- Watts Shipping Register
- Watts Shipping Register
An enterprise important to this country in early years was the importation of timber and hardwood poles possessing construction characteristics not readily obtainable in our local woods. For many years NZ ships trading to the USA and Canada returned with heavy deck cargoes of both sawn and squared trunks of cedar and redwood. Inter-colonial ships trading to Australia frequently returned with deck cargoes of hardwood poles for both power and telegraph use and also with railway sleepers. The poles could be difficult cargoes to keep stowed in heavy weather as even though they would be tightly bound down with chains and screws the fact that they had buoyancy meant they could work loose and lift (float) if the vessel was shipping constant heavy seas. The danger then came not from the fact that they might escape from their lashings but that they could work fore and aft as the ship pitched and become battering rams. Some ships received severe damage if this could not be counteracted and one ship at least arrived in NZ with her lower bridge front bulkhead stove in and logs occupying the officers saloon. The Union Steam Ship Company had control of this trade but only operated one ship purpose built for log traffic. The twin screw motor vessel “Port Tauranga” built and originally owned by Captain Watchlin but transferred to the Union Company when they took over the Watchlin shipping interests soon after WW2. Under U.S.S.Co. ownership her name was changed to “Kopua.”
Kopua in Wellington Harbour.
These days the importation of large quantities of timber is a thing of the past. The pole trade gradually died astimber men learned how to treat our indigenous timbers to have lasting qualities. Now the wheel has turned full cycle. Ships of all nations now leave our shores daily loaded to the gunwhales with qualityNew Zealand timbers.
A1 at Lloyd’s: Very few ships had the free length of deck to carry extra long poles and consequently there was usually a delay in delivery for large orders of extra long poles. These could only be dribbled in as suitable carrying capacity became available. It was to take advantage of this niche market that Captain Watchlin had the “Kopua” built about 1936. She was an interesting ship for several reasons but mainly for the fact that she possessed the longest cargo hatch of any ship in the world, designed of course, for the stowage of long poles. Her decks were also fitted to enable the secure lashing of poles in heavy seas and she was rigged with two long swinging derricks also designed especially for ease of lifting pole cargoes. The fact that she was 376 feet in length and her hold floor extended clear of obstruction for the greater part of her length was outside the normal standards of ship construction yet she was registered as A1 at Lloyd’s. I am not sure of the technicalities but believe she was the only ship with her ratio of opening hatch to length ever to have this rating. Transverse bulkheads were the more usual requirement for an A1 ship. She was also designed to work some of the north NSW coast rivers, thus enabling her to load directly at timber mills and avoid some of the Australian land transport charges.
The “Kopua”: I joined the “Kopua” as Third Mate in Lyttelton and found myself in another situation that was to be quite different to the usual maritime jobs. For a start, the Master and both the Chief and Second Officers held square rig (sailing ship) tickets. This in itself caused me to feel a little inadequate but I was a lot younger and soon overcame this worry as I was accepted on my merits. Aside from the senior officers she was very much a young man’s ship. I came to have high regard for the captain and he taught me much that would assist me in later years. We sailed the next day for Yamba Head in northern NSW, the landfall for theClarence River mouth, from where we would proceed fifty miles up the river to Grafton and load logs forAuckland. Draught restrictions at the river mouth required us then to proceed to Coff’s Harbour to complete loading.
I found the ship to have excellent officers accommodation, for the times, with both a spacious saloon and a small officers lounge. My own cabin was on the main deck and well furnished. The hands, however, were still accommodated forward under the forecastlehead. This was very unusual in NZ ships by this time but their accommodation was modern, again for the times, and was reasonably snug. In a vessel of her type it would have been difficult to accommodate all hands aft. The particular construction of this ship meant that she needed to be nursed a bit in a head sea nor could she be allowed to pound (pile drive.) This was some compensation to those living forward and meant, at least, they were not exposed to the sickening upward accelerations or the teeth jarring crash of pounding if pushing through a steep head sea. Mind you, as her speed was only about 11 knots she would probably have only pounded in light condition and hove herself to if loaded. (A few years later, after welding rather than riveting became common in ship construction, several sinkings were caused by hulls opening up. Probably due to pounding. Allowing a ship to pound was then outlawed altogether. Those of you who traveled to Lyttelton, before the 1950’s, in the ferries during a southerly buster will know perfectly well about pounding (pile driving) but in those days we accepted it as part of the penalty for timekeeping. For the faint hearted I can assure them that welding technology has now overcome its early problems.)
