European shipbuilding in New Zealand predates colonisation. In 1792–93 some sealers started building a small schooner at Luncheon Cove in Dusky Sound. They had to leave her unfinished – fortunately for a group of seafarers marooned there in 1795. The castaways completed the schooner, naming her the Providence, and sailed to Norfolk Island.
The forests that so impressed Captain James Cook and the scientist Joseph Banks also attracted shipbuilders. After the Ngāpuhi chief Patuone visited Sydney in 1826 to promote the Hokianga as a trading base, entrepreneurs opened a mill and shipyard there. They completed the schooner Enterprise in 1827 and the brig New Zealander in 1828. In 1830 they launched the 394-ton barque Sir George Murray, a large craft for the time.
Early colonial shipbuilding
Ships were built throughout colonial New Zealand. In early days, for example, Banks Peninsula shipwrights built small craft for local trading. But thanks to the fine timber stands around Auckland and Northland, these places dominated shipbuilding. There were some famous names: William Brown and T. M. Lane at Whangaroa, James Barbour at Kaipara and the Darrochs at Auckland and Mahurangi. In the second half of the 19th century northern yards built hundreds of cutters, ketches, schooners, scows and small wooden steamers.
Like George Darroch, Henry Niccol set up a family tradition. He began building sailing vessels in 1842, initially on Waiheke Island, but for most of the time at Mechanics Bay near Auckland. The shipyard later moved to Devonport before finishing at Freemans Bay, where a son, George, built many ships, scows, harbour ferries, and freighters such as the Northern Steam Ship Company’s Hauiti (1911). After the First World War he specialised in shallow-draft ships like the Canterbury Steam Shipping Company’s Foxton (1929), until the depression of the 1930s forced the closure of the yard.
From steam to sail
New Zealand’s first locally built steamer, the Governor Wynyard, owed her launch at Freemans Bay (Auckland) in 1851 to a visiting American, who showed the builders how to construct a boiler. The ship made a few harbour trips and served as a refreshments stand at the 1852 Anniversary Day Regatta. But like most early steamers, she was inefficient and uneconomic. A few months later her owners removed her funnel and paddle boxes, rigged her as a schooner and sent her to Melbourne for sale.
Scows – a New Zealand icon
In the 1870s New Zealand shipbuilders adapted a North American flat-bottomed sailing craft for the northern timber trade, which needed something that could handle bulky kauri logs and sit on the bottom at low tide. In 1873 George Spencer, a former American mariner, ordered one from Omaha shipbuilder Septimus Meiklejohn. The 18-metre ‘monster punt’, the Lake Erie, was little more than a wide, shallow box. The cargo sat on the deck, not in the hull.
Scows were ugly, cheap, tough and practical, but would they stay upright when it really blew? At first mariners had their doubts. But scow builders compensated for the lack of a conventional keel by fitting a big, moveable centre-board to provide stability. Even so, scows tended to drift when sailing against the wind, and they creaked and groaned fearfully.
For decades scows crowded the Waitematā Harbour. About 130 were built, mostly deck scows, though there were also a few hold scows. Few survive, but the New Zealand National Maritime Museum built a small traditional scow, the Ted Ashby, to carry museum patrons on Auckland Harbour.