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White Wings Vol I. Fifty Years Of Sail In The New Zealand Trade, 1850 TO 1900

The Laira

page 232

The Laira.

Once Auckland-owned—A Great Race to London.

The smart iron barque Laira, 492 tons, made a number of voyages to New Zealand, and during that time she was under several flags. Afterwards she was in the intercolonial trade, and altogether was particularly well known in these parts. She was built at Sunderland in 1870 by Pile and owned by R Hill. She was first of all chartered by the Shaw, Savill Co., and later passed into the ownership of Stone Bros., Auckland, and was subsequently chartered by the N.Z. Shipping Co. The vessel proved a bad Spec for Stone Bros., and they sold her to a Southern firm. In 1898 the barque met with a mishap at Dunedin, being run into by the Union Co.'s Wakatipu, which refused to answer her helm. The steamer ran into the barque, which was alongside the Victoria wharf. The barque had some of her plates stove in, and sank in six minutes. She was afterwards refloated, reconditioned, and again entered the intercolonial trade. When she met with the accident she was owned by Captain Paterson, and had 1100 bales of wool on board, and was ready to sail for London.

Voyages to New Zealand.

On her first visit to Auckland the Laira was under the command of Captain McCarry. The passage occupied from February 1, 1882, to June 1, and was quite uneventful. On the next three visits to the port she was commanded by Captain Thow, who was very well known in these waters. Her second trip was only two days less than the 118 she took the first time she made the Waitemata. Leaving London on June 18, 1883, she took twelve days to clear the land, and did not cross the prime meridian until September 28, after which she struck a gale, during which she was hove-to for twelve hours. In the following year she made a fine passage of 94 days, which was her best while trading to the colony. She left London on April 9, crossed the Equator on May 6, and the prime meridian on May 27. The Cape was passed on June 4, and then a gale caused the ship to heave-to for 24 hours. The maintop-sail was blown away, and a heavy sea that came aboard damaged the long-boat and other gear on deck. The barque's fourth visit to Auckland was in 1885. She and the Ada Melmore were signalled at the same moment—one of those coincidences that sometimes happened to ships on the long, long sail from London half-way round the globe. Not once on the voyage had the ships seen each other, yet they entered the Hauraki Gulf at almost the same identical moment. the Laira had an uneventful trip, with the exception of a heavy gale on September 25, during which she was hove-to for 18 hours, and a heavy sea did some damage to the fore end of her poop.

The passages made to New Zealand ports by the Laira were:—

To Auckland.
Sailed. Arrived. Captain. Days.
Feb. 1, '82 June 1, '82 McCarry 118
June 17, '83 Oct. 12, '83 Thow 116
Apr. 9, '84 July 12, '84 Thow 94
July 15, '85 Nov. 6, '85 Thow 113
To Dunedin.
Oct. 17, '97 Jan. 23, '98 Haigh 98
To Napier.
June 28, '86 Oct. 11, '86 Thow 105
To Bluff.
Sep. 8, '87 Dec. 14, '87 Thow 97

A Race Home.

In 1891 the Laira had an exciting race with the Glasgow barque Oban Bay. Both boats were lying at Oamaru, loaded with wool, and ready to sail for London. A challenge was thrown out by the Laira, and quickly taken up by everyone on board the Oban, even the youngest apprentice having his "bit" on. The odds seemed in favour of the Oban, which was a big ship of 1100 tons—more than double the tonnage of her little rival. The Oban got away first, and the Laira, although ready to sail, was held up by contrary weather, andpage 233 ten days elapsed before she followed the Oban to sea. Captain Gourlay, of the Oban, had told the Laira's people that "they would not see the way he went," and the start made it look as though his prophesy would come true. Captain Hughes, of the Laira, however, was equally certain that his craft would pick up the big fellow before they got to Black and white photograph of the ship Laira, partially submerged. Cape Horn. An excellent account of the race, from the pen of Mr. A. G. Goulding, who was one of the crew of the Laira, appeared in the "Natal Advertiser" recently, and from it I take some particulars of the contest.

Although the Laira seemed to have an impossible task to pick up the ship before Cape Horn was reached, the hopes of everyone rose when they rounded the Horn 22 days after leaving Oamaru. "Our luck held," writes Mr. Goulding, "and we carried fair and strong breezes until we ran out of the S.E. trades. About lat. 15 south we ran into a belt of calms and doldrums—little puffs and cats' paws from all round the compass, Which would die away almost as soon as we had got the yards trimmed, sometimes lasting long enough to get our stun'sl set. This state of affairs had lasted some days, when about 7 bells one afternoon a sail was sighted abeam of us, and with the glasses we made out the royal and top gall'n'sls of a barque, but, of course, too far off to distinguish anything about her, and when nightpage 234 closed down she was still in the same position.

Visiting at Sea.

"Towards midnight a light breeze sprang up on our starboard beam and at daylight next morning our companion of the evening before was lying a point on our weather bow and about five miles, with her number flying, which we soon made out to be the Oban Bay, and as soon as he made out our name, which we hoisted in reply, he signalled he was coming on board, and shortly after we saw her boat pulling towards us. The light breeze we had had during the night had died away at sunrise and we were again becalmed. Captain Gourlay himself came in the boat. The reason of his visit was soon made plain. He had already begun to run short of some of his stores. We were able to make up the deficiency.

