Seeing the Waimarie paddlesteamer out on the river again in the year 2000 was a great buzz for the people of Whanganui. Twenty years on, reporter Laurel Stowell talks to past and present supporters to find out whether it can be a commercial success and where its future lies.
When the restored Waimarie paddlesteamer made her first public voyage on January 1, 2000, there were fireworks and hundreds of people lining the Whanganui riverbank.
Twenty years later she is Whanganui's main tourist attraction, and her manager says she is still beloved by the community.
But can she be a commercial success? She has had a $65,000-a-year community contract from Whanganui District Council for the past few years, and needs volunteers on every sailing. The MV Wairua now competes for customers - which has left some wondering about her future.
The raising and restoration of the Waimarie started back in the 1980s when a group of Whanganui friends canoed the Whanganui River and rode the riverboat Waireka from Whanganui to Pipiriki. One of them was David McDermid.
"We thought it would be really cool to get another riverboat going, and we knew where there was one," McDermid said.
He and others salvaged the Wairua, a smaller boat that once operated out of Pipiriki.
"While we were doing that a lot of people jumped up and down on the riverbank and said we had the wrong boat."
Whanganui people remembered school picnics aboard the Waimarie, and she was sunk close by. McDermid and his friend Mark Campbell started talking about raising her.
They knew the job would be too big for their little group. Chas Poynter, who was Whanganui's mayor at the time, suggested a public meeting.
Whanganui paddle steamer passenger numbers grow year on year
Whanganui Year in Review, January 2019: Love, loss and vintage charm marked start of year in Whanganui
It was held on February 14, 1990, and to their surprise 80 people turned up. The Waimarie became a Whanganui sesquicentennial project and the Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust (WRRNT) was formed, with Campbell as the chairman and McDermid as the secretary.
"I was the pusher and shover and make-it-happen person," McDermid said.
They planned to first stabilise the Hatrick Wharf, then salvage the riverboat, then restore and display it and finally run it as a first-class tourist attraction. The district council approved the plan, but didn't offer any money.
The first task was to restore the Hatrick Wharf (now named Settlers Wharf).
"We knew we were going to dig a great big hole in the river to get the boat out and it would collapse the bank," McDermid said.
The trust got a Lottery grant of $40,000, "which began to make the salvage part of the project look like a goer".
It was given the former Wanganui Rowing Club building at 1A Taupo Quay - and restoring that was a bigger job than restoring the boat.
"When it rained it was drier outside than inside."
On January 4, 1993, what remained of the paddlesteamer was blessed and raised from the river. It was in surprisingly good condition, with the name still readable on the stern.
The hull was sandblasted and primed on the bank, a jig was built and she was rolled into the restored and extended building.
On February 24, 1995, 1A Taupo Quay opened as the Whanganui Riverboat Centre and was promoted internationally, averaging 500 visitors a month.
One visitor was Noel Yarrow, from Yarrows the Bakers, who offered $100,000 and a percentage of bread sales in Whanganui. Added to other grants and constant fundraising efforts, that money got the trust "over the hill" and restoration of the boat started in 1997.
In 1999, launching it on the first day of the new century became Whanganui's official millennium project. The hull was back in the water in May and the pressure really went on, with thousands of volunteer hours.
"We did it. We left the wharf in one century and returned in another century," McDermid said.
The very next day the paddlesteamer had to go to work. It was always intended to be a commercial operation and the trust didn't want it to be a burden on ratepayers.
Turning the boat into a business was a whole new ballgame.
"There were people who appeared from all over the place who were suddenly wanting to run the show," McDermid said.
He left to resume work on the neglected Wairua, but returned to manage the boat in 2002. In his best year, there were 18,000 passengers.
Numbers fell off when Whanganui got a reputation as "gang city" around 2007.
McDermid said one day he got a call from a woman who wanted to book tickets. She heard about the timetable and prices, then asked whether it would be safe.
He assured her the staff were qualified and the operation ran to Maritime New Zealand standards. But that wasn't what she was worried about.
"She said 'No, no, no. Is it safe? Is it safe to be in Whanganui on your boat with all those gangs at constant war with one another?'"
McDermid told her he was one block from the courthouse and couldn't remember when he last saw a patched gang member.
In 2008 the Waimarie Operating Trust was formed to run the boat. It is currently chaired by Stuart Hylton, with trustees Val Bartrum, Doug Davidson and Stephen Lace. The boat is owned by the WRRNT, currently Ian Chamberlain, Leigh Grant, Marion Johnston, Ray Gaylard and Trevor Gibson.
"One runs the business and one owns the boat," McDermid said.
"If the business fails, the boat doesn't get sold."
McDermid's job was disestablished in 2011 and since then there have been five or six managers. Phil Pollero was a volunteer and skipper before he took over as manager in June 2019, and he says he's there for the long haul.
He formerly worked in the police and Coastguard and is a keen boatie with managerial and budget experience.
This summer the Waimarie is doing two-hour 11am sailings to Upokongaro and back six days a week, with an extra one-hour sailing on Saturday afternoons. She carries more than 8000 passengers a year, a maximum of 90 people per trip, and is around capacity at present.
In these health and safety conscious times, she cannot sail when wind gusts top 20km/h, as they did on January 6.
There are eight staff and 12 volunteers. Pollero is the first manager to be employed full-time and will be there through the 2021 winter when the boat will need its five-yearly out-of-water survey.
The usual adult price for the two-hour cruise is $45 ($40 for locals), and feedback is 99 per cent positive.
"At the moment we get people saying that's a really good price for what they get," Pollero said.
The cruise comes with tales of yesteryear and the Waimarie sets off upriver with a homing pigeon or two, released at Kukuta to fly back to the centre with a message attached to a leg - a throwback to old time communication.
Mostly the boat turns around at Upokongaro without anyone getting on or off, despite a wharf built there for that purpose. It does an occasional dinner cruise, with passengers dining at the Avoca Hotel at Upokongaro.
Pollero and the operating trust are polishing up ideas to grow the business. The Wairua, now owned by Sam Mordey, does lunch cruises twice a week to Cafe 4forty4 at Upokongaro, with tours of St Mary's Church included.
The Waimarie could do something similar, and adding another activity might encourage repeat customers.
People have wondered how many riverboats could have a viable tourist business here. It's a question Alexander Hatrick and James Nixon probably pondered in the early 1900s when the Whanganui River was billed "The Rhine of New Zealand".
Pollero would like to have more overseas visitors and an audiovisual experience for people steering the Ongarue riverboat that is on static display at the Riverboat Centre.
The operating trust would like to entice visitors to stay longer and add other heritage experiences, such as a service at St Paul's Church in Pūtiki or a trip to Bushy Park Tarapuruhi. But those packages aren't available yet.
The Waimarie operation is non-profit, but prices would have to increase or services be cut to enable it to break even.
"At the moment we do need that support. It would take some significant changes in the business to be totally self sufficient," Pollero said.
But he is proud of what the Waimarie can offer. He said it's still dear to the hearts of Whanganui people who will ring the centre if they notice the boat isn't sitting right in the water.
"Ours is the only coal-fired paddlesteamer in New Zealand, so it's very unique," he said.