- Watts Shipping Register
- Watts Shipping Register
To the West Coast by Collier
By Ken Cassels.
During 1964 I was asked to write a number of radio scripts for school broadcasts. One was to describe the voyage of a West Coast Wellington collier. To observe what the round trip entailed I approached the Union Steam Ship Company and the Chief Marine Superintendent Captain Crosbie, arranged for me to join their vessel Kokiri on one of its regular Wellington-Westport-Greymouth~We1lington runs. I was issued with a free pass on condition that I signed an indemnity exempting the Company from any liability in respect of myself from any circumstances, which might arise. I was also required to sign on the ship’s articles as Purser.
The Kokiri was the last of six twin-screw motor vessels of about 2,485 tons gross register designed to carry 3,069 tons deadweight on a draught of 17 feet. This made them especially suitable for the bar harbours of Westport and Greymouth. Known as the AC class, Henry Robb of Leith built them between 1948 and 1951. Another two, very similar, were built in Australia for trade in that country. The Kokiri differed from the others in not having cargo -handling derricks Intended specifically for the West Coast-Wellington coal trade, she was loaded by crane-lifted hoppers and unloaded at Wellington by crane grabs into a large hopper at the northern end of Aotea Quay. She spent Seventeen years, punctuated with two mishaps, in this trade. The first casualty was a stranding on one of the Greymouth breakwaters. The second was a coal dust-generated explosion in a forward hold while she was approaching her berth at Aotea Quay.
My voyage was to have commenced on Monday 31st August, but bad weather continually interrupted discharging and it was not until 1400hours on the Wednesday that the last grab of coal came out of the ship. The Macgregor rolling steel hatch covers were put in place and by 1815 the vessel was ready for sea. However, the weather was still uncertain and the thirteen-minute-late arrival of the Picton ferry Aramoana at its berth opposite the Kokiri’s No.9 coal berth prompted her Master Captain H. T. Poole, to go over and learn at first hand what conditions were like in Cook Strait. It was his first voyage on the run, and with an empty vessel riding high he did not want to risk trouble. The outcome was that sailing was postponed until 0600 next morning. Most of the crew turned in and I read the paper in my cabin, which had been provided for a wireless operator the ship no longer carried. At 2000 First Officer Bagley who had been at Wellington College during my last year there and subsequently served in the Pamir, invited me to join him, the Third Mate, a Mr. Graham, recently arrived from Belfast, and the Chief and Second Engineers for supper in the saloon.
Next morning I turned out at 0520 and made for the wheelhouse and a welcome cuppa to watch proceedings. All hands turned to at 0530 and ten minutes later were singling up fore and aft under the direction of the First Mate. The Third Mate was testing the ship’s gear. while the Second was writing up the log. It was still dark and frequent rainsqualls, punctuated occasionally by hail, swept the ship. The wind was thirteen knots southwest. Arrangements had been made for a pilot and he arrived in the Wharf Police car, followed by the Dominion newspaper car and a bread van. At 0551 the First Mate made a crew check while the pilot (Captain C M Sword) and the Captain consulted over coffee in the wheelhouse. "It’s very rough outside". Sword reported, "I suggest you go as far as Worser Bay and anchor until seas moderate. The pilot launch is standing by in Worser for a tanker and will take me off."
The Captain was in agreement and at 0614 gave the order to let everything go. The engines, Two sets of two-cycle single-acting five-cylinder British Polar diesels, had been started some time earlier and were quietly throbbing. The Second Mate shouted, "Let go aft!" The Captain ordered "Navigation lights, No3", while the lst Mate bellowed, "Easy on your starboard lines!" A shrill hand whistle signalled the dropping of the lines and gave the pilot his cue for the engines. "Slow astern port", he said quietly. Meanwhile the First Mate, up forward, shouted, "A vast heaving starboard, Let go starboard! Let go starboard line! Let go everything for’d!" As the stern swung out from the quay three blasts from the siren indicated the Kokiri was going astern, and her bow slid alongside the wharf. "Hard a’starboard", said the pilot to increase the angle to the wharf and then to the engine room telegraphist, "Slow astern starboard". This corrected the stern swing and once in line with the floating dock, and clear of its dolphins, the helm was put over to starboard and a course set for Ward Island.
On the fo’c’s’le the warmly clad seamen struggled with the heavy hawsers, while in the wheelhouse the Third repeated, for the Captain’s benefit, a radio message from the Matipo off Wellington Head at the entrance to Tory Channel reporting a twenty-five-knot wind. Squalls came frequently between Point Jerningham and Point Halswell and at 0634 the incoming Lyttelton ferry Hinemoa appeared. Simultaneously the first of the day’s Bristol Freighters was taking off from the airport for Blenheim. As the Hinemoa closed a blinking signal lamp sent the Third Mate scurrying for the Kokiri’s lamp. Hoping for more weather news, his acknowledgement was greeted only with GM (Good Morning!). As we rounded Halswell and headed up the entrance channel the southerly became more apparent, the swell and frequent squalls making the going very heavy. Visibility was at times reduced to two or three hundred metres. At 0645 the pilot called for a ladder on the starboard side by no.2 hold. The cable party, backs to the wind, stood by on the fo’c’s’le. Another squall reduced visibility still more and necessitated steering by compass. From the pilot came in quick succession," Steer l58, 160, 165, i60." Up forward the port anchor was readied and the Kokiri slowed to half speed.
