How many of us remember the unique shipping service across Cook Strait from Wellington to Blenheim? It was maintained by two hard working little ships. The Echo a two masted auxiliary hold scow (auxiliary because she still used her sails to assist her engines,) fitted with two retractable centerboards; one forward and one aft. The other was the Wairau, once a topsail schooner but later converted to a small motor ship, were the only two vessels that frequented the port in its latter years. Their berth in Wellington right opposite Shed 13 on Queens Wharf made their operations highly visible to those walking the wharves to and from work. They also gave the opportunity to while away part of a lazy evening stroll by watching the loading/discharging of these last two ships to ply regularly to this Marlborough inland port. The “Echo” was in the service from the 1920,s until 1965. “Wairau” was in service from 1912 to the mid 1950’s
The Wackiest Ship in the Army: The Echo, (ON:118978) because of her light draught, and the ease with which she could be handled plus the extra range her sails give her was requisitioned by the American army during WW2. Her exploits were many and some of these have been caricatured in the Hollywood film “The Wackiest Ship in the Army”.
Pre WW2 photo of the Echo as she appeared before being requisitioned by the US military who modified her housing deck layout and reconfigured her accommodation. Angus Campbell.
Sailing as USS Echo in 1943
Rongo side up: The Wairau (ON: 76076) lacked the charm and appeal of her consort the Echo and her main claim to fame was that, amongst many other misadventures, she had capsized three times during her long career with considerable loss of life each time. Although starting life named Rongo, a topsail schooner, her rigging was gradually reduced after each mishap until she finished up as a small steam ship in 1910. This did not see and end to her misfortunes and in 1911 she was rammed by the Himatangi in the Manawatu River, drifted ashore and sank. Following repairs Rongo was purchased by Eckford & Co. and renamed Wairau in 1912. She was added to the Wellington - Blenheim fleet and happily managed to stay the right way up from then on. While the Echo continued in that trade the Wairau was often laid up through a shortage of cargo during the 1930’s depression. For a time during the war she also was chartered by the Navy and carried out the duties of examination vessel for ships entering and leaving Wellington Harbour.
In 1946 the Wairau was converted at Nelson from steam ship to motor ship with a 250hp Vivian diesel giving her a service speed of 10 knots. This was a very smart speed in those days and quite a talking point among the maritime fraternity. Many larger vessels were struggling to do 9 knots during that era. Eckford’s then employed her on a triangular run between Blenheim, Wellington and Lyttelton. She had a draft of 6.5 to 7 feet which eventually became too deep for the Wairau bar and the Opawa River which was slowly silting up. She was laid up inside the Wairau bar in the mid 1950’s sold in the early 60’s but never put to use and eventually ended her life on the mudflats at Motueka.
The Wairau in Tory Channel about 1950
The Wairau River: Both ships, however, were particularly famous for the way they worked their way up the river to Blenheim. After crossing the Wairau Bar it was necessary to divert into a narrow and meandering tributary called the Opawa River to reach Blenheim. Some of the twists and turns in the Opawa River were so tight that the ship’s turning circles were unable to cope. This navigational inconvenience was overcome, when necessary, by steering into the side of the river then striking the outside bank a glancing blow so that the bows were actually bumped around the bends. To this was added the visibility problem of the many willows that lined the banks of the Opawa, often spreading their boughs to meet right across the river and only giving passage when the ships pushed right through the foliage. At other places the trees formed long green tunnels where the branches met overhead. As the tall masts pushed their way through the greenery the ships crews stayed well under cover for often a large branch was dislodged and crashed to the deck. The ships usually arrived, in either Blenheim or Wellington, covered in willow fronds torn from the trees during their passing. To visitors it could be disconcerting to see a ship apparently far from the sea, suddenly appear out of the willows, seem to sail through the fields, then disappear amongst the willows again. Strandings were not infrequent in the winding river and each ship carried a stock of old railway sleepers which, if necessary, were dug into the river bank and used as dead men to winch the vessels back into the water. The river bank was strewn with these sturdy posts that were always left in position in case another later stranding should occur in the same place.
