With no rail links to other main centres, Nelson depended on ships, which by the early 1900s offered a thrice-weekly service between Nelson and Wellington via Picton. In 1908, however, to meet a demand by business travellers for a direct service, the Anchor Company built a small ship for an overnight run.
In the 1920s Anchor bought the former West Coast ferries Mapourika (renamed Ngaio) and Arahura, replacing the Ngaio with the Matangi in 1929. By 1949, when Anchor introduced the big 3,566-ton Ngaio, air competition was hitting hard. The last sailing was in 1953.
Perks for politicians
Keeping politicians sweet was one tactic the Union Steam Ship Company used to avoid government intervention in the important Lyttelton–Wellington run. Departure was delayed if Prime Minister Seddon was running late, cabinet ministers travelled free and enjoyed the best accommodation, and MPs’ fares were waived and their accommodation upgraded. But the service wasn’t always good – in 1901 Union Company chair George McLean admitted that it was ‘difficult to deny that we are not catering for this trade as we ought to do. Last night we left three MPs behind’1 – and talk of nationalisation flowed thick and fast.
The Lyttelton–Wellington ‘steamer expresses’
In 1895 the Union Steam Ship Company began a dedicated service between Lyttelton and Wellington using second-hand ships, the Penguin and then the Mararoa.
Since South Island politicians used the ships to get to and from their electorates, the ferries were closely scrutinised. The Maori of 1907 and Wahine of 1913, the first purpose-built ships, set new standards. They were large (3,400 and 4,400 tons) and fast (19–20.5 knots – about twice as fast as the average freighter).
In 1931 the new Rangatira entered service, a mini-liner of 6,152 tons, capable of 22 knots. She would be a favourite with the public for over 30 years. In 1946 the company built a near-sister ship, the Hinemoa.
Around the time of the introduction of the Rangatira, the Union Steam Ship Company rebranded the service the ‘steamer express service’ – the humble word ‘ferry’ would not do. It was said that Wellington and Lyttelton residents set their watches by the ships. Their captains were household names and everyone travelled on the ships – from governors-general to bands, circuses and school sports teams.
The service fell on hard times in the 1960s. The company converted the relatively new Maori (1953) to a roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferry in 1965 and in 1966 took delivery of a purpose-built RORO ferry, the 8,943-ton Wahine. But the Wahine sank in Wellington Harbour in 1968, drowning 51 people. She was replaced by the slightly larger Rangatira in 1972, but this coincided with a switch by patrons to aircraft or to the Picton–Wellington ferries, which offered shorter strait crossings in daylight. The Maori was withdrawn in 1974 and the Rangatira followed two years later.
Although Picton residents were served by a variety of ships during the course of longer runs, the town’s first dedicated ferry was the Tamahine of 1925. Famous for her permanent list and unsettling corkscrew motion in heavy seas, the ‘Tam’ crossed Cook Strait until 1962.
Her replacement, the RORO Aramoana, owned by the Railways Department, ushered in a transport revolution. Her huge stern door enabled crew to load and discharge cargo in about an hour, linking the road and rail systems of the two main islands nearly seamlessly for the first time. By 1974 there were four government-owned rail ferries, and they had destroyed conventional coastal shipping.
The 1990s brought competition for what were by then known as the Interisland Line ships. Strait Shipping, using conventional RORO ships, competed successfully with the line. The operators who challenged with small, high-speed ferries – sometimes dubbed the ‘vomit comets’ – failed, undermined by Cook Strait’s rough, unforgiving seas, and by environmental concerns over wave damage to shorelines in the Marlborough Sounds.
Despite stormy crossings, the ferries remain a linchpin of New Zealand’s transport system. They offer sports teams, families and tourists an alternative to air travel, and provide the only way to travel by car down the length of the country. In 2009 the largest ferry operating in New Zealand waters was the 22,365-ton Cook Strait ferry Kaitaki, which could carry 1,600 passengers.
A ‘sumptuous’ breakfast attended by Invercargill’s leading citizens, music, and a cheering crowd were all part of the first ferry trip by the Bluff Harbour Board’s tug Awarua in 1885. Unfortunately, Foveaux Strait was turbulent, the ship struggled against a headwind, and many passengers were miserably ill. Despite this rough start, the visitors toured Stewart Island, not returning till nine that night.
Foveaux Strait ferries
From 1877 a weekly mail service crossed the Foveaux Strait from Bluff to Stewart Island. It quickly became a de-facto ferry service, carrying passengers and goods to and fro. In 1885, as a result of public demand for a steamer service, the Bluff Harbour Board’s tug steamer took over. The service was dependent on a government subsidy and the sometimes tenuous goodwill of the Harbour Board.
The ferry service brought clear economic benefits for the islanders. The fishing industry expanded to include boats too small to carry a catch over the strait to Bluff, and the number of visitors to Stewart Island increased.
Privately owned companies took over the Stewart Island run in 1930, with occasional stop-gap service from local harbour board tugs. In the 2000s daily services continued, and the introduction of express catamarans had reduced the journey to an hour.