Beacon Hill Radio was advised about the anchoring and replied with a forty-knot wind report. At 0710 both engines were stopped then run half astern. The anchor was let go. The port engine was again stopped,then the starboard. A black ball was hoisted halfway up the forestay and from the fo’c’s’le the bell sounded the number of shackles of anchor cable out. The windlass brake was secured; we were lying in 6.9 fathoms.
Appraising the situation, the pilot confirmed the absence of drag, made sure there was plenty of open sea astern and took his leave on the pilot launch Tiakina, which was nosing the ladder. The Captain rang the engine room and asked the Chief to leave both engines on standby in case of need.
With the swell racing under her and wind and rain tearing above, the Kokiri behaved as though she were under way. A full watch was maintained. The rest of us adjourned for a much appreciated breakfast of bacon and eggs, while the First Officer signalled Wellington Radio, "0917 hours, adverse conditions sheltering Worser Bay." We remained at anchor all day and the following night, swinging quietly from 120 to 200 degrees. Rounds were made hourly and special attention paid to anchor bearings.
By 0400 4th September the sea had moderated sufficiently for the Captain to proceed. Although the sky was still overcast visibility was good. At 0617 steering gear and telegraphs were tested and clocks synchronized. Heaving the anchor commenced at 0628. Considerable maneuvering was needed to get the long cable in. By 0643 the anchor was off the bottom and at 0645 it was aweigh. The anchor lights were taken down and the navigation lamps lit. Into the main channel between the Steeple Rock light and the southern lead light the vessel moved at half speed until the hands were off the fo’c’s’le. Then, lining up the leads and using the shelter of Pencarrow, the Kokiri eased out to sea east of Barrett’s Reef. Passing the outer buoy, the log was streamed with the course at 208 degrees. It was 0711 hours. Clear of the harbour entrance a bearing was taken on Pencarrow light and the course altered to 256, well out into Cook Strait to counter both swell and set, to avoid Tom’s Rock and make breakfast easier! In the distance, off Sinclair Head, with the snow-capped Kaikouras as a backdrop, the coasters Taupata and Konanda were sighted. At 0810 a bearing was taken on Karori Rock and course again altered, this time to 293 to clear the southwestern extremity of the North Island. At 0901 a bearing on Ohau Point light gave the cue for the main Cook Strait traverse on 351 degrees. Bearings were taken on the Brothers Light and Wellington Head at 1000 to fix position. Half an hour later the Brothers were on the port beam and Fisherman’s Rock to starboard. An hour later again and a bearing on Cape Jackson triggered a course alteration to 295, which by 1419 would take us off Stephens Island. A rough quartering sea was running with a moderate quartering swell, but in spite of cloudy skies and distant showers visibility was good and a constant speed of nine knots was maintained. As the Third Mate took yet another bearing on Stephens Island he recalled the time when the lighthouse steamer Matai took a young teacher to staff the island’s school, and how a few months later she announced she was pregnant. The three lighthouse keeper’s wives looked accusingly at their husbands for some time after the teacher’s departure until it was discovered that a mate on the Matai had been the guilty party. Later the story was repeated by the First Mate when he came on watch and also took a bearing on the island-so it must have been well entrenched in Cook Strait lore.
During the afternoon I took time to look around the ship to see what everyone was doing. The engine room staff comprised four engineers and four motormen, one of each on watch at a time. I did not note the length of watches but the noise of the two diesels was very loud and without ear muffs must have been stressful. Two cooks manned the galley which ran athwartship below and abaft the bridge. A chief and an assistant steward looked after the catering and serving while bosun and eight seamen, including a messman, did the deck duties. Captain Poole was in his late forties and had considerable sea going experience both deep sea and coastal, mainly as a mate. Chief Officer Bagley had a master’s foreign-going certificate and nearly twenty years in both steam and sail. Second Officer Gilroy was a coastal man with a master’s home trade certificate, while Third Officer Graham from Belfast, who had served in the Bank Line and on tramp steamers, had his first mate foreign-going certificate. All twentysix of the crew were accommodated amidships in comfortable quarters. The general tenor of relationships contrasted with my own experience of three years in the navies of New Zealand, the United States and Britain. The officers, including engineers, went about their tasks conscientiously and treated the ratings courteously, but there seemed to be an almost belligerent attitude among some of the seamen in particular a kind of inverted snobbery; very much a "we and they" attitude, born possibly out of many past years of suppression and exploitation by ship owners. However, this was just a passing observation on my part and not the outcome of any encounter.
