Every kid loves a shipwreck to explore – I know, because I was a kid once. One of my favourite childhood memories is of letting my imagination run wild aboard a twisted old hulk in Pelorus Sound. I knew nothing of her history – to me she was a Cape Horn windjammer, a buccaneer flagship or even a wrecked treasure ship, depending on which book I had been reading at the time.
It has only been recently, sailing into St Omer Bay from foreign waters aboard our own piratical black gaff ketch, that my wife Barbara and I have taken the time to delve into her history, whilst using the grand old hulk as the backdrop for a contemporary book to stir the imagination of a current generation of kids.
It didn’t take much digging before some unexpected facts turned up. Such as the fact that on these very deck planks supported Barbara’s great-uncle Albert, (A.W Westrupp), when at the tender age of 13 years, he sailed to New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands in 1912. Or the fact that one of my greatest sailing heroes, Frank Worsley of the ill-fated Shackleton voyage, sailed her from Sydney to Wellington as First Mate, and spent 1905 (during her re-commissioning) as her commander, despite only holding the rank of sublieutenant in the Royal Naval reserve.
Great-uncle Albert Westrupp
With her mid-section missing, her steel ribs rusting away and her hardwood planking stripped away in large chainsawn rectangles, there is little now to show that she began her life proudly as HMS Sparrow, a 165 foot steam-powered barquentine-rigged Redbreast class gunship in an 1889 British naval dockyard. The last of the nine built (all in the same year), she was doomed to rapidly become a victim of technological redundancy and the ravages of tropical waters. Most of her sisters were condemned within two decades, by which time the Royal Navy was pouring its money into gigantic Dreadnought class steel turbine-driven monsters.
The tropical waters in which she very quickly found herself sailing were off the African coast, where she was deployed to stem the final vestiges of the Congo slave trade. She saw action while stationed in the Gambia River, dealing to a rebel tribe which was resisting the instigation of a ‘chieftaincy system’ of indirect rule in the Gambia protectorate. Despite having six 4 inch 25 pound quick-firing guns, two 3 pounders and two machine guns mounted above decks, it was her marines who were involved in the only significant military action of her naval career during a brief excursion ashore in 1892. (Her other claim to fame was in 1896, when her crew played the first cricket match ever to be played in Kenya.)
By 1905 she was sixteen years old and already deteriorating rapidly – clearly redundant as far as the Royal Navy was concerned. Meanwhile the NZ government was casting around for an affordable vessel to train up a backlog of young hopefuls yearning for a life at sea. At a mere £820, HMS Sparrow fitted the bill, with sufficient below-decks volume to cram large numbers of youngsters aboard (we are talking sixty 12-14 year olds!). With her coal-fired triple-expansion 1200 HP steam engine (single screw of course), as well as a manageable three masted barquentine rig, she was ideal to train these boys in both steam and sail. The yet-to-be-famous Frank Worsley had already been commanding an island trading brigantine, and this brief command was to be another step in his meteoric rise.
The Royal Navy was sure to have been relieved to have had such a white elephant off its books, but the NZ government had quite a different role in mind for the old girl. First up of course would be a name change, and despite a proposal to rename her after the recently retired PM (Seddon), the name chosen was much more apt – ‘te amokura’ is a red-tailed globe-trotting tropical frigatebird with a tail of red streamers – perfect for a Red-breast class ship with a bevy of bird-named sisters.
Amokura was no longer to be a navy vessel, despite her role as a training ship for both merchant navy and Royal Navy cadets. During her re-commissioning by the NZ Marine Department in Wellington during 1906, she was stripped of her guns and fitted out with accommodations below decks for her future complement of sixty boys and her dozen adult officers, engineers and instructors. Almost all of the 527 cadets who completed their eighteen month cadetship aboard her over the next fourteen years were destined to become sailors aboard merchant vessels (only 25 were to join the navy). And a thorough grounding it was to be, too. The discipline was man-o-war style, training these youngsters in sail-handling, all-round seamanship, engine-room skills, signalling, gunnery and small-boat sailing. Every year during early summer Amokura would do the rounds of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands, servicing the cast-away depots and remote light-houses largely undersail. It must have been a tough exercise in toughening-up for these boys who nowadays would be barely out of primary school. Those who sailed the voyage north to Fiji one year must have considered themselves the lucky ones.
