Kōrero: Ferries

Whārangi 1. Harbour, river and lake ferries

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Early water transport

Water transport was vital in early colonial times when roads and bridges were poor or non-existent. In 1859, for example, it took almost a day to get from central Dunedin to nearby Anderson’s Bay by horse – a trip that now takes just minutes by car.

In the early towns watermen plied for hire, then small sail-powered vessels ran harbour services from the 1840s. But winds are too fickle to respect timetables, so town dwellers welcomed the arrival of small steamers in the 1860s. Ferry services ran on most major harbours.

Auckland ferries

Auckland had the busiest ferry network, linking city suburbs, the North Shore and the Hauraki Gulf to the city centre. Families – including the Alisons, Dromgooles, Hudsons and Subritzkys – dominated this sometimes cut-throat market.

Auckland had distinctive ferries – wooden-hulled, high-sided and ‘double-ended’, with a bridge at each end, so skippers could change positions and make a quick departure without turning the ship around.

The early ferries were paddle steamers. Screw propulsion began with the Condor in 1902 and remained the pattern until the last classic vessel, the Toroa, which took to the water in 1925. Smoking their way across Waitematā Harbour, and packing in over 1,200 commuters on each run at peak hours, they were an integral part of the Auckland scene.

Harbour horrors


Crowded ferries on busy harbours could become death traps. In 1860 the ferry Pride of the Yarra collided with the steamer Favourite in fog on Otago Harbour, drowning 12 people. Dunedin almost came to a stop for the funerals. In 1950 the new passenger launch Ranui, which ran between Tauranga and Mayor Island, foundered off Mount Maunganui, drowning 22.


Decline and rebirth

Cars, trams and buses almost killed off harbour ferries. Otago Harbour’s big steamers were laid up in the 1920s. Wellington’s stopped after the Second World War. The opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959 sent most of the double-enders (and all the vehicular ferries) to ship graveyards.

High-speed catamarans have been popular with ferry companies since the 1980s. Double hulls offer generous deck space and stability in choppy seas, and make high speed possible. The 33-metre Quickcat of 1986 was the head-turner of her day. Built in Australia for Gulf Ferries’ Waiheke Island service, this 445-ton ferry could belt along at 33 knots, three times the speed of an old double-ender.

By the 2000s ferries had made a comeback to serve Hauraki Gulf islands’ residents or visitors, and commuters fleeing road congestion and pollution. The boats’ high speed suited clock-watchers. Small catamarans also ran services on Wellington and Lyttelton harbours. Ferries and water taxis linked isolated communities in the Hokianga, the Bay of Islands and the Marlborough Sounds.

Lake ferries

Large lakes such as Taupō, Rotorua, and Wakatipu were major transport routes. In the 19th and early 20th centuries goods, mail and passengers were ferried from lakeside towns to farms and small communities around the water’s edge.

The Lake Wakatipu ferries also served goldfields, bringing supplies in and taking gold out. From the early 20th century, tourism in the Wakatipu area increased, and with it use of the ferry service. It was in part to satisfy this market that a new ferry – the 330-ton Earnslaw – was built in 1912. It was designed to carry 1,035 passengers and 100 tonnes of cargo (1,500 sheep, 200 bales of wool or 70 cattle).

Lake ferry services did not usually survive after roads were built. The Lake Wakatipu service was first cut back after a road was developed between Kingston, Frankton and Queenstown in 1936. It ended soon after a road was built from Glenorchy to Queenstown in 1963. In 1969 the Earnslaw began running tourist services.

River ferries

River ferries came in two forms, rope or chain ferries – which were pulled across the river by a rope or chain – and conventional steamers. Place names such as Scotts Ferry are reminders of the days before communities could afford bridges, when people crossed rivers by ferry. In 2023 only one public punt survived in service, at Tuapeka Mouth in South Otago.

On longer rivers such as the Clutha and the Whanganui, specially designed shallow draft steamers ran scheduled services into the mid-20th century. Recently, some of the Whanganui River’s vessels have been restored for tourism.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Gavin McLean, 'Ferries - Harbour, river and lake ferries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/ferries/page-1 (accessed 15 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Gavin McLean, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010