A national heritage "treasure" of the seas has been towed along the Auckland waterfront to die the death of old boats.

The Rapaki, the steam-driven crane vessel that served in Lyttelton, the Middle East and the Pacific before retiring in Auckland, is being broken up at Wynyard Wharf.

Tim Hanna - the author of books on motorcycle speedster Burt Munro and motorcycle builder John Britten - said the scrapping of Rapaki, one of the world's few remaining steam crane vessels, was an act of vandalism.

"It's a taonga, a national treasure of tremendous significance," said Hanna, a Lumsden publican.

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He said he had been lucky enough to go on the Rapaki when it was fired up and the crane was moving.

"It was absolutely tremendous. It was such a powerful reminder of a time in our history when steam was obviously king … This country was built with steam."

The New Zealand Maritime Museum at Auckland's Hobson Wharf, where the Rapaki was moored as a static display and breakwater, opted to scrap it because of the high cost of maintenance.

It was towed to Titan Marine at Wynyard Wharf on Tuesday. Rapaki's departure makes way for an America's Cup development at Hobson Wharf.

"This has been a very difficult decision and one we did not take lightly," said museum director Vincent Lipanovich.

"We are all disappointed. One has to face reality unfortunately in dealing with very very large objects like this."

The coal-powered Rapaki floating crane was moored at Auckland's Hobson Wharf beside the Maritime Museum before being towed away for dismantling this week.
The coal-powered Rapaki floating crane was moored at Auckland's Hobson Wharf beside the Maritime Museum before being towed away for dismantling this week.

When the museum acquired Rapaki, it was establishing a new collection, said Lipanovich. He suspected foundation director the late Rodney Wilson "thought it was something we could manage".

However, it was a large vessel (52m long) and full restoration would have cost up to $10 million; that would have consumed the money the museum had for all its other objects for up to a decade.

The museum's budget is for income of about $5.1 million this year.

Rapaki was built of steel in Scotland for the Lyttelton Harbour Board in 1926. On its way to New Zealand, it nearly ran out of coal and was believed lost for some time before limping into Gisborne.

It spent most of its working life at Lyttelton, but during World War II was requisitioned for use in the Red Sea and the Pacific islands. It was retired from service in 1988 and after its 1993 purchase by the museum was towed to Auckland by a navy tug.

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Rapaki was steamed up using coal for the last time in 2001. It has been closed to the public for nearly a decade because of its deteriorating condition.

Rapaki's sister vessel Hikitia served the Wellington Harbour Board, was converted to diesel power and is now owned by a heritage trust in the capital.

Lipanovich said it was planned to salvage around 150 items, large and small, from Rapaki, including both engines, both propellers and the anchors.

One engine would stay with the museum and the other would go to the Auckland Steam Engine Society, and a number of parts would go to the Wellington trust to help in its work on the Hikitia.