Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by Gavin McLean

In the days before roads and rail, New Zealand had numerous regular ferry services. In the 2000s, few remain. But many New Zealanders still use the Cook Strait ferries, with their colourful history of rough crossings and strike action, and commuter services on city harbours have made a comeback.

Harbour, river and lake ferries

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.

Coastal ferries

Although coastal ferry services have vanished from all but Cook and Foveaux straits, they were once common. Usually they ran between a main centre and smaller local ports, such as between Dunedin and Ōamaru, Nelson and the bays, or Auckland and Thames. Wellington was linked to New Plymouth by rail in 1886. Steamers to Onehunga completed the Wellington–Auckland journey until 1908, when the North Island main trunk railway opened.

Coastal passenger services generally flourished only until road and rail services were improved. The completion of the main trunk rail lines in the South Island (1879) and North Island (1908) hit coastal ferries particularly hard.

Catching the slow boat


Although the Dunedin–Ōamaru steamers were better than a slow, uncomfortable, horse-drawn coach, travellers complained that the service seldom ran on time. In 1874 passenger Joseph Jones wrote to the local paper, saying ‘I should like to complain a little – not that any benefit will result, but it will amuse me and relieve my mind.’ His journey, meant to start at 10 a.m., left at 1 p.m. Other passengers told him ‘that they very rarely got away by steamer except in that erratic sort of manner’. 1


Dunedin–Ōamaru coastal run

From the late 1850s a ferry service ran between Ōamaru and Dunedin. From subsidised beginnings, it grew to a two-ship service by the mid-1870s, berthing at Ōamaru‘s new Macandrew Wharf. In 1876 Ōamaru merchants and the Union Steam Ship Company built a ship especially for the run. The 412-ton Waitaki had a ‘noble’ saloon and separate cabins for the ladies.

The Waitaki had two good years before the new South Island main trunk line took the cream of the trade. She was withdrawn in 1879 and the service was taken over by an older, smaller ship, finally ending in 1891.

North Island services

Outside the Cook Strait area, the major routes were between Auckland and the minor ports of Northland and the Coromandel, and between Napier and nearby small ports and landing places. These routes were dominated by the Northern Steam Ship Company and by Richardson & Company respectively.

West Coast services

For many years modest passenger–cargo steamers connected the West Coast bar harbours to the main centres. In 1898, however, the Union Steam Ship Company built two new 1,200-ton sister ships, the Rotoiti for the Onehunga–New Plymouth run, and the Mapourika to serve Wellington, Nelson, Westport and Greymouth.

In 1905 the company built the 1,600-ton Arahura for the West Coast run. Premier Seddon, who held the West Coast seat of Kumara, and whom the company liked to keep happy, suggested the names of both the Mapourika and the Arahura.

Their design – narrow and shallow-draft – made them ‘lively’ ships in heavy seas. Improved land transport links saw both ships withdrawn from the West Coast run in the 1920s.

Auckland–Lyttelton ferry

In 1883 the Union Company started an express passenger and mail service between Onehunga and Lyttelton, making calls at New Plymouth and Wellington en route. To complete a voyage in 36 hours, the 930-ton Takapuna steamed at 14 knots. It carried 150 passengers in 35 cabins. Later Lyttelton was dropped from the schedule and the Takapuna ran to Wellington. The service ended in 1909, after the opening of the North Island main trunk line reduced passenger numbers.

  1. Quoted in Gavin McLean, Kiwitown’s port: the story of Oamaru’s harbour. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2008, p. 41. Back

Cook and Foveaux strait ferries

Nelson ferries

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.

Wellington–Picton ferries

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.

Turbulent strait

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.

    • Quoted in Gavin McLean, The southern octopus: the rise of a shipping empire. Wellington: New Zealand Ship & Marine Society and the Wellington Harbour Board Maritime Museum, 1990, p. 144. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Gavin McLean, 'Ferries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Gavin McLean, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010