There's a new lease of life on the way for one of this country's old ladies of the sea. The veteran steam tug Rapaki has been a static feature of the National Maritime Museum at Hobson Wharf for more than 10 years.

The biggest of the museum's exhibits, Rapaki plays a double role. She is admired as one of the world's few remaining examples of an era of shipbuilding and engineering from early last century and her 80-tonne bulk also provides a breakwater for the museum's marina.

Rapaki came to Auckland from Lyttelton where she began her working life in 1926. The steel ship was built by Fleming and Ferguson in Paisley, Scotland. The crane was built by Sir William Arrol and Company, the firm that also built the Forth Bridge, near Edinburgh. The bill to the Lyttelton Harbour Board was £4200. That doesn't sound a lot, but it would amount to serious money in today's dollars.


The voyage to New Zealand, with delivery master Captain Lionel Mack in charge, took 109 days and was not without incident. The crane survived several storms as well as shortages of coal and food. With a bunker capacity of 145 tonnes of coal, and burning it at a rate of up to three tonnes each eight-hour shift, the long trip required many bunkering stops.

She arrived in Lyttelton after a close encounter off the coast of Gisborne and, with the last few shovelfuls of coal gone, had to be helped into port by tug.

During Rapaki's 60-year working life the crane lifted wharf piles, locomotives, electric generators and transformers, boilers and cranes and even the containers which spelt her eventual demise.

In World War II, Rapaki carried out special war work. Requisitioned in 1941, Rapaki helped clear sunken ships in the Red Sea for the British Ministry of War Transport. From there Rapaki went to New Caledonia, where she was in active service with the United States Navy, clearing a backlog of heavy loads from Liberty ships and helping strip and refloat damaged vessels.

At the end of her working life in Lyttelton, Rapaki seemed destined for the scrapyard. Into the old crane's life entered a couple of the Maritime Museum's active supporters, steam enthusiast Chris McMullen and John Street, one of the more pro-active custodians of the Auckland waterfront.

The two arrived in Christchurch to look over Rapaki, only to be greeted by a group from the local Ferrymead Steam Preservation Society with the accusation: "So you are the Aucklanders down here trying to steal our history."

It transpired that Rapaki was too big for the Ferrymead site, so Street and McMullen embarked on a campaign to bring the old crane to Auckland. Both men made several trips south in their own time, with the museum paying their air fares.

On an early inspection they discovered the engine-room and all the working parts of the crane were in pristine condition, thanks to Rapaki's last serving engineer, who checked the crane a couple of times a week to ensure everything was properly maintained.

"He was delighted the ship was not going to be scrapped and was even happy to see it going to Auckland," says Street. There was other local support as well, particularly from engineering firm Stark Brothers in Lyttelton, which helped rig the ship for the tow to Auckland.

The original plan was to bring Rapaki north under her own steam, but after some marine networking the Royal New Zealand Navy tug Arataki brought her up the East Coast to her new home at Hobson Wharf.

McMullen and Street are grateful for the Navy's participation in a worthwhile training exercise.

Rapaki is still operational. Her boilers can be fired up and she can propel herself. The ship has been modified little during her life and remains mainly in original condition. She was last steamed using coal in February 2001, after a week of preparation by the museum's steam volunteers.

Rapaki will open to the public from August 10, looking pretty much as she did when she arrived in Lyttelton in July 1926.