Some New Zealand ports became notorious for their risks to shipping. They were the bar harbours and river ports, mainly of the west coasts, and the exposed beach harbours.
The bar harbours of Hokianga and Kaipara on the North Island’s west coast were especially feared. One of the sand bars at the entrance to Kaipara Harbour is known as the Graveyard. It has been the site of at least 43 shipwrecks, and some say as many as 110.
The colonial trader Samuel Polack described his encounter with the harbour mouth in 1831:
The breakers were dashing on several sand bars in an awful manner, about three miles from the land. The late westerly gale caused the fearful commotion of the rolling waves to bound on these sea sand spits, dashing the surf to an unusual height. No vessel, of any size or shape, could at this time have entered the Kaipara; instant shipwreck, into a thousand pieces, would have been the result. 1
Thousands of gold prospectors flocked to the West Coast in the 1860s. Unsuitable though it was, Hokitika established as a port at the mouth of the Hokitika River, imported miners from Australia and exported gold. Between 1865 and 1867 there were 108 strandings with 32 total losses as vessels attempted the hazardous entry into, or exit from, the river. Other perilous river ports were Greymouth, Westport, Whanganui, Gisborne, Whakatāne, Pātea and Kaiapoi.
Valuable flotsam and jetsam
There were so many ships wrecked on the Hokitika bar that a group of men known as ‘beach rakers’ gained a livelihood from scavenging the wrecks. Working in pairs on moonlit nights, they used hooks and lines to drag in valuable catch.
More feared than river ports were the exposed beach harbours in places like Timaru, Ōamaru, Napier and New Plymouth. Vessels anchored offshore were at the mercy of bad weather while goods were offloaded into surfboats and ferried through breakers to the shore.
Timaru’s harbour was infamous. On 14 May 1882, the worst tragedy in the port's history occurred when two vessels, the Ben Venue and City of Perth, broke loose from their moorings in a heavy sea. Of the nine people who died, six were rescuers whose surf boat was swamped.
Before a breakwater was built in Ōamaru in the 1870s to provide protection from the prevailing easterlies, its port was a renowned ship cemetery. In 1867 eight ships were swept ashore or beached, and the following year a storm swept two ships on to the beach with the loss of five lives. However, after the breakwater was built in 1875, only three deaths were recorded. Similarly, following the building of breakwaters at Timaru, New Plymouth and Napier there were no major wrecks there in the 20th century.