RON KELLY’S COMMENTS about the Kaitawa’s main engines cutting out in the July 2012 issue of Sea Breezes are interesting. I had personal experience of this during the months I served on the ill fated collier and got to know the then chief engineer of the Kaitawa, Fred Hoe, very well, serving with him many months on the Kaitawa and later after Fred retired at Mangawhai, Northland New Zealand, where I live.
Fred had served on quite a number of the company’s ‘slow green’ cargo ships. I do not recollect him commenting on it being a problem on any other specific ship, but he certainly told me that the engine cut outs had something to do with the lubrication system and the heavy rolling of the ship at sea.
Unfortunately Fred died some years ago, but we did meet many times during his retirement. We talked over old times on more than a few occasions and speculated at length on the cause of the Kaitawa’s loss. No one can say with any certainty what caused the loss of the Kaitawa, it may well have been a combination of events, perhaps a grounding on Pandora Bank because an engine failure had left her drifting in mountainous seas, or very rough seas which possibly stove in a main deck accommodation door and inundated her accommodation and caused her cargo to shift and make her take on a fatal list, or a navigational error resulting from a coastal voyage plotted by estimated positions from Westport if sextant sights could not have been taken, or spontaneous combustion of coal gas exploding and blowing the hatches off. The rubbing of steel hatch covers against each other in a rough sea could possibly have generated a spark to ignite the gas. Certainly her master George Sherlock liked to cut corners and make fast passages and was bolder in that regard than any other masters I had sailed with, but he may not have been on the bridge at the time she fatally struck Pandora Reef.
There were good lessons learned from the incident. From a deck officers point of view it was the strong desirability of installing radar on all of the company’s ships to give the officers a far better chance of avoiding hazards. The other being the risk of spontaneous combustion on colliers. Sometimes the colliers’ ventilators were covered on rough coastal passages to prevent the ingress of breaking seas. After the Kokiri’s explosion at Wellington there was far less inclination to cover cargo vents. It also proved the need for a vastly improved marine radio service in New Zealand and better on board equipment as the final two distress calls were hardly heard by Auckland Radio on the radio telephone frequencies, when the ship was barely 10 miles off the coast! All these inadequacies and risks were well known to those who shipped out in the colliers, but like so many things in life no one did anything about lessening the risks until disaster struck.