A shipping journal started by two Northland sisters when they were still at school more than 60 years ago has become an important New Zealand maritime record...

Almost 60 years ago Nancy Greenfield used her Box Brownie to snap a photo of the first ship to dock at the rebuilt Opua wharf.

The then 13-year-old schoolgirl had no inkling that her new hobby would grow into an invaluable record of more than 400 ships, thousands of sailors, and a vanished era of maritime history.

Nancy, who now lives in Whangarei, and her older sister, Opua identity Myra Larcombe, ended up recording every ship and crew member that called into Opua between the wharf's re-opening after World War II and its demise as a freight port in the 1990s.

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The result is two ringbinders bulging with photographs, crew signatures, news clippings and mostly hand-written notes detailing each vessel's tonnage, length, cargo and destination.

The sisters, now aged 72 and 87, have decided to donate their one-of-a-kind archive to the Voyager Maritime Museum in Auckland where it will be properly stored and preserved - on the condition a copy is made that Northlanders will be able to see at the Kawakawa Museum.

Nancy was a student at Kawakawa District High School, now Bay of Islands College, when she started her hobby.

She got the Box Brownie a few years earlier as a Christmas present - just in time to capture the then newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II as she visited Waitangi - and shared the family's fascination with the sea.

The family home overlooked Opua wharf and their father was a harbour board member and contractor, and the founder of the famous Bay of Islands Cream Trip.

Opua's port was shut down as a war measure in 1941 after a departing ship was torpedoed. It was rebuilt and re-opened in the mid-50s after a bitter battle between the Whangarei and Bay of Islands harbour boards.

"When the first ship came in it was the natural thing to take a photo," Nancy said.
"It was just having a love for the Bay of Islands and watching the wharf being rebuilt."

At first she photographed every ship, pasting the black-and-white prints onto pages pulled from a school exercise book next to notes about cargo, destination and tonnage. Most were refrigerated ships exporting meat to the UK; later vessels also carried milk powder.

When the 50th ship docked at the rebuilt wharf in 1959, the town staged a gala day and Nancy took her book on board the MV Cumberland to show the captain.

He was so impressed with the schoolgirl's project he instructed her to take the book on board every subsequent ship. From then on each captain provided a photo or postcard of the ship and ensured the book was signed by all on board. Those who did not have a photo would draw a picture; some turned their pages into works of art.

They never had to explain or ask when a new ship arrived, Myra said.

"They all knew about it. They knew when they got to Opua they had to fill in the book. They took a lot of pride in it," she said.

In 1960, when Nancy moved to Auckland to study nursing, Myra took over as the keeper of the shipping news.

Some historic names crop up among the more than 400 vessels the sisters recorded. At the time of its 1973 visit the MV Port Caroline was the world's biggest refrigerated ship; the Capitaine Bougainville called in shortly before it came to a tragic end off Whananaki in 1975 with the loss of 16 lives. The entry for the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov includes the menu and programme for February 22, 1985, a year almost to the day before it sank in the Marlborough Sounds.

The project only faced one serious hiccup, when the Far North's councils were amalgamated in the late 1980s.

The newly established council-owned company Far North Maritime banned the public from Opua wharf and installed large security gates. For a while it was difficult to get the book on board visiting ships but Myra always found a way.

"Then one night a group of normally law-abiding citizens lifted the gates off their hinges and threw then in the tide, where they remained," she said.

You get the idea Myra, who was Northland's first female police officer, knows exactly who removed the gates. But she's not telling.

The amalgamation of the Bay of Islands and Whangarei harbour boards, and the advent of container ships, spelt the end for small ports like Opua. Containerisation also changed the culture of shipping, Myra said.

"The crew on those old freight ships were like families that took great pride in their vessels. Now they're just workers pressing buttons on giant floating tin cans."

Earlier this year the sisters showed their collection to Wellington harbourmaster Captain Mike Pryce. He was moved to see the ships - Myra recalled the way he lovingly stroked the photos, and told them every one of the freighters had long since been turned to scrap - but said the records had to stay in the north. He suggested the Voyager Maritime Museum in Auckland as a suitable home.

"We'd realised it had value and we were wondering what to do with it. We felt it had to be out there, that people needed to know where to see it," Myra said.

Their dilemma was solved by the Maritime Museum, which virtually begged to have the sister's shipping records.

Librarian Marleene Boyd said what made their records "totally and utterly unique" was that they included the names and signatures of every crew member. As a condition of the gift the Maritime Museum will create a copy on archival paper for the museum at Kawakawa.

Nancy said she had no regrets about giving away a maritime treasure that was decades in the making.

"I'll be thrilled to think that there are people who value it, and they'll be able to have a look."