Dinsdale man Chris Cooper can trace his fascination with steam to his grandfather who was a boiler inspector on the rail at Taumarunui.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Chris remembers his school holidays around the rail marshaling yards and workshops of the historic King Country town. One day he bribed the driver of a shunting loco with a bunch of grapes and so gained his first ride in the cab of a steam loco.

He went on to become interested in model steam locomotives and joined the Hamilton Model Engineers Club in the days when it had its facilities at Seddon Park and built his first model steam engine.

Also a member of the club was John Hannah, chief engineer at the Waitoa Dairy Factory who had a steam launch named Greenbank.


"It started there. He would ask people to come and fire (stoke) for him. He had the launch moored at the Paeroa Maritime Museum and we had some serious adventures going out through the Waihou River into the Firth of Thames and up to Clevedon on the way up to Auckland steam meets.

"Often we'd go over-night and camp out on the islands.

"One time I had the fire going beautifully and decided to toast a cheese sandwich on a steel shovel. But the fire was a bit too hot, the sandwich went 'whoof'. We'd often trawl a line behind to catch fish and poach them in the embers."

Hannah's boat was an older-style double-diagonally planked kauri vessel weighing about seven tonnes. it was powered by a Simpson-Strickland 4-cylinder steam engine with water-tube boiler.

This gave Chris the idea to find and build his own steam-powered boat.

An engineer, tool and die-maker by trade, Chris was at work one Saturday morning when a workmate mention there was a 1911 pinnace — what had been a steam-powered launch, for sale at Beachhaven. A pinnance is the term for a small boat often used to carry people and goods between the shore and ships.

"I went to have a look and was a bit crestfallen. It had a 21ft kauri hull but it had been left under a hedge for many years and one side was rotted out."

Chris picked up the forlorn remains and brought it home. That was in 1990. The hull was empty, it had been a steam pinnace used at the Devonport Naval base in Auckland as a customs and excise boat and the admiral's private launch. But as the years progressed and the old boat lost its shine it was slowly relegated, its steam gear stripped and finally abandoned.

Chris Cooper with his re-built 1911 steam pinnace. Photo / Geoff Lewis
Chris Cooper with his re-built 1911 steam pinnace. Photo / Geoff Lewis

One of Chris' early tasks was finding a supply of kauri so he could begin rebuilding the hull — and this is where the generosity of other people came into play.

"I went down to Johnson's Demolition in Hamilton. Old man Johnson had a barn full of salvaged kauri, weatherboards and beams. There was an old church staircase made of mahogany which I wanted to use for the decking. I was looking at this timber and thinking $100 for that bit and $100 for that bit — it was all going to add up. But he just said 'so, you're looking for a piece for your boat?' — $100 the lot'. So I filled up and drove home with the car pointed skywards."

There followed many years of cutting and machining planks with a band-saw and thicknesser. Six months work on the 'idiot' board — a two-handed sander and the hull was rebuilt and coated in seven layers of two-pot lacquer.

The engine was another story. The original machinery had disappeared, so Chris drew on his engineering skills and chewed up most of his lunch times at work over most of a decade to build another one from scratch.

"I built the crank shaft and the value gear. I made the patterns and castings. Having seen Hannah's engine I went for a triple-expansion compound design which is a more efficient way of using the heat. It also allows the steam to be condensed back into water so I can get 90 per cent of the water back."

The engine uses a three-drum Yarrow boiler running at a pressure of 250 PSI. Photo / Geoff Lewis
The engine uses a three-drum Yarrow boiler running at a pressure of 250 PSI. Photo / Geoff Lewis

Steam boilers can be prone to explosions if not manufactured to rigorous standards. While boiler inspection was pretty common-place 60 years ago, it isn't today and what little call there is for it is handled by the Marine Department in Wellington.

"I had to come up with a design and have it calculated and registered with the department. They take it seriously."

Chris's engine uses a three-drum Yarrow boiler running at a pressure of 250 pounds per square inch (PSI).

"The boiler had to be vessel-welded by a registered vessel-welder and all the heat numbers and materials used had to be described. Luckily the marine inspector in Hamilton, Kevin Arnott, was very helpful."

Chris' pinnace had its first outing on Lake D near Ngaruawahia around 2010 and drew the sort of crowd it usually does.

So far he has fired it with coal but plans to convert to fuel-oil so he can get better range and it doesn't need constant hand-stoking.

He sticks to fresh-water like lakes and rivers as salt water is damaging to the highly-polished brasswork.

"I'm changing it from a working boat to a bit of a show-pony. I like taking it out to Karapiro so I can disappear way up the lake.

"I enjoy going to the Wooden Boat Festival at Rotoiti (near Rotorua) and with John Olson (fellow steam-pinnace builder from Cambridge) we plan to do a big trip in the South Island down to Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park."

Where ever he goes the steam boat is a crowd-puller and Chris enjoys hearing the tales from people who's fathers and grandfathers were involved with steam.

Earlier on Chris built a miniature steam shunting engine and as he approaches retirement age his next project could be a replica of a KA locomotive of 1950s vintage which will be about 1.8m long when complete.