A little over 115 years ago, newspapers around the world published the story of a dramatic rescue involving a 30-foot whaler and six gallant men from Houhora.

The Elingamite shipwreck, which ranks as one of New Zealand's worst maritime disasters, occurred on the morning of Sunday November 9, 1902.

The steam ship was en route from Sydney to Auckland when she struck a rock on West King, one of the Three Kings Islands, with the loss of 43 lives.

Dense fog hid the Three Kings from view, and it was later found that the islands had been wrongly charted.

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The crew of the Tainui after being taken aboard the Clansman - Charles Northwood (left), AT Thomas, John (Peter) McIntosh, Frank Thomas, Edward Wagener, and (in front) Richard Northwood.
The crew of the Tainui after being taken aboard the Clansman - Charles Northwood (left), AT Thomas, John (Peter) McIntosh, Frank Thomas, Edward Wagener, and (in front) Richard Northwood.

The ship sank, carrying 136 passengers, including a number of qualified motormen on their way to Auckland to drive the city's new electric tram cars, and a crew of 59, sank within 20 minutes.

As well as general cargo and mail, 52 boxes of gold and silver, valued at £17,320 ($34,640), which was being shipped by the Bank of New South Wales to Auckland, went down with her.

The story became embedded in Far North folklore, to the point where old timers would refer to fog as "proper Elingamite weather," and children would ask why. Why? Because on Monday November 10 it was on the eastern Kowhai Beach, on the ocean side of Mount Camel, that lifeboat No.2 landed 52 people.

That was the first news of the disaster.

It was local Maori who sustained the survivors and ferried First Officer Berkett across Houhora Harbour, by punt, to report the wreck. And it was from the Houhora Post Office that Postmaster and shipping agent JB Thomas relayed the news to Auckland.

The lighthouse keeper at Cape Maria van Diemen was instructed to alert the steamer Zealandia, scheduled to pass the north of New Zealand. Unfortunately, she was too far out to sea to pick up the signals.

The story became legend because the rescue of 89 survivors was set off that same night by John McIntosh in his 30-foot whaler Tainui, which he had bought in the Bay of Islands some years previously.

His crew consisted of locals Arthur and Frank Thomas, Charles and Richard Northwood, and Edward Wagener.

An article published in a Sydney newspaper at the time said: "The crew set sail from Houhora very early on Tuesday morning in order to catch the outward-bound steamer if possible in the vicinity of the North Cape.

"They took a supply of water and biscuits in case they fell in with any more survivors of the wreck.

It was blowing very hard from the westward when they set sail from Mount Camel, and they soon had to take down the mainsail and double reef it, running on in the meantime under the jib only.

"The distance of 32 miles from Houhora to the North Cape was covered in three and a half hours — a very fast bit of sailing. The boat had only live ballast, but she stood the test beautifully, said the crew."

Skipper John McIntosh said: "We knew the coastal steamer Clansman had been alerted from Auckland, and Subritzky's Greyhound, from Awanui, could never catch the Zealandia at the Cape, so, by scissors, it was up to us — reefed right down, mast bending, tearing along in the moonlight before a strong sou-sou-wester".

Tainui to rescue

After daylight the Tainui crew saw smoke from a ship well past the Three Kings. They headed towards her, taking the sail down and erecting Northwood's red camera cloth, pulling it up and down the mast. They waited in suspense. Would the red cloth be seen? Thank God it worked! The Zealandia headed towards them.

McIntosh was taken aboard, and after consultation with the Captain was dropped back into the whaler with a round of cheese, a tin of biscuits and a bottle of whisky. The Zealandia then turned around and headed back to the Three Kings and the rescue.

By this time the wind had dropped considerably, so the Tainui headed towards shore, the tired crew rowing among the heavy sweeps to a sheltered bay off North Cape, where they intended to rest. They hauled the craft up high and dry, and with the oars and sails made a shelter.

They had only just settled down when they were alerted by the noise of dynamite bombs fired from the Zealandia to attract attention of any shipwrecked people who happened to be on shore.

The crew relaunched the Tainui and pulled out to the steamer, which was skirting the shore. The Zealandia passed on but the Tainui was seen from the bridge of the Clansman, which stopped and hailed the crew.

They were taken on board and the Tainui was hoisted up on to the deck of the Clansman, as it was thought that it could come in handy if a landing was made on the Kings.

The services of the Houhora men were not required, but they had already done splendid service in intercepting the Zealandia and saving the unfortunate shipwrecked people from another night's exposure on the Great King. The tired but jubilant Houhora crew were landed from the Clansman at Houhora on Wednesday night.

Next morning they assisted by ferrying some of the Elingamite's survivors off the Clansman.

Those who perished, and were picked up by the Clansman, were buried in the Houhora cemetery, Those from the Awanui boat the Greyhound were buried in the Anglican churchyard in Awanui.

The Tainui is thought to be the last of the American-built whaleboats in New Zealand, and one of the last remaining links with the days when American whale ships were regular visitors to the Bay of Islands.

It was built in New Bedford, in the US in the 1860s, and was originally acquired by Maori in the Bay of Islands from the American whaler Cape York.

John McIntosh bought if for £25 ($50) in 1887. The Maori named it Tainui after the legendary bird of the early Maori, which performed unusual displays in the North.

Following the purchase John entered the coastal whaling industry, operating from North Cape to Cape Karikari, and for a time lived on Whale Island, off the Karikari Peninsular.

John gave up whaling in 1903 because of the growing scarcity of whales. He then began business as a storekeeper and buyer and seller of kauri gum on the banks of the Raeo Creek, where he was able to get his whaleboat up to his door.

The craft slumbered on the banks of the Raeo Creek for some years, but after the death of its owner the McIntosh family decided, because of its historic significance, to gift it to the Auckland Naval Base, where it was scraped and painted, and the keel and gunwales were replaced with heart kauri.

The Tainui is now on permanent display at the Auckland Maritime Museum.

Born in Dunedin in 1862, John McIntosh and his two sisters were left orphans in Hokitika. He was four years of age when sent to the Coster Home, a Catholic orphanage, in Auckland. He was one of several boys from the orphanage who were given work by Loui Subritzky on his farm at Houhora.

As well as working on the gumfields and the Subritzky farm, he was employed for a period on coastal cutters, and at one time had charge of the Mahurangi.

Along with local Maori, John and others hunted whales up and down the eastern coastline in this type of whaleboat. The farm, homestead and store, where the McIntosh family resided, was on Whalers Road, named in his memory.