Wednesday, 12 August 2020


Some maritime incidents in the top half of the Coromandel from 1831 to 1900

In the final story in her series on local shipwrecks, informer contributor, Suzanne Hansen, chronicles some of the 30 vessels known to have been lost in local waters from 1831 to 1900.

Burgeoning trade and European settlement in the 19th century, meant our waters could be likened to a modern-day motorway, with trading destinations like Mercury Bay only accessible by water.

The Ferry Landing stone wharf, built around 1838, is recorded by Heritage New Zealand as the oldest wharf in New Zealand. The wharf was built to service the growing timber milling, gum and flax industries in Mercury Bay. By August 1865, another large sawmill was open at Tairua, with state-of-the-art milling equipment making it one of the leading mills in the wider area.

Trade traffic along our coastlines grew rapidly with shipments to and from the growing settlements, however, so too did the number of maritime accidents.

Tairua, translated as “Two Tides,” seems to be the most represented port in the grim stats coming with seven recorded shipwrecks. These high numbers in the late 19th century relate to changeable tides and winds and the treacherous Tairua Bar, which still causes issues for maritime vessels on occasions. Of these, the Elizabeth Ann (1867), a cutter loaded with gum, the Éclair (1871), a cutter loaded with timber, and the Tartar (1882), a Tauranga-based cutter which capsized and quickly disintegrated, were all the result of getting in trouble on the bar.

The crew of the Tartar were narrowly saved by the dingy of another vessel, the Mercury.

Another cutter, Brunette (1875), was loaded with timber from the Tairua Mill and made way across the bar to Tauranga. Just beyond the Tairua Heads the wind suddenly changed and carried the cutter straight onto the rocks. The crew got safely to shore but the vessel was too damaged to salvage.

Yet another cutter, Half Caste, built at Boat Harbour near Tairua in 1881, had gained a sinister reputation as a carrier of illicit spirits and was said to be a very fast boat. She came to grief in Tairua after only two years of operation.

The turbulent waters of Port Charles, Cape Colville and Port Jackson also had a fair share of incidents. The schooner, Isabella Pratt, was run down while on port tack on a clear, moonlit night in 1881 by the Union Company’s steamer, Albion, off the coast of Cape Colville. It was said that smoke from the Albion’s stacks obscured the vision of the crew until the Isabella Pratt was immediately on her starboard.

According to the Albion crew, the schooner had lit no lights, while the master of the Isabella Pratt insisted she was fully lit. The steamer cut into the schooner’s bowsprit so deeply that the crew were just able to clamber aboard the steamer before the schooner sank. A large hole caused by the collision on the bow of the Albion was stuffed with mattresses, bedding, bagging and other soft goods so that she could get back to Auckland that same day. No lives were lost and all crew on both vessels were reported as sober.

Several known shipwrecks happened just off Kennedy Bay. The cutter, Blonde (1875), was on her maiden voyage out of Tauranga destined for Auckland, laden with a large quantity of beer for the pubs there. Nothing was heard from her for days until another schooner, Columbia, was sailing past Kennedy Bay. The crew spotted a derelict and greatly damaged boat, which fit the description of the Blonde, apparently abandoned by her crew. It was presumed the boat got caught up in a huge gale earlier that week. Nothing was ever heard again of her crew.

Another small ketch-rigged scow called Frithjof (1887), more familiarly known as the “Fried Chop,” was driven onto the rocks at Kennedy Bay and sustained considerable damage deeming her unsalvageable.

One of the earliest European shipwrecks noted in Mercury Bay was in September 1831 involving the schooner, Darling, bought by Captain Ranulph Dacre for £700 to service a

contract he had won with the British Admiralty for 100 spars. The Darling sailed from Sydney to Maunganui in the north of New Zealand. Finding the trees too short there, the vessel made her way to the Mercury Bay. This venture also proved unsuccessful, with Dacre claiming that his trees had been appropriated by the HMS Buffalo. Within days of landing, the Darling was beset by some angry residents, who scuttled the vessel and drove the crew away.

In 1848, the Albert, engaged in marine survey work under the command of HMS Acheron, was lost in a storm at Mercury Bay. There was no loss of life.

Famous Mercury Bay trading cutter, Janet Grey, built in 1864 at Auckland’s Queens Street Wharf, went aground in February 1875 just off the Hole in the Rock after many years of service. The boat was reported to have “fallen into pieces” with the captain and crew doing all they could just to stay alive.

In 1884, the ketch, Opotiki, left the port of Opotiki with 15 passengers and 295

sacks of maize for Auckland. Buffeted by strong southerly winds all night, it made it past the treacherous Tairua Heads at 8:00am the next morning, only to strike a sunken rock in the eastern part of Mercury Bay, suffering substantial damage. The 15 passengers were taken ashore in four dingy loads and then the crew and master went to get help. By the time they got back, the vessel had fallen on her side and was totally full of water. The ship was abandoned.

The 20th century brought improved safety for the New Zealand maritime industry. The incident numbers and losses of life greatly reduced with the introduction of metal, steam powered ships, light houses and lighting on boats.

Pictured: The Whitianga waterfront in 1890 gives an idea of the extent of the maritime traffic at the time. Photo courtesy of the Mercury Bay Museum.


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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.