AorangiYou’re travelling in New Zealand while on holiday and you’ve stopped at a B&B for the night. A pub nearby is holding a quiz evening so you decide to go along and sample the local culture. Teams of friends and neighbours are competing for prizes in front of a big, boisterous crowd and soon the quiz questions, along with the libations, are flowing happily.

The questions seem straightforward enough: ‘What’s New Zealand’s highest mountain? Where is New Zealand’s largest lake? Who is New Zealand’s greatest mountaineer.....? greatest soldier....? greatest athlete....? What’s New Zealand’s biggest bridge?.... tallest building?’ The contestants shout their answers and the watching patrons at the bar urge them on. ‘What’s New Zealand’s largest-ever passenger liner?’


The largest-ever passenger liner to be registered in New Zealand was the Aorangi, built in 1924 for the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand. She was a pioneer, a revolutionary ship; at the time of her entry into service the Aorangi was the world’s largest and fastest merchant vessel powered by diesel engines. Quadruple screwed, she holds the distinction as history’s first big passenger motor liner. Today’s giant cruise ships with their marine diesel installations are all descendants of this vessel. Hers is an old Maori name for Mount Cook, at 3,754 metres or 12,316 feet the highest peak in New Zealand and first climbed to its summit on Christmas Day 1894. The word means ‘cloud piercer’ and had been given to an earlier passenger vessel, the three-masted, clipper-bowed 4,268 grt Aorangi of 1883. Built for the New Zealand Shipping Company, the Aorangi sailed the trans-Pacific ‘allred-route’ until sold in 1914 to the British Admiralty, who sank her the following year as a blockship in Holm Sound, Scapa Flow.

Official Number 148515, signal letters GDVB, the 17,491 grt Aorangi was launched into the River Clyde on Tuesday 17 June 1924 from the Govan yard of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd, where she had been Hull Number 603. Her sponsor was the wife of Mr (later Sir) Charles Holdsworth, the Union Steam Ship Company’s managing director. Fitting out took until December 1924 with her builder’s trials commencing in the Firth of Clyde during the second week of that month and lasting eight days. As part of these trials, on 13 December 1924 the Aorangi commenced a 60 hour period of non-stop running at maximum engine power, during which she achieved a top speed of 18.53 knots. Average speed was 17.3 knots. She was handed over to the Union Steam Ship Company on Tuesday 16 December 1924, exactly 26 weeks after her launch.

Under the command of the Union Company’s 52-year-old Captain Robert Crawford, the Aorangi reached Southampton from Glasgow on the first day of 1925 then, having embarked 500 passengers, departed Southampton on 2 January for her maiden voyage. The liner’s chief engineer was Henry Lockhart, Robert M Scott was her chief officer, the purser was A F Neale and the chief steward H E Read. Kingston in Jamaica was reached on 17 January after a very stormy Atlantic crossing during which her best 24 hour run was 425 miles. Transiting the Panama Canal, the Aorangi cruised up the west coast of the United States at 17 knots, overtaking a number of vessels including the Dollar Line’s President Adams (10,558/1920). Calls were made at Los Angeles and San Francisco before the maiden voyage concluded at Vancouver on 3 February 1925. During this voyage her engines were run a total of 1,056 hours, she travelled 17,198 miles, her average speed was 16.28 knots on a draught of 24 feet 91/2 inches. Fuel consumed at sea amounted to 1,970 tons plus 12,900 gallons of lubricating oil.

AorangiBig crowds came to see the brand new Aorangi, ‘Wonder of the Pacific,’ at Auckland, Wellington and then at Sydney where she berthed at Circular Quay East on 3 March 1925. There was tremendous public interest. Although of modest tonnage, the Aorangi’s towering sides made her visually much bigger than any previous Union Company liner. For New Zealand in 1924 she was an immense ship: 580 feet long, no less than six decks of passenger accommodation; hold capacity totalling 315,000 cubic feet 95,000 of which was refrigerated. Equally astonishing, she had four propellers, each driven by wondrous new-fangled machines from Switzerland that required no stoking of boilers – a jawdropping concept at that time. Four-bladed and of manganese-bronze, each propeller was 13 feet in diameter.

Apart from her size, the new liner’s appearance was very much in keeping with the conventional look of passenger ships belonging to the 1920s era. She had a nearvertical bow with a raised fo’c’s’le, two high masts and two narrow, smartly-raked funnels. Elliptical in shape, these measured 16 feet 10 inches in width fore-and-aft, 11 feet nine inches athwartships and they rose to a height of 120 feet above the Aorangi’s keel. Aft of the forward well deck with its two cargo hatches was a long superstructure that ran from the bridge island to the liner’s cruiser stern. On the Boat Deck were eight lifeboats per side, all mounted on the latest McLaughlin gravity davits – the first time these had been fitted to a Union Company vessel.

As built she carried 436 first class passengers, 284 second and 227 in third class. Décor and furnishings in first class were to the same standards of magnificence as that gracing the very best North Atlantic liners. The first class dining saloon on the Upper Deck seated 213 and was patterned in the style of Louis XVI. Its most notable feature was the introduction of chairs with legs, replacing the old swivel chairs bolted to the deck in this and the 180-seat second class dining saloon. The public rooms for both these classes were all on the Promenade Deck; for first class there was a music room (also known as the ladies’ room) a veranda cafe, smoking room, children’s play nursery and a library. On the Boat Deck, just aft of the first class entrance and next to the wireless office, was a gymnasium.

For first class gentlemen the smoking room was done out like the hall of some great medieval castle, but centre-piece of the Aorangi was her sumptuously appointed first class lounge. It measured 64 feet by 431/2 feet and rose through two decks to a gallery on the Boat Deck then to a skylight between the funnels. Forward of the lounge were eight passenger suites each with a private bathroom and each furnished in a different period style.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - November 2011 Issue
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