The Echo at Eckford's Wharf oppositie the railway station at Blenheim. The narrow Opawa river ia apparent in the foreground.
Wairau Bar: Added to these problems was the need to cross the wandering sand bar at the river mouth, which opened directly onto the wild waters of Cook Strait, and often changed its position from week to week. Strandings were not uncommon on the bar either as the quickly changing channel trapped an unwary master. Tom Eckford the owner of these ships used to drive to the river mouth before each arrival and realign the leading lights whenever necessary to redefine the best route over the bar but sometimes even this precaution could not avoid a stranding.
Cook Strait: As though this was not enough the waters they plied between their terminal ports were directly through the often furious conditions and strong tides of Cook Strait. The fact that the small ships survived their frequent mishaps and the turbulent seas they had to run through was a tribute to the shipwrights who had built them sixty years earlier and to the inordinate skill of the men who manned them. It was a unique shipping operation that not only paid its way but survived. When it finally ended its like would never be seen again.
The Eckford Policy: The Eckford men were long serving and very loyal to the company. Tradition has it that Tom Eckford was once asked how he managed to engender such loyalty and keep his seafarers working in such adverse conditions. His reply is famous in local sea lore, “Feed them well, pay them well and work them bloody hard!”
The Echo was often to be seen, sails set as she leaned to the winds, ploughing through the waters of the strait. Often her sails remained fully filled right into Wellington Harbour until she turned and dropped them close to her berth at Queens Wharf. She was the last of her breed. These ships carried every type of cargo and were usually loaded high with deck cargo as well. Tractors, harvesters, lorries, buses and caravans were also carried across the Straits in those days before the advent of the rail ferries and delivered right into the centre of Blenheim.
To the uninitiated it could seem a little unreal to see ships working at wharves in the centre of a provincial inland town, so far from the sea. There was also a sense of unreality in watching the Echo winch herself about in the tiny swinging space near the wharves and heading down river, turn a corner and be immediately lost to sight amongst the willow trees.
Little is now left in either Wellington or Blenheim of the old operations points. Shed 13 and the Queens Wharfbreastwork are now divorced from the sea by reclamation but Shed 13 continues a new life as a trendy art gallery. In Blenheim, flood protection works on the Opawa River have changed its face and altered its flow pattern so that it has little resemblance to its former character as it flows through the town. The swinging basin is now a remnant and Eckford’s old main wharf, across from the railway station, has been pulled down but the cargo shed remains. The old cargo sheds at the end of Opawa Street still exist on the south bank but the wharves have been demolished and they are now also divorced from the river by the new earthworks of Riverside Park. The Opawa River is now blocked off by flood control gates. The whole area has been landscaped and grassed with little left as a reminder. If you never knew how it was you’ll need much imagination to try and recall what it used to be. A few pleasure craft and the odd small fishing boat are all that trace the water route to Blenheim these days.
My father, Angus Campbell, a friendly Scotsman, worked the Echo for many years after WW2 both at sea and as shore skipper. He was a well respected seaman who as a young teenager had served an apprenticeship as a pastry cook in Scotland and had actually started his long career at sea as a cook before deciding there were better ways of going to sea. Although older than others of the same rank he took a job as a deck boy and began to aim his sights at becoming a bridge officer. He had also been a bandsman in his youth and still was able to blow a gusty melody on a set of bagpipes. Although now sailing in these small ships he was a fine seaman who held a Foreign Going Masters Certificate. He remained in coasters because he preferred the greater opportunity these tiny ships gave to be home often with his family in Wellington. This made the discomfort worthwhile. He was Chief Officer of the ship Holmwood when she was been taken and sunk during the WW2 by German raiders off the Chatham Islands. The privations he suffered, while a prisoner had left their mark and he now only wanted to remain near home.
I used to go with my father occasionally for a trip in the Echo when I was still at school and those trips were always an adventure. Later I did one trip in her to Picton and back as an AB. There can’t be many left now who remember the difficulties and excitement under which these ships operated.
