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Interisland Ferry Service Information

The Interisland Ferry is a "must do" if your travelling between the North and South Islands.

The sea journey between Wellington and Picton which operates all year round, takes just over three hours and is one of the most impressive, scenic ferry rides in the world.

Its an excellent alternative to flying and passengers can either walk on the vessel or drive a vehicle.

Bookings can be made on either of the following three interisland ferry vessels: The Arahura - a diesel-electric ship...the Kaitaki - the largest ferry in New Zealand waters...and the Aratere - also designed to provide travellers with a fast, comfortable and entertaining cruise across the picturesque Cook Strait

The Colourful History of the Interisland Ferry Service

Such ships as the Maori, the Wahine, the Rangatira and the Tamahine became part of a way of life for many thousands of New Zealanders. The story of the development of the interisland ferry service is best summed up by the word "service", for the qualities of the ships and the men who have been responsible over the years for the comfort and safety of many millions of passengers have not always been fully appreciated.

The story of the Interisland Ferry service, too, is closely tied to the development of the Union Steam Ship Company.

This company was established in Dunedin in 1875 by an energetic young man named James Mills (1847¬1936) who was knighted in 1907 for his services to shipping.

He had an extraordinary business acumen and at the age of 21 was manager of the Harbour Steam Company of Dunedin.

The Union Steam Ship Company, which consolidated a number of his interests, was incorporated on July 12 1875 with a nominal capital of £250,000 and Mills as managing director.

The company, which at its inception owned five small steamers, immediately set out to expand by buying ships, absorbing competitors, and ever increasing its shipping routes.

By 1879 the company's nominal capital was raised to £500,000.

The Union Line quickly outgrew the New Zealand coastal trade and before the 1890s was a major competitor in the Pacific with ships servicing the Islands and Australia, and reaching as far as San Francisco and Calcutta.

Before the inauguration of the regular interisland ferry service between Wellington and Lyttelton, passengers were reasonably well catered for by steamers making through passages between other New Zealand ports and between New Zealand and Australia.


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Until 1885 there were no exclusively cargo vessels in the Union fleet; all ships offered passenger accommodation-there was a great demand for it as sea travel between most of New Zealand's main centres was still generally faster and more comfortable than travel overland.

Increasing passenger traffic meant that ships more specifically catering for passengers were brought on to the New Zealand run.

On October 12 1883 the 930-ton steamer Takapuna built at Barrow-in-Furness for the Union Line, arrived in New Zealand.

She was "specially built to run an express service on the coast to enable business people to move backwards and forwards more freely, and without the detentions that necessarily attended the movements of the regular steamers working large cargoes and carrying large numbers of passengers.

On November 19 1883 the vessel, Takapuna, began the first steamer express service in Australasia with a regular passenger and mail run between Lyttelton and Onehunga via Wellington and New Plymouth.

This ship in 1889 ran the first direct ferry service between Wellington and Lyttelton, but this was only temporary, to cope with the extra south¬bound traffic during the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition at Dunedin.

The ship usually said to be the first to provide a regular interisland ferry service between Wellington and Lyttelton is the Penguin, a 794-ton steamer captained by Walter Manning, who eventually became known as the father of the interisland ferry service.
Penguin began making weekly trips in April 1895.

As she did not leave Lyttelton for Wellington until after the arrival of the 9.15 p.m. train from Dunedin, the interisland ferry service was from its inception tied to the convenience of the southernmost centres as well.

Demand grew, and in November 1896 the interisland ferry service was expanded to three trips a week each way. In 1897 the Penguin was replaced successively by the bigger ships Te Anau (1,652 tons), Rotorua (931 tons), and Rotomahana (1,727 tons).

Greyhound of the Pacific:

Rotomahana, when she entered the interisland ferry - Wellington-Lyttelton run in October 1897 was one of the best-known ships in Australasia.

Popularly and uncharitably known by the rhyming nickname "Rotten Banana", her far more well deserved title was "the greyhound of the Pacific".

On her maiden voyage to New Zealand under the command of Captain T. Underwood she established a record, and later set speed records on the trans-Tasman and interisland ferry runs.

The maritime historian Sydney D. Waters in his history of the Union Line said: "Her well¬raked funnel and masts and shapely clipper-ship bow with its handsome figurehead and decorative scrollwork and a jib beam gave her the appearance of a graceful steam yacht.

Built specially for the Union Company in 1879, she was described by Glasgow newspapers as "the finest specimen of the shipbuilder's and engineer's skill ever turned out by W. Denny and Brothers at Dumbartan".