Captain Hooper has been lauded as a “liberal master, showing tactfulness and understanding in dealing with the youths under his control.” However, reading the accounts of lads like Barbara’s great-uncle Albert, the ship’s discipline would these days be considered pretty tough:
“The instructors all carried switches or wands with them. You stepped out of line in any way at all, cheeky or 13 year old Robert Hayward swearing, and you got it across the backside before you knew where you were. For worse misbehaviour it was six of the best while lying face down on your hammock bed on the quarterdeck, and by golly that hurt. But the worst punishment was for being caught smoking in the spud locker – being sent aloft to stand on the truck of the mainmast for half an hour in only a flannel shirt, regardless of the weather!” [From Lincoln Martinson’s oral history].
The training paid off though, and most cadets accepted the discipline as a part of being straightened out for adulthood. In the subsequent decades, most of New Zealand’s merchant ships were commanded by former Amokura cadets, and it became a mark of distinction to be a member of the Amokura Old Boys Association.
The dozen years between 1907 and 1919 were without doubt this vessel’s golden years, fulfilling a considerably more purposeful existence than during her first decade largely on stand-by off the African coast. But in 1919 her survey showed rapid hull deterioration, and her last intake of cadets was to be trained aboard largely within Wellington harbour. Like all her sisterships, it appears that the composite form of construction was not a recipe for longevity.
The ‘carbon iron’ frames were most likely reacting to the tannic acid of the oak planking (teak being too expensive in this later era of wooden shipbuilding). The copper sheathing may well have created an electrolytic reaction as well. In post-war New Zealand the government had nowhere near the necessary funding for major repairs. Sadly, in 1922 she was decommissioned to be laid up in Wellington harbour as a floating coal hulk for three decades.
Curiously it was during this phase of her life that the old ship became a floating home for Captain Martin with his wife and three redhaired daughters. The girls all had vivid memories of how hard it was to keep their white petticoats free of coal dust while climbing down onto the launch which took them to school.
Motueka’s former harbour-master Rob Williams was a Wellington youngster with a lust for the sea during the 1940s. He would wander Wellington’s Queen’s wharf, eying up the scows which were later to become his livelihood. His memories of this once proud ship were of a weed-streamered rust pocked wooden hulk, her cut-down masts surviving as mere derrick supports. The ultimate insult to her dignity must have been the idiosyncratic large shed which had been planted crudely on her foredeck. Rob’s strongest memory is of watching her being hauled out at the Evans Bay patent slip, and gagging at the smell of its metre-long fleece of marine growth as it was peeled away by slip-workers. “In those days the slipway location wasn’t called Greta Point,” he comments. “That came later when the new publican named the hotel after his wife, Greta. The name seems to have stuck!”
Rob’s father was a seaman before him, and his precious photo album has survived, with its treasured collection of tiny black and white snapshots. Among them is a snap of Amokura’s final bid for freedom, taken from the deck of the scow Echo, when the gallant old hulk parted her tow-cable in mid Cook Strait. This photo is probably the sole remaining record of her final voyage, neatly captioned with the date – 11/3/53. She had been sold for scrap and was under tow to her final resting place in Kenepuru Sound. Rob suggests that the tug fussing nearby in the lower photo is probably the Peranos’ Tuatea. Clearly the tow was resumed in due course, as by the time of my first childhood visit a decade later, she was a permanent fixture in St Omer Bay.
Like a stranded whale, she lies at the mid-tide zone at the south end of the silt-sand beach, her entire mid-section stripped away to leave her aft section listing drunkenly to port. For’ard is still every kid’s dream – a foredeck surviving in its entirety, nosed into the trees which droop over the steeply rising hillside. She has become part of the local ecosystem now, as many generations of mussels and crabs will testify. But to countless kids (young and old) she still surely rides the Southern Ocean rollers, her hold laden with treasure as the albatrosses soar overhead.