The Echo at Glasgow Wharf, Wellington. Not at her usual berth because of congestion. Captain Ian Durant on the mainmast boom. N Campbell
Many of the officers who worked these ships held Foreign Going certificates but, like my father, preferred the small ships that enabled them to remain near wives and family. Some of them and
their crewmen later progressed to eminent positions in the maritime world. Of the old masters of these ships I was particularly friendly with Captain Jock Dalziel of Eastbourne, now deceased, and Captain Ian Durant who joined the Echo after retiring as a deck officer with the Union Steam Ship Company. I understand he retired some years ago, as a senior officer, from the Maritime Services Authority of New South Wales in Sydney.
The National Film Library, in the 1950’s, made a movie of a trip across Cook Strait and up the Opawa River in the Echo under the command of Captain Durant who was in his early twenties at the time. I believe this film will be found on the same reel as the film “The Coaster.” It is not very detailed but adds a little visible history to the story, for those who are interested.
The Blenheim Riverside Miniature Railway has plans to extend their line into the vicinity of the old wharves at some future date. This railway is a grand little operation that presently extends some 4.2 kilometres along theTaylor River bank. Plans are afoot to extend it a further 1k or so right into the town centre to terminate near old Eckford’s wharf and Blenheim Railway Station so the area may come alive again but to the sounds of a different form of transport
The Scow: I would like to clear up a persisting misconception regarding the term scow. The word is often used as a scornful term to describe a vessel that is perceived as being dysfunctional in some way. Only people with little knowledge of shipping would regard a scow with contempt. No real seaman ever would. Scow describes a specialist type of vessel designed with little or no bilge curvature and thus a more than normal area of flat bottom. This particular build enables a scow to work shallow harbours or rivers while still retaining the ability to handle conditions in the open sea. Like all vessels, some were handsome some were unattractive but generally they did the job expected of them. Actually, a lot of scows were able to handle stormy sea conditions much better than bigger ships. The scow was an essential vessel in the early years ofNew Zealand. Before the advent of railways and good roads the scow was responsible, more than any other type of conveyance, for the development of provincial New Zealand. If for no other reason the scow deserves a similar degree of gratitude and respect as does the steam locomotive and motor lorry.
Let’s explode the myth about flat bottomed ships being less than sea worthy while we are at it. Nearly all vessels, except for some small wooden ships and sailing ships, have essentially flat bottoms. The compound curvature fore and aft is only deemed necessary for ease of passage through the water and for good sea keeping qualities. Basically, the extent of the curvature (theoretical lines) on any hull is simply a resultant of how much speed is required. High speed ships need a lot, low speed ships not so much (block co-efficient of fineness.) The rest of the bottom remains totally flat.
The last 2 Eckford ships
· Echo was built in 1905 on the Kaipara Harbour and is now beached in Picton where she was been modified beyond recognition, without regard for her historical significance, for use as the local yacht club’s clubrooms. Currently she is privately owned and operated as a restaurant. She is sometimes open for inspection but retains practically nothing of her past sea-going character.
· Wairau was built in Whangaroa in 1900. She was hulked at Motueka and and estroyed by fire about 1973.
· Old Nic
Addendum. Comments by Captain Ron Palmer
Captain Palmer, who spent some years with Eckford’s as a young man relates from information gleaned from Tom and Bert Eckford and Jock Anderson that Eckford’s had only just installed two Vivian diesels in the Echowhen she was acquired by the US Military. When the Echo returned from the Pacific the Vivian’s had been flogged almost to death and the poor old girl was rife with toredo worm. Tom Eckford kept one of the big worms in his office. It was coiled into a jar of alcohol and measured 15 inches long and 5/8 of an inch thick, one of the biggest specimens of toredo worm local shipwrights had ever seen.
The U.S. Navy also fitted two Orliken anti-aircraft guns aboard her. One to port and the other to starboard up by the wheelhouse. The USS Echo (naval ID number IX95) was credited with shooting down a Jap zero while in the Pacific and I believe she displayed the appropriate symbol on the side of the wheel house for this feat when she returned to NZ.