She was the first steamer in the world to be built of mild steel and the first to be fitted with bilge keels.

Her compound engines were capable of generating speeds of up to 17 knots (the Penguin, by contrast, reached only 12 knots) and in 1901, after four bailers were replaced, she made a particularly fast crossing when, in the words of the Lyttelton Times, "Leaving Lytteltan at 10.12 last night, she landed her passengers [at Wellington] at a quarter to ten this morning.

Although nearly a quarter of an hour was lost in berthing her, the interisland ferry trip from wharf to wharf occupied eleven and a half hours.


Her run from lighthouse to lighthouse across Cook Strait, a distance of 33 miles, was exactly two hours."

This was a foretaste of the fast and efficient interisland ferry runs that were to come.

The Rotomahana was soon joined by a second steamer during the busy summer and Easter periods.
The first of these was the 1,203-ton Mapourika in 1899, and a year later the Tarawera (2,003 tans).

Facilities were further improved in 1902 when the Railways Department arranged to run the connecting train on to the Lyttelton No. 2 jetty, removing the inconvenience of the long walk from the Lyttelton railway station.

In the summer af 1903, the Mararoa (2,598 tons, and again built by Dennys of Dumbartan in 1885) became the Rotomahana's chief assistant in the summer months, with the 1,212 ton Pateena in reserve.

The Mararoa was the first triple expansion steamer to cross the Pacific and in her day was regarded as the last word in floating luxury.

She was the equal of the Rotomahana in speed, even though in 1927 she earned the dubious distinction of making the longest interisland ferry trip for regular passengers when, sailing from Wellington in the face of a southerly, she took 38 hours.

The Mararoa was built specifically for the trans-tasman service but was destined to give nearly 20 years to the interisland ferry run.

In October 1905 the daily Wellington-Lyttelton service began.

The Union Company needed a larger fast steamer to cater for the growing traffic on the interisland ferry run, and an order was placed with Dennys of Dumbarton for a triple-screw turbine steamer of 3,399 tons, capable of 19 knots, and with accommodation for 600 passengers.

This ship, which entered the service in November 1907, was named the Maori. The first vessel specially built for the interisland ferry run, she was fitted with an innovation which was to become a standard feature of all her successors: the bow rudder.

With this it was possible to berth stem first much more rapidly and conveniently, although Captain Manning, who took over command of the Maori, did not feel particularly comfortable with the manoeuvre.

The Maori shared the service with the Rotomahana at first, then from May 1908 with the Mararoa.

Such an arrangement was a little lopsided as the Maori was so much more comfortable and swift than either of the other two (on her first official trip to Wellington she covered the distance in only 10 hours 3 minutes) and it was not long before a more appropriate partner was sought for her.

The Maori had reserves of speed enabling her to make up easily for any lost time, but the Mararoa was at least three hours slower which meant that southbound travellers were invariably too late to make the Invercargill train connection.

War Service:

In July 1913 a new ship replaced the Mararoa, the 4,436-ton Wahine, one of the finest ships of her day and perhaps the best loved interisland ferry.

There was no worry about missing the train to Invercargill because of the Wahine: she was a triple-screw turbine steamer credited with a speed of 23 knots (although she reached only 21 knots on her trials).

When she arrived in New Zealand she was one of the fastest steamers in the world.

With the Maori and the Wahine sharing the service, and the Mararoa in reserve, travellers could be assured of a fast, comfortable, and efficient interisland ferry crossing.

As things turned out the Wahine remained in New Zealand waters for just two years.

In July 1915 she was commissioned by the Royal Navy, quickly refitted, put into a grey uniform, and, like so many other young New Zealanders, sailed overseas to play her part in World War I.

As H.M.S. Wahine she served first in the Mediterranean where she assisted at Gallipoli and as a dispatch vessel and "gained an almost legendary reputation in respect of her high speed and her habit of manoeuvring at full speed astern and using her bow rudder when berthing in the Grand Harbour at Malta and the crowded anchorage at Mudros.

She then spent over two years as a minelayer in the North Sea and earned fame as having had more torpedoes fired at her than any other ship afloat.

The Wahine survived unscathed and after being re-fitted returned to New Zealand in February 1920.

Meanwhile the Interisland ferry service had been continued by the Maori and the Mararoa with other vessels filling in when necessary.

When the Wahine returned, the Mararoa returned to her old job of relief ship until l927 when, troubled by mechanical difficulties, she was retired; four years later she was scuttled in Cook Strait.

