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Lyttelton-Wellington ferries

Page 6 – Just like clockwork

People who lived at Oriental Bay or around the heights of Brooklyn or Kelburn, could set their clocks by these ships.

A.A. Kirk

‘Slow ahead!' ‘Steer for the Dixon Street Flats!' It's 50 years ago, and the Hinemoa is about to berth in the rusty old inter-island terminal. Out in the port bridge wing, Captain David McLeish is in charge, carefully judging the effect of wind and tide as he prepares to manoeuvre the vessel for its stern-first berthing, keeping well clear of a big ship berthed at the Queens Wharf outer tee. Another voyage is over and several hundred passengers are about to stream off the ship for a full day's business in the capital or to head for the railway station to travel further north.

Usually, it was as regular as clockwork and more reliable than a suburban tram or bus. Every night, weather and sea conditions permitting, two ships crossed at about 1.25 a.m. off the Kaikoura coast as perhaps 1500 New Zealanders quite literally passed like ships in the night.

At Wellington and Lyttelton the night before they had hurried aboard the big red-funnelled ferries, while baggage carts were unloaded and the last of the mail taken aboard. The Wellington ship raised the gangway at 8 p.m. sharp. The Lyttelton ship usually aimed for an 8.20 p.m. departure, but the Union Steam Ship Company's agreement with New Zealand Railways meant that it would wait for the main trunk express, which had been collecting passengers all the way from Invercargill that day.

While passengers settled into their cabins (which they often shared with strangers) or sat down in the dining saloons, the ships' engines worked up to service speed, usually around 17 knots (although they were good for 20–22 knots if time had to be made up).

Long before dawn, stewards began knocking on cabin doors, offering bleary-eyed passengers stewed tea and biscuits. As passengers struggled into their clothes, the ferries passed Godley Head (southbound) at 6.15 a.m. and Pencarrow (northbound) at 6.10. Each berthed, stern-first, at 7.00 a.m. sharp.

A former assistant purser recalled the scramble as the ship docked. He would stand aft on the promenade deck ready to hurl the bundle of check sheets, waybills and manifest to the tally clerk ‘to give him those vital few minutes before the mob began to pour ashore to sort out what had to be done. How much cargo, how many cars, horses and so on.'

Then in the evening, after the crew enjoyed a run ashore (if they were lucky), it started all over again: tallying the outward checked luggage when it arrived by truck from the railway station, checking passengers' cars and even driving them onto the loading tray. Sometimes there was trouble starting cars – ‘complete bewilderment with a 1939 Buick until accidentally pressing the accelerator to the floor – and Bingo! Or the rare experience of driving a Rolls Royce, even if only for a few yards – the Governor-General, Lord Newall's.'

Over the busy summer season, extra daylight voyages were run. The ships carried no cargo and steamed at full speed. For crew and shore staff the two-hour turnaround made for frantic work. Wellington shore staff boarded the ferry and filled large bags with linen, which were driven in trucks to the Union Steam Ship Company's Greta Point laundry, where workers laboured clad only in shorts, shoes and sweatbands.

How to cite this page

Just like clockwork, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated