The heavy fuel consumption of the early steam engines kept them off the long- distance routes until the 1880s. Here sail held sway, helped by the adoption of a new, more direct route out from Europe. Great circle sailing, as it was called, began in the 1850s, taking ships further south, non-stop all the way, running through rough, cold seas where drifting pack ice added to the danger.
Speed counted. Shipping companies liked to call their ships a ‘fast packet’ or a ‘clipper’, even if they were not. The clippers of the 1870s were larger and better than the ships of the 1840s. Graceful, sharply raked bows and fine hull lines produced the clipper look, and iron hulls and iron stays gave more stability and speed. With speed came size, 800–1,300 tons compared to the 400–800 tons of the 1840s.
Several shipping lines now worked in the New Zealand trade permanently. Patrick Henderson and Company of Glasgow’s Albion Line won fame with its fast Aberdeen clipper Robert Henderson. In the late 1850s it was joined by Shaw Savill and Company. Gold seekers and troop movements swelled the traffic during the 1860s, encouraging both lines to build ships especially for New Zealand’s passenger trade.
In 1873 they were joined by a local line. The New Zealand Shipping Company was formed at Christchurch as the result of complaints about high freight rates. Banker J. L. Coster and merchant Charles Wesley Turner were behind it. Turner went to Britain and unexpectedly won the main government migrant contracts. Within a year the Shipping Company had sent out nearly 40 ships, bought four and ordered the first of a dozen new iron-hulled ships. The Rakaia, Waikato, Waitangi, Waimate and Otaki of 1873–75 each was between 1,053 and 1,161 tons. Shaw Savill’s Oamaru, Timaru and Peter Denny of 1874 were 1,364 tons. Typical iron clippers of their day, they sacrificed some speed for comfort. Even so, they averaged 95–100 days per voyage, faster by 20–30 days than the ships of the 1840s.