The Clarence River: The trip up the river to Grafton was a delightful interlude and as the captain knew it well, he was exempted from river pilotage. This meant the 6½ hours it took to steam up the river the ship was under conn by the captain and the bridge watch officer was free of any navigation duties. Aside from the occasional engine movement one could spend the time simply enjoying the scenery as it floated past. A high ships bridge is ideal for this. From recall there were three wired ferry crossings that needed to be warned by an extended whistle blast, well in advance, to drop their wires and allow us passage. A ship the size of the “Kopua” could not conveniently stop in the river and if she had to, it meant either anchoring or holding her in deep water by sheering with the rudder and judicious engine movements. Very inconvenient and not altogether safe in some reaches of the river.
The river for most of its length was lined on both sides by typical east coast rural Australian farming country and the occasional small town. It gave a new perspective to ship life as farmers on tractors waved to us, cars on adjacent roads tooted and shopkeepers and townsfolk came out to wave and watch us go by. The riverside pubs, too, usually emptied out and from their patrons we many times heard the Great Australian Adjective. There were also the silent watchers in the shape of the many iguanas infesting the area who if scared would simply run into the water, but they were not intimidating like some of the other denizens of the river.
We would pass by several small schools and at each the pupils would flood out excitedly and scream in real Australianese “Geeve us a blouw, keptin!” These requests were always answered by the “keptin” with a few good blasts from the ships whistle that would be followed by joyous squeals from the school yards. I suppose the whistle sound also alerted the pupils at the next school for as we approached the kids, there, would be out in the playground yelling for a blow. Sometimes the trip up and down the river, depending on the time of day, took on the aura of a grand processional but it was great fun and certainly more entertaining than the four and a half days we spent crossing the Tasman. I think that by this time very few vessels worked up the river to Grafton, certainly the “Kopua” was by far the largest ever to have done so.
Grafton, NSW: Grafton itself was a delightful town situated mainly on the north bank of the river and in those days about as big as Otaki is now. It was renowned for its avenues of jacaranda trees and had an annual festival when they were in full flower. It was a magnificent sight and the town had a right to be proud of them. In many ways the attitudes of the town residents was similar in outlook to those on the West Coast of NZ’s South Island. The main distinction being that it’s primary work force was composed of timber and farm workers rather than timber and mine workers. It was relaxed in demeanor and nobody seemed to care what you did as long as no one else was harmed. It was also host to a large State prison. On the south bank of the river was a busy locomotive depot and roundhouse that could delight any rail buff as it was full of working ancient steam locomotives that seemed endemic to rural Australia in those days.
There were no wharves as such, only small landing stages at the several timber yards and the berthing method was simply to lay alongside these with the ship overhanging at each end and with lines made fast to handy trees or any thing else that seemed capable of taking the strain. Most of the poles would be stacked handy to the ship and loading was undertaken using the ships gear. I used to be impressed by the skills and speed of working of the men who adzed or sawed railway sleepers out of lengths of hardwood. They worked under contract and would turn out quite a few a day. From recall I think they received 2/6 for each adzed sleeper and 1/6 for each sawn sleeper. I believe the railways authorities had greater faith in the lasting qualities of adzed sleepers as against sawn sleepers. These used to be stowed aboard in the free spaces about the poles.
Flood: The method of berthing worked all right in normal conditions but once during a flood in the river she carried away most of her lines. Only the Chief Engineer, myself and two hands were aboard at the time and we couldn’t hold her. It seemed obvious we were about to be washed away. She broke away aft but we managed to hold her temporarily with a wire spring. I asked the engineer for the engines but he refused to start them without an order from the captain. This annoyed me intensely but the water level in the river began to drop swiftly and the spring held. Although the ship remained more or less moored she was also now in a precarious position and well out into the river. The captain arrived aboard soon after with the help, of a local launch owner, and used the engines to get back to the landing stage. I complained that the Chief had refused to give me the engines and to my chagrin the captain said he was quite right.
He took me into his room and thanked me for my efforts then asked why I had not dropped the anchors. I replied that as the ship was in danger of driving into the bank I was afraid that they may have pierced her. He said that was quite right but if she had gone ashore the first question the insurers would have asked was “Were the anchors dropped?” He explained that the sensible thing is not always seen as the right thing in maritime insurance offices. He then pointed out that had there been an accident the use of the engines by a junior officer to manoevre the ship may have also have had insurance repercussions. Again the sensible thing may not have been seen as the right thing. Another lesson learned.
