Story: Shipwrecks

Page 4. Improved safety

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By the early 20th century, safety at sea had improved.

Steamships

A major change was the development of steam-powered ships with iron or steel hulls. The invention of the compound engine in the 1870s was important in increasing the amount of energy and power available to ships, enabling them to get out of trouble.

Lighthouses

New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse was opened at Pencarrow, near Wellington Heads, in January 1859. Following the establishment of the Marine Department in 1866, lighthouse construction increased, and by 1900 there were 22 manned lighthouses around the coast and at harbour entrances.

Occasionally lighthouses added to navigation problems. The light at Mana displayed the same characteristics as the light at Pencarrow Head, at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The crews of the City of Newcastle (in 1872) and the Cyrus (in 1874) confused the Mana light for the Pencarrow one, and both ships were wrecked. Subsequently, the Mana lighthouse was moved to Cape Egmont, the most westerly point of Taranaki.

Investigating the causes

The Enquiry into Wrecks Act 1863 empowered the principal customs officer nearest to a wreck to hold a preliminary enquiry. If a formal enquiry was warranted, this proceeded under a magistrate. Such investigations could produce changes. For instance, a new light was set up at Waipapa Point, Southland, in 1884 following the enquiry into the wreck of the Tararua.

Other improvements

Other advances in maritime safety included:

  • more detailed charts and better knowledge among local masters, especially following the Acheron’s coastal survey in 1848
  • an increase in harbour boards in the 1870s and 1880s, which led to better harbour lighting and buoys, and the building of breakwaters
  • better towage services, as harbour boards bought out private tugs
  • the closure of many smaller shippers, due to the spread of railways.

Fewer deaths

Following these improvements, the number of wrecks and deaths declined. Between 1860 and 1900 there had been 2,166 deaths in New Zealand waters – an average of 54 a year. Between 1900 and 1940 this figure dropped to 608 deaths, or 15 per year.

Women and children first

The only woman survivor of the Penguin was Mrs Hannam, who was put in a lifeboat with her four children. The boat tipped as it was lowered and her three older children were swept away. She and her baby got back onto the boat, which then capsized. She clung on underneath the boat, tied her dead baby to a seat and clutched a young boy. Eventually the boat washed ashore, and when righted, rescuers found Mrs Hannam and the young boy still alive.

Elingamite and Penguin

The early 20th century saw two major maritime disasters. On 9 November 1902, steaming at half-speed in thick fog, the Elingamite struck West Island in the Three Kings group. Although the ship sank in 20 minutes, six lifeboats and two rafts were launched. In all, 28 of the 136 passengers and 17 of the 58 crew lost their lives, some through starvation and exposure on drifting rafts. An enquiry discovered that the Three Kings Islands were incorrectly charted, and the captain was exonerated.

The Penguin was the Picton–Wellington ferry. It struck Tom’s Rock, abreast of the Karori Stream outfall in Cook Strait on 12 February 1909. Lifeboats and rafts were launched, but the boats capsized, and 75 of the 105 passengers died.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Shipwrecks - Improved safety', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/shipwrecks/page-4 (accessed 25 August 2019)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 Jun 2006