The makers of the film "Wackiest Ship in the Army" (1960 Columbia Motion Pictures. DVD still available) wanted to buy the Echo for £10,000 to make a film of her exploits in the Pacific. I did read the letter from the film company with that written offer. It was understood from the letter that it was to be a serious movie showing an important but unusual part of the U.S. Military history in the Pacific. It seems Columbia Pictures may have been somewhat put out when Tom Eckford would not sell the Echo and we always felt that it was spite that they turned the film into a comedy with Jack Lemmon as the leading actor. The Echo was anything but a comical act when delivering much needed supplies to the U.S. Marines up some of the rivers in the PacificIslands. The Echo played a significant part at Guadalcanal and other parts of the Solomon Islands and Pacific. After all there were not many NZ ships that made Hollywood even though Eckfords and their loyal staff felt very annoyed as to the old girl being depicted in a comedy situation.
Captain T. Eckford, the founder of T.S. Eckford & Co. commenced with one ship, s.s Mohaka in 1881. This was not the first shipping company to operate this route and Eckford’s were in competition with other shipping companies which traded between Wellington Nelson and Blenheim. The well known Union Steam Ship Company was also a competitor with the ship Kanieri of 203 tons built especially for the river trade into Blenheim. This was an uncharacteristic mistake for USSCo., as the Kanieri was found to be to large for the river. Mohaka was sold in 1886 and a larger vessel was purchased, the s.s. Neptune. This very smart vessel was advertised as having superior passenger accommodation and could achieve the voyage from Blenheim toWellington in 7½ hours. The Echo took 9.5 to 10 hours. The Neptune built up a flourishing trade over a ten year period and it was decided to have a second ship built at Wellington. This was the s.s. Opawa. She also sported passenger accommodation and had a stewardess as part of her crew. Unfortunately while building the Opawa the Neptune grounded on the Wairau Bar and became a total loss in February 1897. Opawa, Wairau and Echo subsequently continued the river trade.
My 6 years in "Echo" is still the highlight of my seagoing career. I learnt more seamanship in her than all the rest of my ships put together. We put a new foremast in her while I was there and I did all the rigging. Helped an old Echo boy make a new gaff foresail for her with No.1 Admiralty canvass. Had 12 sojourns stuck on the bar and learnt a little about salvage. Lost count of the number of times we stuck on the mudflat's. Learnt to drive bulldozers building a channel at low tide when washed up on the beach at the bar. That happened on three occasions. Learnt to gas weld and use a gas axe. Helped re-engine Echo by taking out the old Vivians and installing the the 2nd hand Gardner's out of the Talisman I wished I could remember the old sail maker I referred to as his name should be mentioned. Jack was his first name. A big strong guy and Jock Anderson credited him with saving the crew of Echo when she hit rocks in a black strong southerly gale out near Pencarrow. Jack went forward and heaved that bloody big anchor over the side and that brought her head into the wind which allowed the crew to launch the lifeboat off the stern. Echo was found drifting bottom up off Somes Island the next morning.
Eckford’s Staff: some of those who worked with Eckford’s
T.S. Eckford - Mate & Master Echo Managing Director of TS Eckford & Co.
B.S. Eckford - Chief Engineer Echo Shareholder of TS Eckford & Co.
Joe Renauld - Mate & Master Echo (Was Master of the ill fated Holmglen; lost with all hands)
Ron Palmer - Mate and Relieving Master Echo
Jock Dalzell – Mate & Master Echo
Angus Campbell Senior – mate Echo and Wairau. Shore skipper, Wellington.
Angus Campbell junior –mate Echo
Len Marriot - AB Wairau
Barry Davidson - OS Echo
Bill Jarman –Mate & Master Echo
Ian Durant – Mate & Master Echo
Nic Campbell – AB - one trip only as crew in Echo but several as a school boy.
Jack Sellars - Chief Engineer Echo
Jock Anderson - Chief Engineer and Wellington Wharf Rep.- with Eckfords from 1925 to 1965
Gavin Dobie - OS (Nephew of H.H.Dobie well known Managing Director of USSSCo.)
Bill (Pincher) Martin - AB Echo. Later became National President of the Seaman’s Union
Alfie Martin - OS Echo Pincher Martin’s younger brother.
Martin Berthold - OS Echo
Carl Nystrom - AB Echo
To view a short documentary made in 1959 about a trip on the ECHO click on the following link. Click here.