Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 2, November 1982
Crossing the Bay — Journeys from Collingwood to Nelson 1900–1920
Crossing the Bay
Journeys from Collingwood to Nelson 1900–1920
I well remember the little steamers that used to ply between Collingwood and Nelson before the advent of the motor car. I was born in Collingwood and spent my boyhood there. When my father went to Nelson on business, which he did quite often, he never considered making the trip over the Takaka Hill, although at times there was a coach using that somewhat perilous route. He caught the steamer and, for a few shillings was conveyed to Nelson in comparative comfort. Comfort for him, perhaps, but not only for my unfortunate mother or for me because we were always sea-sick.
They were tiny ships, very similar in size and appearance – the Wairoa owned by the Ricketts Bros and the Hina owned by the Golden Bay Shipping Company. There was the open upper deck where the skipper stood at the wheel in front of the belching funnel and where the passengers, on fine days, sat on long seats in the sun. Below this was the deckhouse containing the ladies' cabin with about ten bunks. Near the stern and lower again was the main cabin with a table and fixed seats and bunks for men around the sides. The forward part of the ship was given over to the hold for cargo. The tiny loo was built on the deck and some open deck space was for additional cargo which might include a horse or a few pigs.
The crew consisted of the skipper aforementioned; one (or was it two?) deckhands who would relieve him at the wheel at times; the engineer who emerged occasionally from his hissing hell-hole for a breath of fresh air and a spell from shovelling coal into the furnace; and the cook-steward who looked after the passengers. I knew them all by name – each was a character in his own right – Captain Ricketts (either Frank or his brother Ted), Mr Owen, the deckhand, Mr Ladley, the engineer, and Mr McBride the steward.
The trip took eight hours – two hours from Collingwood to Waitapu, the port of Takaka, and six hours to round Separation Point and cross Tasman Bay to Nelson. That eight hours might be a chunk out of any part of the day or night as the steamers could only enter or leave Collingwood or Waitapu within an hour or two of high tide. They were eight hours of misery for me as I was sea-sick even when the sea was calm. The smell of the engine room and galley, the stuffy cabins, the greasy blankets (no sheets ever!) made me queasy as I went on board and I usually curled up on a seat on deck and kept as still as possible.
Many special occasions stand out in my mind. In 1917 the married men were being called up to go to the war. About half a dozen having had "final leave" (horrible term) were sailing from Collingwood on the Wairoa. Their wives were weeping on the wharf; Captain Ricketts was becoming impatient; the tide was going out and the soldiers were still in the pub. At last they staggered aboard and stood at the salute with alcoholic tears streaming down their cheeks while the ship pulled out. She rounded the Point and had nearly reached the beacon when there was a crunch as she struck bottom and held fast. It would be ten hours before the tide came in to float her off. A boat was lowered, the passengers brought ashore, back to the pub, and it all had to be done again.
Some years before that my father was going to Wellington and as usual page 9one of the family went with him. This time it was me. I don't remember what the special occasion was, probably a Masonic delegation, but the party got V.I.P. treatment. Mr McBride had got in a lovely piece of lamb which he served with peas and mint sauce as we crossed the Bay. Half way through the meal I dashed up the companion way and lost the lamb over the side. "What a waste!" the heartless men declared. It was a long time before I could face the grease of roast lamb again.
However, that trip involved another special treat. The nightly ferry from Nelson to Wellington left at 7.30 and outside the Boulder Bank she stopped engines and waited while our party from the Wairoa was rowed across to continue the trip to Wellington without landing in Nelson. The ferry, Nikau, wasn't very big, but she was twice the size of the Wairoa and her light shining through the darkness looked very romantic to the young boy.
Then there was the time when a Bainham farmer decided to try a new way of getting his pigs to market. The usual way was to load them into a spring dray, cover them with a rope pig net, drive them to the wharf and load them one at a time in a sling, while their squeals echoed round the township. Andrew had too many pigs for the cart so he decided to drive them like sheep. All went well until they met a bit of traffic near the town when they broke and scattered. We kids were just coming out of school and a jolly time was had by all. Pigs chased through the manuka, pigs under the houses, pigs in wheelbarrows, pigs being driven with a rope round one leg, pigs with dogs hanging from their ears, and Andrew with his squeaky voice as a glorious centrepiece. The Wairoa pulled out at last just in time to cross the bar without getting stuck, but the odd pig kept appearing in strange places for hours afterwards.
In 1917 it was time for me to leave home and go to board at Nelson College. I said goodbye to my little dog and sailed in the Hina with my mother and father on a lovely summer's day. Crossing the bar in the afternoon there was only a gentle sea breeze but it was too much for me. I turned greener and greener and finally made a dash for the rail – on the windward side – silly boy! A man sitting there beat a hasty retreat. Next day when the classes assembled at Nelson College my form master was none other than the man at the weather rail. He was Mr H. P. Kidson, who had been returning with Mr Julius Limmer from a tramping trip in Golden Bay. Mr Kidson was later headmaster at Hutt Valley and at Otago Boys' High. We had occasion to laugh about our first encounter in later years.
Throughout my time at college I travelled each term with the other pupils from Golden Bay on those stinking little ships. Iexpectedto be sick, I nearly always was and I just had to take it. No sea sick remedies were known in those days. I would arrive home at any hour, often late at night, but my dog always knew and would come snuffling to my bedroom as soon as he was let off the chain.
There was one evening in Nelson when half a dozen boys were driven in Haase's cab down to board the Wairoa, but the skipper decided it was too rough to sail – a rare thing. All the crew went home and we were left to make the best of the greasy blankets in the cabin and the swarming cockroaches in the galley. We survived until morning when the crew returned to take her out.page 10
I have been trying to remember when the service cars took over and the steamers were no longer used. I was in Australia in 1920 and when I came home in January 1921 I travelled in the steamer. I spent six months in Collingwood in 1922, unemployed and terribly bored. At about 3 p.m. each day the town stirred a little as the mail car came in. Half a dozen people would appear for about five minutes and then the street was empty again. I don't think the steamers were being used in 1922.
As far as I can remember the motor car took over the passenger service in 1922. Then, at about 3 p.m. each day the township would stir a little as the mail car came in. For about five minutes some half dozen people would appear and then the street was empty again.