamship, was originally 32.23 metres in length, with a beam of 5.5 metres and a draft of only 1.8 metres. Up to a hundred tons of freight could be carried in her 6 metre deep hold. Fitted out at the Corporation Wharf as gaff rigged schooner, she could initially accommodate about 40 first class passengers. With the main saloon aft, there was also a seperate ladies' cabin amidships on the main deck. Further accommodation for second-class passengers was forward on the lower deck.

In the second week of November 1879, under the command of Captain Charles Evans, the Wakatu commenced her maiden voyage to Wanganui, returning to her port of registry via the capital a week later. But her first career would come to an abrupt end little more than two years later when she was stranded while crossing the Patea bar. An attempt to get her off with the evening tide failed, and she crashed violently against the cliff, a portion of which fell upon the ship. The hull therby being stove in, the Wakatu filled with water and became a total loss.

Sold to Levin & Company of Wellington, the vessel underwent a major reconstruction. With the hull extended by 4.25 metres and the gross displacement increased to 157 tons, the main deck passenger accommodation was significantly enlarged (above). Transferring her registry to the capital, William Levin put the rebuilt steamer on the Wellington to Lyttelton run, a service that the Wakatu would perform with reliability for longer than any other vessel.

Wakatu at her usual Lyttelton berth on the Ferry wharf.

In an omen of what would be her own and adjacent fate, Wakatu attended the wreck of the Lyttelton bound 228 ton coastal steamer Taiaroa, which went ashore just to the north of Waipapa Point on the Kaikoura coast in April 1886. With only 14 saved, 34 lives were lost and the Wakatu returned to Lyttelton with an awful cargo of coffins.

Apart from a night time collision with the steamer Storm off Motunau Island in March 1909, which left a gaping hole in her bow, the next two decades were fairly uneventful for the Wakatu. The highlight being when the Australian Poet Henry Lawson and his wife took passage aboard her in May 1897. Excitement returned in the early days of the First World War when she was was fired upon by the guns in the fortress on Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour for failing to observe the War Regulations.

In the later ownership of the Wellington based Wakatu Shipping Company, she encountered her final mishap in thick fog at 5.00 am on the 6th of September 1924, while sailing from Wellington to Kaikoura and Lyttelton. An unusually strong current threw her high onto the beach on the northern side of Waipapa Point, very close to the wreck of the Taiaroa (below).

The remains of the Taiaroa as seen from the stranded Wakatu

The Wakatu was under the command of her regular master, Captain David Robertson, who was exonerated by the Court of Inquiry, which found that when the weather came up thick, with fine rain, a south-east wind, and a heavy swell, the vessel was at least four miles off shore, which was a safe position; that in altering the course at 2:30 a.m., and 2:40 a.m., the master adopted a safe and prudent course which, under ordinary circumstances, would have carried the Wakatu well clear of Waipapa Point, and that the casualty was caused by an unusually strong set owing to the action of the wind and tide, and to the fact that the vessel was lightly laden.

The crew of the Wakatu still aboard the stranded vessel.

Four years later Captain Robertson would be dismissed for trying to conceal another mishap, when his next command went ashore on Banks Peninsula. In a curious quirk of fate, David Robertson's son Captain Gordon Robertson would be in command of the inter-island ferry Wahine, when she sank in April 1968, with a loss of 51 lives.

Holed and buckled near the stern, the ships' resting place was so far up on the beach as to make salvage impossible, but her location greatly simplified the recovery of the cargo. Several attempts were made to refloat the ship, but were unsuccessful, and she was abandoned as a total loss on September the 12th.

Only a few hundred yards from the road, the Wakatu was still a photographic opportunity in March 1927.

Subsequently cut up for scrap where she lay, only her keel now remains to be seen on the beach.

Long supplanted by larger and faster vessels in the Lyttelton-Wellington service and the development of road and rail transport along the South Island's north-eastern coast, the loss of the Wakatu marked the end of Kaikoura as any more than a fishing harbour, but the long lost vessel is still commemorated in the name of that township's Wakatu Quay.

Many thanks to Steven McLachlan of the Shades Stamp Shop, the late Frederick William Weidner (Kaikoura Star photographer), Graham Stewart, the Nelson Examiner newspaper, the National Library of New Zealand, et al.


Tony Taylor said...

My Grandfather,Anton Hansen, met my Grandmother at Kaikoura while a crew member of the Wakatu. I suppose I owe my existance to this ship.

Tony Taylor.

Canterbury Heritage said...

Such is the nature of the Butterfly Effect.

Can you add more to the story of Anton Hansen's time aboard the Wakatu?