Once Stephens Island was passed the transformation in the sea was amazing. It subsided to a mere ripple with a low swell. The usually wild west coast of D’Urville Island was an interesting picture of rugged tranquility-quite different from what I had been confronted with the previous year battling out of French Pass and up to Greville Harbour on Pat Aston’s ex-Cook Strait whale chaser.
The way in which Farewell Spit first appeared at sundown intrigued, first the pine trees on the horizon, then the sand spit and its lighthouse with a clump of trees. Rounding the Spit we made our way down the west coast, taking bearings at Pillar Point Light and Kahurangi Point Light at 2012 and 2255 respectively. Calm conditions continued. Turning in, I asked to be shaken early to witness the approach to Westport.
Showers then fog were encountered during the small hours and the Captain had to estimate his position off the Westport tipheads by dead reckoning. At 0406 he ordered "Slow ahead both", then "Stop finished with engines". Too early to enter port, we drifted, having taken the log inboard ,and at 0615 restarted engines and turned towards the shore. It was with considerable relief that the Captain saw the tip heads emerging from the mist-exactly where he estimated them to be. Meanwhile Westport had been radioed and at 0721 the pilot, Captain Davis, who was also Harbourmaster came alongside in the tug James 0‘Brien. High water was at 1004. The bar presented no problems and berthing at the long riverbank wharf was straightforward. Tied up ahead of us was the Guardian Cement, an interisland carrier. Another coaster, the Totara, was expected. 0806 saw us tied up safely alongside, and loading in Nos. 2, 3 and 5 holds commenced at 0840. Two cranes were used, one of the three available steam cranes forward and the sole electric crane aft. The Third Officer tallied the hopper numbers as they were lifted from their railway wagon under frames. Wagon rakes were made up according to the coal’s origin. Into No.2 hold went Millerton and Stockton screened coal for N.Z. Railways, into No.3 Denniston unscreened and No.5 took at first Benneyvale small and on top of that Coal Creek small (both the latter private mines) for Thos. Brown & Sons, the Wellington coal merchants. The half loading, totalling 1,420 tons, took most of the day and the Kokiri sailed for Greymouth on a near full tide at 2000 hours. The overnight run down the coast was leisurely and without anything untoward. The water over the Grey River bar was calm and by 0730 the Kokiri was able to start loading the second half of her cargo. By 2000 it was away again, this time for the twentyfive-hour run to Wellington. She arrived at Wellington at 2100 at the 7th September; discharge commenced first thing the following morning, ending yet another cycle in her endless routine.
The vessels of the AC class were: Kaitangata 2,485 tons 1948 Kaiapoi 2,485 tons 1949, Kaitawa 2,485 tons 1949, Konui 2,485 tons 1949, Kawatiri 2,484 tons 1950 & Kokiri 2,470 tons 1951
Australian-built sisters were: Karoon 2,410 tons 1951 & Kootara 2,400 tons 1952
Churchouse, Jack, 1936- Glamour ships of the Union Steam Ship Company, N.Z., Ltd Wellington, N.Z.: Millwood Press 1981
Farquhar, I. J. Union fleet 1875-1968
Hobbs, J. E. The Union Steam Ship Company Steam Ships :Millwood 1982
McLean, Gavin. The Southern Octopus 1990
McLean, Gavin. Ships of the Union Company Wellington. 1989.
Mowbray, Tate, E. 1902- Transpacific Steam 1986 Cornwall Books
Parsons, R.H. A History of the Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand, 1875-1971. Volume 2. The ships [by] A.L. Arbon, edited and prepared for publication by R.H. Parsons. Lobethal, S.A. : R.H. Parsons, 1974 Steamship services. 135p with 21 b/w photos Foundation and early progress. Trans-Pacific routes, Australian coastal trade, sail training.. ISBN: 0909418004 .
Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand History of Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Limited, 1875-1940 : The story of a company of world-wide scope which was founded and is managed in New Zealand: "Issued by the company in commemoration of the centenary of British settlement in New Zealand, 1940." Wellington 1940: 56 pp with b/w photo of ships, their captains & their shipowner. National Library of Australia Catalogue searchable.
Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand 50th anniversary of the founding of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Limited : an account of the Company's history during the period 1875-1925, with a report of a dinner held at Wellington on the 15th May, 1925, to celebrate the Company's Jubilee 1925 Wellington: the Company 68 p : ill. MILLS, Sir James (editor) 9 b/w photos, 38 portraits and 23 b/w photos of ships.Drawing of the original "Maori", 1875.
Waters, Sydney D. Union Line : A Short History of the Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand Ltd. 1875-1951: the Company, Wellington 1951 148p : with b/w illus.
Port Chalmers Maritime Museum Collection includes Union Steam Ship Company memorabilia. Surviving records are scattered around NZ with transient crew not recorded only permanent staff. The Hocken Library has a few staff records but the majority maybe at the Museum of Wellington City & Sea.
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