Before this all three ships had been converted from coal to oil burning; this cut labour and enhanced performance.

By the end of the 1920s passenger demand again made a larger ship necessary and the Union Company had to consider replacing the Maori even though she was still quite sound.

The order for a new ship was placed not with Dennys of Dumbarton who had built both the Wahine and the Maori but with Vickers, Armstrong Ltd. at Barrow-in-Furness on the Clyde.

Named the Rangatira, the new ship was launched on April 16 1931 by Lady Wilford, wife, of the High Commissioner in London, Sir Thomas Wilford.

Because of the depression in the ship-building industry, little fuss was made over the ceremony, and the hope was expressed that she would not last as long as the Takapuna (the previous ship built at Barrow for the Union Line and in its fleet for over 40 years) because of the need for more orders.

The Rangatira was a far larger ship than any of her predecessors: 6,152 tons gross, with accommodation for over 950 passengers, and the first steamer in Australasia propelled by the turbo-electric system.

On November 5 1931 the new steamer berthed to the minute after her first trip.

As the Maori steamed out on her last regular interisland ferry run Captain Irwin transmitted by radio a message in Maori to the Rangatira.

In translation it read: "We1come, 0 Son, the aged must give place to the young. Quit you like a man! Be strong! Be brave!"

Captain Cameron on the Rangatira replied: "Farewell, 0 mother of mine. Thy son will till the fields you have prepared." From the Wahine to the Rangatira came the greeting: "Greetings from your brother. We join in service for our people. Love."

With the Wahine and the Rangatira on the regular interisland ferry service and the Maori as relief ship, passengers were well catered for during the 1930s.

But the period was not entirely free from incident.

In 1933 the Rangatira gashed several plates in a collision with the floating crane Rapaki at Lyttelton.

Three years later the Wahine suffered considerable damage when she crashed into Pipitea Wharf at Wellington.

By far the most serious accident occurred in February 1936 when the Rangatira all but anticipated the tragedy of the second Wahine 30 years later.

Sailing south she ran into heavy southerly weather at 3 a.m. In heavy misty rain and with visibility nil, she ran on to rocks off Sinclair Head, holing herself badly in the bow.

Captain Cameron sent out an SOS and the 800 passengers donned life jackets.

In a 60-m.p.h. gale she limped back to port stern first with 30 feet of water in her forward hold.

When she berthed and the gangway was made ready the passengers, realising that they owed their lives to the fine seamanship of the captain and his crew, gave three cheers.

Twice more the Rangatira found herself in trouble. In April 1938, in a storm at Wellington Harbour, she collided with the naval cruiser Achilles, and three years later she rode on to a reef off Pigeon Bay, 20 miles from Lyttelton.

Despite these misfortunes the service generally ran smoothly and peacefully, and no lives were lost (or were to be lost until the second Wahine) on the regular interisland ferry run of the Wellington-Lyttelton steamer express.

The war years considerably disrupted the Interisland ferry service.

Both the Wahine and the Rangatira were requisitioned from time to time as troop carriers to the Pacific Islands and occasionally fear of mines or raiders meant that sailing was restricted to the daylight hours.

The war years considerably disrupted the ferry service.

Sometimes, too, the Tamahine was taken off the Picton run and used on the longer journey to Lyttelton.

In 1944 the Maori was laid up and two years later sold to a Shanghai shipping company. In 1951 she sank in Hong Kong harbour.

A sister ship for the Rangatira was ordered as early as 1939 but the war delayed her construction.

In 1946 Vickers, Armstrong Ltd. built the ship, named Hinemoa, for the Union Company.

Of the same general dimensions as the Rangatira but somewhat heavier at 6,911 tons, and with one funnel instead of two, the Hinemoa was the first large post-war passenger ship to come from British shipyards.

She remained in the service until the arrival of the new Wahine in 1967, when she was sold to the Hydro-Electric Commission of Australia and renamed George H. Evans.

The Wahine, that indefatigable warrior of two wars, was in 1951 called upon to take part in a third when the Government chartered her to carry reinforcements for the New Zealand force serving in Korea.

On her way to Manila on August 14 she ran on to a coral reef about 280 miles north of Darwin and, although the troops and ship's company were all rescued, the Wahine was abandoned.

The news saddened New Zealand for, like the interisland ferry, Maori before her, the Wahine had served faithfully and well for nearly 40 years.

In 1953 the second Wellington ¬ Lyttelton ferry to bear the name Maori and the third built by Vickers was launched at Newcastle by Princess Margaret.

