The author Roy Vaughan, who has a background in both the British and New Zealand merchant navies, has given Sea Breezes his kind permission to print this story, an excerpt from his upcoming book ‘The Last of a Salty Breed’. I had no thoughts of undue risk when, at the somewhat youthful age of 22, I was dispatched to a small Union Steam Ship Company collier, the 2,485 ton Kaitawa, as second mate with a shiny new certificate of competency. The Union Company colliers operated up and down the rugged west coast of New Zealand in fair weather and foul to keep cement works, a sugar refinery, and power stations fired with coal.
She and her half dozen or so sister ships, had done the job for years without major mishap, and she was a tough, nuggety little vessel built by Henry Robb Ltd, at Leith, Scotland in 1949. Like most Union Company ships of the time, about 60 per cent or more of the crew were British-born, including her master, Captain George Sherlock, a large, ruddy-faced West Country man who loved hunting, shooting and fishing in the New Zealand bush.
George, in common with most Union Company masters, had pilotage exemptions to most New Zealand ports acquired by his knowledge of these ports and tests conducted by local harbour authorities, and this allowed him to bring his ship into port without the aid of pilots. He also knew the coast like the back of his hand, which was an asset, as the West Coast was not particularly well-lit, and the ship did not carry radar, nor have a gyro-compass, or full marine WT radio. She was allowed to sail with close-range old-fashioned valve-operated radio telephone gear.
All the deck officers were given two week crash courses to become coastal radio telephone operators. The qualifying stamp in our certificates of competency looked impressive, but that is where it ended, as the RT sets were so ineffective that Auckland Marine Radio could barely be raised off Cape Reinga, which is little more than 100 nautical miles away.
To sum it up, the navigational aids amounted to not much more than was available to Captain James Cook more than 200 years ago. Everything was dependent on use of the sextant, compass, chronometer, and echo sounder to check the depth of the ocean. Satellitedependent GPS was not around then, and few Union Company ships had VHF at that time. A few radar sets had been introduced into the company’s trans-Tasman fleet. These ships carried fully qualified radio officers and had proper international WT radio gear for reliable long-range communication.
It was not just the lack of modern navigational aids and reliable radio communication that made the Kaitawa and her sisters vulnerable; more sinister problems became apparent later, though no one who had sailed in the colliers at that time thought of them as being particularly dangerous ships. Captain Sherlock’s confident, jocular, ‘hail fellow well met’ style was reassuring, and the ship had a warm, friendly feel about her.
She and her sisters had a known vice. The British Polar twin diesel main engines were prone to cut out and stop if the colliers rolled more than about 15 degrees. It was due to a lubrication cut-off system which stopped an engine if there was any risk of lube oil getting to the working parts. It would normally only affect one engine at a time and the other would continue to chug merrily away, providing some measure of forward motion and limited steerage. It provided a moment or two of anxiety, and the offending engine was usually restarted within a minute or so.
Nothing in the way the ships were normally operated could be deemed as dangerous, as all deck officers were fully qualified and taught to navigate by sextant and compass, and regarded anything extra like radar as a luxury not to be taken for granted. Coal cargoes were known to be subject to spontaneous combustion because of coal gas, but there had been no incidents of that kind and the lower holds were well-ventilated to exhaust the fumes.
Within little more than a week, in fact the first round voyage on board the Kaitawa, all these risks were apparent but accepted as being part of the job, and controllable to a point where the risk could be eliminated apart from the main engine stoppages, and they were thought of as a bit of a joke. In reality the colliers sailed with a common set of weaknesses which were individually and collectively a recipe for disaster. Remarkably, none of the weaknesses was to show up until the Kaitawa was lost at sea with all 29 hands on a very dark stormy night at Pandora Bank, on 23 May 1966, within sight of Cape Reinga Lighthouse.