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by  Gavin McLean

New Zealand’s extensive coastline and dense forests proved a lucky combination for enterprising colonists. They set up shipyards around the country, turning out the handy wooden cutters, schooners and scows that served a busy coastal trade for decades. Ships and boats are still built locally, and Kiwi designers have produced a revolutionary jet boat and world-beating fibreglass yachts.

The wooden era

Pre-colonial shipbuilding

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.

The iron and steel era

Iron and steel steamers

As late as the 1920s shipyards were still launching commercial sailing vessels, but powered craft had been dominant for half a century. Shipbuilders in Dunedin, the 19th-century industrial and commercial heart of New Zealand, came into their own as builders of iron- and steel-hulled steamers. In 1873 Kincaid & McQueen built the steamer Fairy mostly from local materials.

During the 1870s Dunedin shipyards turned out ships such as the Jane Douglas, Iron Age, Kakanui, Reynolds and Vulcan. They also built boilers for factories, and for decades they produced large dredges for gold and tin mining in New Zealand and overseas.

From around 1905 most coastal trading ships were 500 tons or more – well beyond the capacity of local shipyards. These now specialised in harbour craft or built small ships for the shallow-draft trades such as wool and timber. The brief burst of shipbuilding activity just before the First World War left one enduring legacy, the 330-ton Lake Wakatipu steamer Earnslaw. It was designed by Dunedin naval architect Hugh McRae, built by John McGregor and Co. in Dunedin, and then dismantled and railed to Kingston on the lake shore. There it was reassembled and launched on 24 February 1912.

Shipbuilding remained a small industry. According to the 1911 census New Zealand’s 29 shipyards employed just 589 people. In 1910 they had launched 95 vessels weighing under 50 tons, five between 50 and 100 tons and just three over 100 tons.

Down and then out

In 1873 the New Zealand Submarine Gold Mining Co. ordered a small submarine, for mining gold underwater, from a Dunedin shipbuilder. It was over 10 metres long and built of iron plate. The Platypus was tested in Otago Harbour on 30 January 1874, when four company representatives and a reporter spent 45 minutes underwater. Unfortunately the next public test went wrong, trapping eight men underwater for four hours. Investors lost interest in the Platypus, which sat on the wharf for years before being cut up and carted away.

Victorian yachts

As the colony’s population grew, so did the demand for pleasure craft. From the late 1860s there was enough money around to enable some shipwrights to specialise in keeler yachts. Auckland, with its Anniversary Day Regatta and the Hauraki Gulf as a natural playground, dominated the design and construction of pleasure craft. The Bailey and Logan families established boatyards that became legendary. Building from half models rather than plans, and working in kauri, they and a few rivals turned out elegant keelers. The heyday of these big boats was at the turn of the 19th century when boats such as the Viking of 1893 and the Ariki of 1904 won races in New Zealand and Australia.

Ship repairing

Britain’s shipyards dominated world output, so New Zealand settled on repairing rather than building ocean-going vessels. In 1868 an Otago syndicate launched a wooden floating dock, and by the early 1900s Port Chalmers had become the centre of the New Zealand ship-repair industry.

Ports at Lyttelton, Auckland and Wellington also built docks, which symbolised local pride and gave work to shipwrights and foundries. Port Chalmers buried its docks in the 1970s when it developed its container terminal, but Auckland’s Calliope and the Lyttelton dock (now a registered historic place) still service ships. Whāngārei, Auckland, Nelson and Lyttelton are the main repair centres, but most ports maintain basic facilities.

Wartime shipbuilding

In the Second World War the government encouraged local industry to build warships for the New Zealand navy, and auxiliaries and small merchant vessels for allies. The design of the ‘Castle’ class minesweeping trawlers dated from the previous war. They displaced about 550 tons, carried a 12-pounder gun, machine guns and depth charges, and could make about 10 knots. The first four used reconditioned engines and were of wood and steel construction. The rest were steel-hulled. Most of the seven commissioned by the navy were built at Port Chalmers. Auckland shipbuilders turned out a dozen 34-metre ‘Fairmile’ anti-submarine launches.

New Zealand also built merchant ships for the Americans and others under the direction of Commissioner of Defence Construction James Fletcher. At St Marys Bay in Auckland a consortium built tugboats, powered lighters and small cargo vessels. At Mechanics Bay, Steel Ships built steel tugs. Port Chalmers also built powered lighters.

Modern shipbuilding

After the Second World War, local yards built small vessels, typically 12–15-metre wooden fishing boats and launch tugs. Then in 1961 Auckland’s Mason Brothers set a New Zealand record for size with the 627-ton Stewart Island ferry Wairua. Later that decade American money made Whāngārei Engineering and Construction (WECO) the country’s busiest shipyard. WECO built tugs for harbour boards, navy launches and a replica of Bligh’s Bounty for a film company. At Port Chalmers, Sims Engineering built tugs, too. In 1984 Sims launched the 1,056-ton dredge New Era, still the largest powered vessel built in New Zealand (the Sea-Tow 4, an unpowered barge built at Auckland in 1994, is 3,565 tons).

Boats and ships are still built locally. In the early 2000s the industry’s stronghold remained Whāngārei, where Ship Constructors Ltd built commercial vessels, and Tenix Shipbuilding New Zealand constructed modules for ANZAC frigates and patrol vessels for the navy’s Project Protector programme.


When a ship reaches the end of her 20–30-year life, she has to be disposed of. Big deep-sea trade ships have always been scrapped overseas. In colonial times, coasters were abandoned in quiet backwaters or burned. Iron and steel ships were either sold to overseas buyers or dismantled. Between the wars old ships were sunk alongside the breakwater in Otago Harbour, and recently some have been scuttled in recreational diving areas to form artificial reefs.


New Zealand’s successes in the America’s Cup, and local designers’ innovative use of fibreglass in their boats – the so-called ‘plastic fantastics’ – added fresh lustre to their reputation for excellence in small boat design, and put local yards on the map for luxury yacht building. In 1986 Sensation Yachts launched the 37-metre Aquel II, then the world’s largest single-masted yacht. By the late 1990s orders were coming in from wealthy overseas clients for superyachts, some bigger than the Hauraki Gulf ferries. In 2004 Alloy Yachts delivered the 54-metre sloop Tiara, claimed to be the word’s first privately owned sailing yacht with a helipad. That year another yard had an 85-metre yacht on order. Auckland has the lion’s share of this work, but large craft are also turned out at Whāngārei, New Plymouth and Wellington.

Jet boats

New Zealand has a long tradition of building smaller recreational craft for use on lakes and rivers. The world’s first commercially successful water jet was born in the upper stretches of the South Island rivers in the early 1950s, when inventor Bill Hamilton tinkered with an American hydrojet. His round centrifugal water pump drew in water and expelled it through a steerable nozzle, but it only really took off when he raised the nozzle above the waterline, increasing the speed and enabling the boat to zip across even the shallowest water. Hamilton’s company still builds jet boats and engines in Christchurch.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Gavin McLean, 'Shipbuilding', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Gavin McLean, i tāngia i te 12 Jun 2006, updated 20 Jul 2015