Auckland: City of sails

By Suzanne McFadden

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Cutter 'Waitangi' passes by Rangitoto Island during racing in the Logan Classic. Photo / Kenny Rodger.
Cutter 'Waitangi' passes by Rangitoto Island during racing in the Logan Classic. Photo / Kenny Rodger.

On a sunny January day in 1852, the Waitemata Harbour teemed with boats of all girths and guises - barques, cargo boats, whaleboats, four-oared ship's gigs, Maori waka and an assortment of other canvas-sailed craft, all racing against each other for the spoils of the Auckland Anniversary Day regatta.

The first steamboat built in New Zealand, the Governor Wynyard, had just been launched in Auckland and served as a refreshment stand for regatta-goers (which was about as good as life got for the hopeless paddle steamer before being packed off, a failure, to Australia).

This was a rare day of the year when all that floated filled the
harbour in celebration; weekdays were working days for these boats, which Auckland, and the rest of New Zealand, relied on as a lifeline.

The sea was the main highway for the settlers; the rivers and creeks that flowed from it were the roads to tiny settlements.

Boats were the most effective, and sometimes the only transport to get supplies, mail and passengers to the new towns, and in return, to carry kauri and gum to the main port of Auckland.

At first, Auckland was served by sail: schooners and cutters, with names like Saucy Kate and Gipsy Lee, and then the ugly flat-bottomed scows, built to bear heavy kauri logs in a low tide. But those boats relied too heavily often ran late.

Steam was a godsend. Although the first steamers, like theGovernor Wynyard, were inefficient coal-gobblers and uneconomic to run, those built from the 1870s with more effective compound engines, became essential in bringing kauri and later wool, butter and cheese to Auckland markets.

The ships of the Northern Steamship Company carried
passengers and their cargo to isolated settlements around small bays and up tidal creeks bushmen, gumdiggers, salesmen, farmers and families.

Skippers would listen for the bark of local dogs to guide their ships through foggy estuaries. Scows laden with logs would arrive from Northland, Coromandel and Great Barrier Island and unload them into Mechanics Bay, where steamships like the Puke would nose the timber across to sawmills to be prepared for house and boat building.

The 1860s and 1870s was the peak of shipbuilding in Auckland, with more than 100 shipyards jostling for space along the waters edge of Mechanics Bay, Freemans Bay and across the harbour at Devonport. The yards turned out hundreds of cutters, ketches, schooners, scows and
small wooden steamers. Kauri was the king of boat-building timbers and combined with puriri and pohutukawa to make some of the great sailing boats that still survive today.

The first boat built in Auckland was the brig Moa, a transtasman trader, completed in 1849 and built by Messrs Niccol and Sharpe (Sharpe died in an accident during the construction). Henry Niccol would become the most prominent boatbuilder in Auckland in the 1870s, and his sons
would continue the business into the 20th century.

Two other famous Auckland families would dominate boat and yacht building in the late 19th century and beyond. The Baileysand the Logans designed and built trading vessels, launches, fishing boats, ferry steamers, coastal steamers, rowing skiffs, surf boats and yachts that would rule Auckland waters for 30 years.

Their rivalry to produce the best and the fastest perfected their skills in design and construction. Onehunga was a bustling port too. In 1860 it was a timber hub and Auckland's connection for most passenger and freight from the west coast and southern ports. The Union Steam Ship
Company of New Zealand ran an industrious service to New Plymouth,
Wellington and Lyttelton, until the Auckland-Wellington main trunk line was up and chugging.

When New Zealand's first Parliament sat in Auckland in May 1854, many MPs had sailed to Onehunga. For the Otago members, the journey took two
months, with lengthy stops at Lyttelton, Nelson and Wellington before headwinds forced the ship back through Cook Strait and up the east coast around North Cape to finally arrive in Onehunga.

In 1889, Auckland welcomed a grand total of 2441 sailing vessels and 3756 steamers into its main port. The arrival of boats on the Northern, King's and Queen's wharves was quite the social occasion. By now, steam had truly taken hold. Brothers Ewen and Alex Alison had established the Devonport Steam Ferry Company, the paddle steamer Victoria running
back and forth between Devonport and Queen St with a return passage for sixpence. Ewen had his first job as a compositor with the New Zealand Herald when he was 13, and would later become the first Mayor of Takapuna.

But it wasn't all work. On weekends and holidays, the steamers that towed logs and carried mail to far-off settlements would take Aucklanders on excursions. Many thousands would be ferried across the harbour to St Heliers, Takapuna beach, Motutapu or Pine (now Herald) Islands, or further afield to the hot springs at Waiwera, Kawau Island or Thames for picnic parties that became a pleasurable tradition.

Ferries continued to carry Aucklanders to work and to northern beaches at weekends until 1959 when many of the grand old vessels were tied up for the last time within sight of a newly built Harbour Bridge.

- NZ Herald

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