Story: Shipbuilding

New Zealand’s extensive coastline and dense forests proved a lucky combination for enterprising colonists. They set up shipyards around the country, turning out the handy wooden cutters, schooners and scows that served a busy coastal trade for decades. Ships and boats are still built locally, and Kiwi designers have produced a revolutionary jet boat and world-beating fibreglass yachts.

Story by Gavin McLean
Main image: Riveting a steel minesweeping trawler

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Wooden ships

In 1795 some sailors were marooned at Dusky Sound in Fiordland. Luckily they found a half-built sailing boat, left by some sealers. They finished it, and sailed to Norfolk Island. Called the Providence, it was the first ship built in New Zealand by Europeans.

From about 1820, settlers built ships to carry goods and people up and down the coast. Shipbuilders (also known as shipwrights) used timber from the forests, especially around Auckland and Northland. Through the 19th century they built sailing vessels such as ketches and schooners, and small steamers. A popular cargo vessel was the scow – a wide, flat-bottomed boat that could carry heavy loads in shallow water.

Iron and steel

In the 1870s coal-powered steam ships replaced sailing ships, but shipbuilding did not become a major industry in New Zealand. The big ocean-going ships were built in England and Scotland. Shipwrights found work repairing them at ports around the country. A few shipbuilders made iron and steel steam ships on Otago Harbour. Today, tourists cruise across Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu in a famous old steamer, the Earnslaw, built in Dunedin.

As early as the 1890s, yachting in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf was popular. Two shipbuilding families, the Baileys and the Logans, made big, elegant keelers from kauri wood.

During the Second World War, warships were built at Port Chalmers for the New Zealand navy. But since the 1960s the busiest shipyard has been at Whāngārei.

Yachts and jet boats

Kiwi-designed fibreglass yachts are fast and stylish. These ‘plastic fantastics’ have twice won the America’s Cup race for New Zealand. Designers in Auckland, Whāngārei and other centres also create ‘superyachts’ for wealthy clients around the world. The Tiara, built in Auckland, has a helicopter landing pad on deck.

New Zealanders love to whizz about on the sea, or lakes and rivers, in speed boats. In the 1950s Bill Hamilton, from Canterbury, invented a jet boat that could go up shallow rivers. His boats were soon sold around the world.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Shipbuilding', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/shipbuilding (accessed 19 November 2018)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 20 Jul 2015