The interisland ferry service proceeded smoothly with the Hinemoa and the new 7,740-ton Maori, with the Rangatira as relief.

The success of the roIl-on roll-off ferry Aramoana on the Picton run in 1962 confirmed the Union Company's idea that such a service should be inaugurated on the Wellington-Lyttelton run.

Plans and specifications were prepared for a turbo-electric vessel of 8,750 tons and with accommodation far 900.

She would have stabilisers, a bow rudder, and a stern door for vehicles. It was later announced that this new ship would be named Wahine.

Meanwhile plans were announced that the Maori would be converted into a roll-on roll-off vessel as well, and her conversion by the Taikaa Dockyard, Hong Kong, was campleted before the Wahine arrived in New Zealand.

The Fairfield Company af Glasgow which had con¬tracted to build the new ship ran into financial difficulties and delivery was delayed.

The Wahine II, described as "the largest vehicular ferry in the world", made her first trip to' Lyttelton on August 1 1966.

Over 920 passengers and over 200 cars were catered for (the converted Maori, by contrast, could hold only half this number of cars and had lost 160 passenger berths).

As the Rangatira had been laid up in 1965, and the Hinemoa taken off and soId with the arrival of the new Wahine, the interisland run now provided an all roll-on roll-off service.

This lasted only briefly. On April 10 1968 New Zealand was stunned to learn that the Wahine had foundered in Wellington Harbour after striking Barrett's Reef during a hurricane.

The ship was abandoned and 51 passengers lost their lives.

After this tragedy the Maori alone provided day and night sailings and at the time of her last run an March 26 1972 she had sailed aver a million miles and carried well over a million passengers on the interisland ferry service.

Travel in Comfort:

She was replaced by the new Rangatira, which at 9,387 tons is the largest ship to' enter the service. The Rangatira carries fewer passengers (768) than the Maori (786) but twice as many cars (200).

Her passengers are carried in more comfort than ever before: lounges are carpeted, there is an 80-seat cinema, a choice of bars, live entertainment is occasionally provided, and the traditional compulsary dawn tea service is a thing of the past-passengers should they desire them are offered “do not disturb" or "no' tea please" signs.

Despite such sophisticated service, the interisland ferry run lost ground; people seemed to' prefer air travel or the N.Z.R. Wellington-Picton service.

It was disclosed in 1972 that the Rangatira was losing money, but the Union Company pledged to continue the service for some years.

By contrast, the Railways link through Picton had been growing in popularity.

For many years, although decidedly a poor relation of the interisland ferry service, the ferry link with the north of the South Island was efficiently operated.

Ships of the Anchor Shipping Company ran a six-day service to' Nelson, and the Union Company provided a daily express service to' Picton.

The Nelson link which was becoming ever more uneconomic, ended when the Ngaio left Nelson on her final trip an April 17 1953.

The Union Company introduced the Tamahine (1,899 tons) in 1925.

She was built specially far the Picton run and remained in the service until the arrival of the Aramoana.

During her last years the Tamahine needed a Government subsidy.

In 1957 the Government set up the Cook Strait Transport Inquiry Committee to consider what should replace her.

It recommended that a roll-on roll-off service capable of carrying railway wagons, road vehicles and passengers be instituted.

Accepting these proposals, the Minister of Railways announced that the service would be operated by Railways.

But it was the Union Company which was to man and operate the Aramoana although she was owned by the Railways.

The 4,160-ton vessel was built by Dennys of Dumbartan and although her first official crossing was a chapter of accidents she had been remarkably successful.

Her increasing popularity soon made a second ship necessary and on June 8 1966 the Aranui entered the Wellington-Picton run.

Slightly bigger than the Aramoana at 4,542 tons, she was built by Vickers, Armstrong at Newcastle-on-Tyne.

A third ferry, the Arahanga ("bridge" in Maori), built in Glasgow, joined the service in December 1972; and a fourth ferry due in 1974 was ordered from the French shipyard of Dubigean¬ Narmandie.

This last, however, did not carry passengers, just rail and vehicular traffic.

Although some uneasiness has been expressed about the future of the Interisland ferry service in the early seventies, it along with the Picton - Wellington road and rail ferries, has gone from strength to strength.

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Brian B.Warren, Milford on Sea, Hants, UK.  Not rated yet
Referring to the Lyttleton - Wellington ferries, during the years of the 2nd world war my parents and I lived in ChCh. We often spent our holidays over ...




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