"The weather remained more or less calm all day, so Captain Gourlay, the third mate (who was also his nephew) and the three merry sailormen who formed his boat's crew, remained on board till the afternoon, thus ensuring themselves two square meals (breakfast and dinner). They reluctantly left us, with the boat filled to the thwarts with what we could spare of the stores they lacked. Next morning she was several miles off on our port bow, and for three or four days we kept company, the; position varying but little, and our daily run averaging 15 to 20 miles. Up to now the glass had kept fairly steady, but shortly after eight bells (noon) it began to go down, and as a bank of black clouds was forming on the starboard beam and beginning to rise we got our stun'sls in, and clewed up and furled the royals and doused the flying jib and light staysails. At this time the Oban Bay was laying about five miles off on our port beam, and though it was evident we were in for a heavy squall at least, he had made no sign that he noticed anything out of the way. At four bells both of us were still becalmed.

In a Squall.

"By this time the Oban Bay had sensed that the squall was going to be heavier than he thought at first, as we saw the royal yards coming down. We had just got our top-gallant sails clewed up and outer jib down when there was a terrific flash of lightning, with a crash of thunder, and then the heavens opened. Something's got to go—crack! the main topmast staysail had split, and was flapping away to leeward. Then the main lower topsail went. How the Oban Bay was faring we had no chance of knowing, as she was completely blotted out in the first of the rain, and we were too busy with our own concerns to worry about her. At last the squall passed over us, the lightning dying away down to leeward and the wind dropping almost as suddenly as it had sprung up. What sea had begun to make soon went down again, and as the wind eased our taut little barque gradually came to an even keel, gently rolling to the swell the squall had left behind it. The Oban Bay had disappeared. Capt. Gourlay had probably put his helm up and run off before it. (This we discovered later was what had happened.)

Lucky Discovery.

"The weather had settled to calm, and in lat. 25deg. N. we ran out of the trades into another patch of calm, and here occurred one of those unexpected incidents which crop up occasionally in a life at sea. The skipper, who was an enthusiastic fisherman, had sighted an object about a mile off, which through the glasses appeared to be a large bit of driftwood or spar, heavily encrusted with barnacles and marine growth, and reckoning to find dolphin or kingfish round it, and as the sea was quite smooth, he had the boat put over, and, taking the grains and a couple of the hands to pull, went off to try his luck. After circling round the object, we saw that he had made fast and was towing towards the ship, and, when near enough, shouted to us to get a heavy purchase up on the main yard to hoist it on board. This was done in due course, and after chipping and scraping the barnacles off we found we had recovered a splendid pitch-pine log which, on measurement, proved to be just big enough in length and girth to replace our topmast, which had been damaged in the squall. Everybody who could use a broad axe or an adze was put to work on it, and in a few days we had put up a better spar than the damaged one.

"From here we picked up more or less favourable winds until near the Western Islands, as the Azores are known to sailors, and here again we met our rival, sighting her at daylight ahead of us, but near enough to read her name with the telescope. We had a fine fair wind, as much as we could stagger under with all sails set, and she must have passed us during the night, as she was gradually drawing away from us, do what we could to catch her, and by daylight next morning she had disappeared again. What rotten luck! We could already seepage 235 ourselves paying over the bets. We carried favouring winds varying in strength from a moderate breeze to half a gale from here to the chops of the channel, Capt. Hughes driving her for all she was worth, though we had little hopes of catching the Oban Bay again, as she seemed to have the heels of us running before the wind.

Met the Oban in a Fog.

"Off the Lizard the wind again failed us, and we got light easterly airs and calms, and here we met our rival for the third time. We were laying becalmed in a thick fog on the Sunday morning when we heard a sailing vessel's foghorn somewhere off our starboard quarter and not far away. As we were motionless, there was nothing we could do but give blast for blast on our horn. Towards noon the fog cleared away, and there was the Oban Bay less than a mile off on our starboard side, just wallowing in the swell as we were. As there was no indication of a breeze, the skipper decided to return Captain Gourlay's visit of a few weeks before.

"During the first watch a south-westerly breeze sprang up, and at daylight the Oban Bay was again out of sight, ahead or astern—we could not say. We carried the breeze well up channel, but it failed us off St. Catherine's (I.W.), and here again we got foggy weather. This time, instead of a sailing vessel's foghorn, we heard a steamer's whistle near us, and she turned out to be the powerful tug Zealandia, and by a coincidence the same tug as had towed us to sea when leaving London for that voyage. Had he seen anything of the Oban Bay? No; he had seen two or three windjammers in the Channel before the fog had shut down, but had not spoken them. Would we take his rope, as he knew we were in channel and had been told to look out for us? This was daylight on the Thursday morning. Gladly we took his rope, and gaily he yanked us up channel. We were no more than a dinghy to him. Again—and for the last time—we met our rival, and again she was ahead of us. She was in the Downs on Thursday evening, but, alas for him! he had picked up a small tug which could hardly get out of her own way, and this time we went gaily past him, shaking ropes' ends at him and indulging in other little pleasantries which the fastest ship generally passes to cheer up the loser.

"Thanks to the superiority of our tug, we docked a tide ahead of the Oban Bay, and all bets were settled at the shipping office at Green's Home on the Saturday. We had been 110 days on the passage, and had beaten the Oban Bay by 10 days, and, though not by any means a record passage, the fact of the two ships meeting so frequently on such a long journey was almost as remarkable in its way as the famous race between the tea clippers Ariel and Taeping from Foochow to London in 1866."