Everything that Crept, Crawled or Slid: We would load at several of these yards each trip. Loading was accomplished using our own ships gear. Most of the timber yards were a little removed from the town and because the logs had come down from the bush many snakes and other creepies arrived with them hidden in holes and creases in the logs. It was a common sight to see black snakes swimming about the ship. They seemed to favour the area between the stem and the shore and could sometimes congregate in a writhing mass. It seemed that everything that crept, crawled or slid surrounded the ship. The timber workers had a fund of stories about death by spider, insect or snake bite which they told with relish. Maybe they knew the Kiwi’s abhorrence of such things. This was intimidating if one was in the shower and looked up to see dozens of menacing looking insects infesting the deckhead.
These creepies were not in evidence about the town but the timber yards seemed to breed them and whenever the more nervous amongst us went ashore in the evenings we would wear our sea boots (rubber thigh boots) and carry a torch. We carried our shoes, hid our boots near the town and changed into shoes. It was also nerve wracking when we retrieved our boots for the walk back to the ship as we nervously inspected them inside for any unwelcome hosts. On two occasions, when we returned to NZ, snakes were found in the hold and the wharfies would scramble ashore and, quite rightly, demand the ship be fumigated before they would return to unload her.
The rural Aussie’s regard of snakes was considerably different from a Kiwi’s. Once in Coff’s Harbour a crew member saw one sunning itself on the roof of a cargo shed and threw a couple of stones at it only to be berated by the annoyed storeman who kept several in the store as rat hunters. I wonder if they are better than cats or if they ever eat their keepers? The Clarence river too, had its dangers. It was tidal even fifty miles inland at Grafton. Once while we were there a young boy was taken and killed by a shark at a beach opposite the ship.
In the Night: Strange things could happen in the night in Grafton such as the time the morning milk wasn’t delivered because the milk horse disappeared. He was found very soon contentedly standing on the after deck of the “Kopua.” How he got there remains a mystery, still, to the local police but there are those amongst us who may have a clue or two! The Second Engineer was returned to us one morning by the police after he had taken a short cut over the back fence from the pub. It seems that while doing this he dropped his torch down the chimney of the pub’s small incinerator which happened to have a height similar to the fence. In trying to reclaim it in the darkness he got stuck inside and spent the night amid the ashes in an alcoholic daze. He was extricated by the local fire brigade the next morning after the incinerator was partly dismantled.
Flower Power Soured: Things did happen in other places. We had an old officers steward, who had been in the ship’s complement since she was built. He was a good steward except for those times when he would try to serve the tables with his face covered on thick cold creams etc. Naturally he was ordered to remove these but he continually persisted, insisting that the Aussie sun damaged his complexion. The “Kopua” was a tolerant ship! Aside from such foibles he did his job well and treated his officers as his personal family. He would “tut tut” if we left our rooms untidy and show his annoyance by pursing his lips and shaking his head. He was an oddball but looked after us well. He used to make a habit of obtaining flowers with which he would make floral arrangements for the saloon or put small bunches in our rooms. Sad to say not all of us appreciated this. We had always thought he purchased the flowers until the truth was finally revealed. One day in Port Chalmers the captain was called to the police station to bail him out. The old fellow had been raiding private gardens for his flowers and had been caught in the act. He wasn’t charged but was brought back upset, tearful and very agitated over his treatment by the “coarse policemen.” We saw no more flowers for several weeks but when they did start appearing again who were we to question their source? All part of the traditions of the sea? The “Kopua,” could she have talked, could have told many other stories
Sailing the Tasman Sea: On one trip from Auckland, in the middle of the night, when halfway across the Tasman, a tooth broke on the port reduction gear, jammed itself in the rest of the works and lifted the after part of the engine partly from its bed. This left the ship with only one engine and also partly disabled because the Chief Engineer ordered reduced the power on the starboard engine after deciding there was no way of telling if the mishap had strained the bedding of both engines. In this condition it would have been foolhardy to attempt to continue and try and negotiate the Clarence bar and river.. We altered course for Sydney for repairs making about 5 knots. It was going to be a long trip, I thought, but the captain had different ideas.
He was an old sailing ship man and although somewhat younger so were the Mate and the 2nd Mate. Remember the “Kopua” had the longest cargo hatch in the world which was kept watertight by being wedged and battened with huge canvas covers? She was also rigged with two long swinging derricks. Knowing this it should not take much of a guess to realise what was happening on deck when I came on for the morning watch. Yes, the captain had had one of the huge spare hatch covers broken out and was on the fore deck with the Mate and 2nd Mate supervising the rigging of a huge sail. I watched all this from my perch on the bridge, there was discussion, argument and several different attempts. It was a nice change from simply looking at the sea and I wasn’t involved so couldn’t be blamed for any thing either. One AB was told off to tar any areas of the canvas that were holed or otherwise suspect and this he did with enthusiasm. The resulting decoration gave the sail a certain modern art appearance when it was finally raised. By lunch time we had our sail hoisted, it was certainly big, in fact it was enormous, but I cannot say I ever saw a rig like it before or since. Luckily the wind was in the north so it was canted to give us some benefit and did increase our speed about a knot but turned out to be a double edged sword because it gave the ship so much leeway it pushed us as far south as we made to the west each day.
