Lyttelton-Wellington ferries

Page 7 – Officers and gentlemen?

It was essential for political and business reasons, that a strict and reliable timetable was observed, and though masters were forbidden to take risks, they had to do so in fog and thick weather, or would soon find themselves back in the West Coast colliers.

J.D.G. Jensen

Some of the ferry masters – each known as ‘the Old Man' to the crew – were almost as well known as the ships themselves. In fact, two early masters, Captains A.M. Edwin and Basil Irwin, were almost as famous as the VIPs they sometimes carried.

Third Officer J.D.G. Jensen recalled Irwin bringing the Rangatira into port in thick fog one day. He was moving slowly and sounding the siren to use the echo from Pencarrow Head to judge how far off they were. Jensen, standing in the port bridge wing, looked down and saw Steeple Rock beacon just 2 metres away. Irwin walked across from the starboard cab and said casually, ‘Oh, well, we know where we are now, don't we Mr Jensen. Ring half-ahead!'

Perhaps he'd had a busy night. Jensen recalled that ‘once clear of port, he [Irwin] used to mingle with the passengers, select some lady who took his fancy, and invite her to his cabin for supper. If she bored him he would lead her up on to the bridge and hand her over to me to get rid of, while he went down to try his luck again.'

If a master wished to impress VIPs or others, he had the best accommodation in the ship. On the ill-fated second Wahine, Captain Gordon Robertson's quarters, which consisted of a sleeping cabin, bathroom and a spacious day cabin that featured a large curved desk and a suite of yellow lounge chairs, were located immediately below the bridge.

The masters were not the only ones who took the phrase ‘romance of the sea' literally. A former assistant purser recalled officers standing by the gangways keeping ‘a lecherous eye roving for "talent" – a nudge in the ribs from Cliff and a whispered "Now there's a likely ‘un". A careful mental note [was made] of cabin number for later possible advances – "Are you quite comfortable, Madam?" etc. Marvellous what a little bit of gold braid and brass buttons will do!'

Later, while patrolling the decks, an officer might ‘discover a couple doing things they shouldn't be so duck along to the officers' bathroom and grab a glass of water. Sneaking back and carefully tipping said glass of water on the bare posterior. Shouts of anger and dismay with hasty replacement of clothing. Give them a minute or two and shine the torch asking if anything amiss and reminding them that all passengers should be below!'

Some crew members profited in other ways. Stewards collected tips and others also creamed off a few pounds. If the ship wasn't full, regulars who had left it too late to book might slip a fiver into an officer's hands to secure a berth.

‘Soogee Dan' ... had a habit of boarding the ferries as soon as they were alongside in order to raid the passenger cabins for any uneaten biscuits which had been served with the early morning cups of tea.

John Melhuish

For crews, the ships were usually ‘good feeders'. Officers dined at tables covered by pristine white linen cloths. The food was on a seven-day rotation, so you knew what day of the week it was by what appeared on your plate.

The ferries employed a small army of shore staff. There was a ticket office on the wharf. Wellington wharfies worked a strict 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, so a gang of casuals took over for the ferries' evening sailing. John Melhuish was a member of this ‘ferry gang'; he worked in the Orient Line's passenger office by day, and by night he joined other shipping company office workers, tug and oil barge crews, wharf gear store workers, and a mixture of fire, ambulance and hotel workers. In the 1960s ‘Captain Moonlight', head cargo foreman Bob Fraser, organised this mixed gang.

The gang drove passengers' cars aboard, loaded checked baggage, mail (supervised by a Post Office employee), horses and everything else, including full coffins. Next morning the operation was repeated in reverse.

By the roll-on roll-off era, the National Airways Corporation had an agreement to have the ship delayed if its last Wellington–Christchurch flight was late. It wasn't unknown for the uniformed air crews to be booed and jeered by other passengers annoyed at the delay to the ship.

How to cite this page

'Officers and gentlemen?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012