Wednesday, March 18, 2009


While out on the water the other day I couldn’t resist the temptation to paddle over to the flat bottomed schooner ‘VESPER’ that caught my eye on my first trip of any length in my kayak.

I’ve determined enough to categorically state that she is not the scow that I first suspected. On my last visit to her mooring I took photos but made no attempt to gauge her dimensions. On this latest trip I manoeuvred my Dart carefully in the strong outgoing tidal current and judged her to be only 2.5 Darts long and not quite a Dart wide. In more conventional units, that’s a waterline length of around 35 feet and a beam of around 12 feet. This is roughly half the recorded size of the scow ‘VESPER’, and even allowing for the somewhat rudimentary means of measurement, I don’t think I could get it that wrong.

I’ve learnt a little of the maritime history of the region over the last few months though, mostly by the power of the internet. The story begins back in the 1860s when the first scows appeared around the Auckland coast. These were flat bottomed boats with square ends and lee-boards fitted to allow them to be driven by a fore and aft topsail gaff schooner rig. Typical dimensions of the early boats were 60 feet in length with a beam of 20 feet. The design and construction is thought to be directly from scows of the USA and Canada, there use being initiated by immigrants from those countries.

The need for heavy cargo boats of shoal draft comes from Auckland’s location. Situated on an isthmus the city is squeezed between the Manukau Harbour to the south, which opens into the Tasman Sea on the West coast, and the Waitemata Harbour to the north, which opens into the Hauraki Gulf to the East. As the population of the region grew and more of the land was settled, so resources such as timber for building and livestock to feed the city folk needed to be sourced in larger quantities and from further afield. Scows weren’t used exclusively in the Auckland region by any means, but for a while, they were the lifeline for this burgeoning community.

Soon the trading scows were refined to include a pointed bow and a centre board or boards instead of the lee-boards. This improved the sea worthiness and speed of the vessels, as well as making it easier to load cargo. Typically the vessels were sailed into a harbour and almost beached at low tide to be loaded with all manner of livestock before floating of on the incoming tide. Pens on the decks held the beasts, and sand was spread to help them keep their feet during a rough passage. For the timber carrying vessels, huge kauri and totara logs would be rolled onto the deck and lashed to either side of the masts.

Whether it was racing that led to the refinements in hull form, or that because of the refinements racing seemed like a good idea has probably been lost in the mists of time, but race they did. The serious racing sailor’s of the day poured scourn on the idea that these barges should be given their own race on the programme for the Auckland Anniversary Regatta, but by 1884 the class was well established and in that year was won by ‘VIXEN’, a 69’3” long, 18’8” wide scow built by Charles Bailey Snr. of Auckland for Captain Biddick as a cattle scow in 1883.

The sailing scow 'VESPER', taken around the turn of the 19th to 20th Century

Captain Biddick commissioned another vessel of similar design, this time 76’8” by 21’8” and built by Bailey and Lowe in 1902. She was called ‘VESPER’. The picture from Anthony Flude’s site on Auckland history show a far more refined shape than the smaller ‘TED ASHBY’, a reproduction of an earlier design with the more modest dimensions of 57’ by 18’. It was the refined lines in this picture that gave me hope that the ‘VESPER’ I had seen was the same boat, but the dimensions rule that out. Incidentally, the scow VESPER’ was last recorded as being used as a mussel barge in the Marlborough Sounds in 1992 according to Mike Subritzky’s book ‘Subritzky Shipping’.

The 'TED ASHBY' at the National Maritime Museum, Auckland

So I still don’t know the origins of the flat bottomed, gaff rigged schooner ‘VESPER’ that is moored in the Upper Waitemata Harbour. I’ll send my photos off to the National Maritime Museum and see if model maker and scow enthusiast I was talking to has any clues...

Papers Past - The Auckland Star, 29th January 1884
The Days of the Sailing Scows by Anthony G. Flude
NZ Scows from Mike Subritzky's 'Subritzky Shipping' compiled by Koeke Junction

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lots of projects, but still got time for a paddle

I've so many little projects on at the moment, and none of them complete.

I'm doing a little landscaping along the back fence, but that's bogged down with digging up a stump that's in the way.  I've been playing around with a few proa models, trying to figure out a way of making a replica of the 'WHITE HERON' using no more than 3 sheets of 6mm exterior ply, some softwood and a poly tarp.  While I was studying my photos of the original at the National Maritime Museum, I noticed that the length given on the information plaque of 24'4" seemed way to long.  I paced it at around 14', and 8 foot overall beam, which is as the plaque stated.  I e-mailed the museum, and sure enough, it was a typographical error, the real length is 14'4".  Anyway, the model is coming along but I think I may need to change a couple of features.  I've also been reading up about scows to determine the origin of a vessel I saw moored up in the harbour while I was out or a paddle.

The Mark IV trolley was never tested.  One project I did complete was adding a wider axle and rubber tyred wheels, while reducing the overall height in a quest for stability.  I'm pleased to report that the trip to and from the ramp with the Mark V trolley was event free, everything working as it should.  I went for a 6.5km paddle, nosing around the various boats and ships moored between Island Bay and the entrance to Hellyers Creek.  The water was flat and win d was negligible, so it was nice to paddle in relatively straight lines, although a very strong outgoing tidal flow gave m some challenges.

From this last trip out, I think I'll make a rudder the very lowest priority of things to fix.  The two main things I want to fix is the paddle (its too short and the blades a little too flexible) and the making of a spray skirt.  The first attempt at the latter failed due to my hopeless skills with a sewing machine, so I have a new plan that will be less stitch and more glue.