KOPUA mid Tasman on a good day.
The captain was in his element, however, and despite the obvious fact that we would probably miss Australiaaltogether if this kept up he refused to drop the sail. I think he had ideas of demonstrating that sail was still a viable option in the right circumstances. My own opinion was that this was hardly the right circumstance but I was only a junior officer and I didn’t have a square rig endorsement on my ticket either! I kept my feelings to myself. The captain kept saying that the wind might come around to the east but he must have known this was a pretty forlorn hope in the Tasman.
Eventually even the enthusiasm of the other two mates waned. We were not going to make Sydney or even Hobart if this continued. The captain knew this too but he was a proud man and after long thought decided to give it one more day. It didn’t work and he knew it wouldn’t but honour was satisfied. On the appointed day we dismantled our sail and became a mechanical propelled vessel again. We finally made Sydney but approached from the southeast rather than from our intended northeast. The captain had his day, however, as the local papers ran stories about how he had sailed his disabled ship halfway across the Tasman. Well, I suppose he did really.
Not a Man for His Times but a Man Nevertheless: The captain had other character traits. He was an old Watchlin’s man who had been transferred to the Union Company, with the ship, when Watchlin’s had been sold. He was never comfortable with the spit and polish that was the norm for Union Company officers. He seldom wore a uniform and once when we berthed under the eyes of Head Office in Wellington this lack was noticed. When we sailed the next day we were amazed to see him neatly attired in uniform but with a highly coloured woolen beanie on his head that extended to an apex halfway down his back and ended in a spray of coloured pompoms. He came up onto the bridge and we left. As we went down the harbour he confided in me. "Head Office told me I had to wear a uniform, so I have, but they didn’t say I had to wear a uniform hat! My wife made this hat for me but I didn’t like it enough to wear it until now!” From then on I held him in the greatest respect. He was my kind of people! His job in that specialist ship going to specialist ports was absolutely safe. No other master could turn a profit with the ship like he could. Very soon both the uniform and the hat disappeared never to surface again as far as I know. Head Office must have known when it was beaten.
He was an exceptionally knowledgeable and competent master mariner but did not like depending on results obtained by new navigation “gadgets,” preferring his own analysis of a situation. One time, heading west in mid Tasman, we had been running all the way in cloudy conditions so had been unable to obtain any sights. The ship had been fitted with a wireless direction finder when she had been taken over by the Union Company and we were using this to locate ourselves. This instrument was unusual in that it was attached to the wheelhouse deckhead and radio bearings were taken by peering into it like a periscope. It happened, probably by coincidence, that the handles were attached so that they lined up with any bearing being calculated. One night during my watch he appeared on the bridge, pointed to the direction finder and asked, “Get me a bearing on Lord Howe Island, Mister,” I did so but before I could calculate a bearing the captain looked at the way the handles were pointing then said, “Yes, that’s about where it should be.” and went below again. I was at a loss and didn’t worry about plotting the bearing. Why bother when I now knew that Lord Howe radio beacon was “about where it should be?”
Remembering that this man had crossed the Tasman hundreds of times and knew his ship like an old friend he certainly didn’t need to undertake the checks and balances necessary for us lesser mortals. I enjoyed coasting around the Australian coast with him, too, because he used to come up on the bridge to take the con during my morning watch and head the ship in close to. He knew the Australian coast very well and we would pass close by to beaches, towns and inlets while he would tell stories of the places we passed that made the trip fascinating. No matter where we went he seemed to be well known and one was not suprised if a passing small fishing boat came close to us to find the captain and the fishing boat skipper were on first name terms.
I last saw the captain in retirement in Napier some ten years ago, he was in his late eighties then but still hale and hearty and involved with the education of small boat owners at the local Polytech. He still attended weekly Housie evenings, as had been his habit at sea when in port, and was elated whenever he won. After I had dinner with him and his wife he showed me his lovely garden. He had become the proud grower of several fine passion fruit vines but his description of the method by which he obtained his success suggested he had changed not at all. You don’t want to know! It’s sad that the world no longer seems to have a place for those with such independence of character.
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