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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 3, November 1983

Sixty Years of Service – The Echo of Blenheim

page 42

Sixty Years of ServiceThe Echo of Blenheim

(This article is condensed from a much fuller account written by Arthur J. Sprosen. A typescript of the full article is being deposited at the Provincial Museum where it may be consulted by interested persons).

A few years ago visitors to Blenheim who happened to be in the right place at the right time startled to see a ship apparently making its way across a paddock and disappearing among the trees. They could be forgiven for thinking it was an hallucination, but to inhabitants of Blenheim it was nothing unusual—just the scow Echo making its way up the tortuous Opawa River to the wharf in the centre of the town. For sixty years the gallant little ship was a life-line between Blenheim and Wellington. Despite trials and misfortunes, storms and the difficulties of the Wairau Bar she usually arrived sooner or later, and customers of the local shops were familiar with her vagaries being an excuse for the lack of commodities and the non-arrival of ordered goods.

Like many of the early scows her life began in Northland, the scene of much ship building activities. She was built by Brown & Sons of Northern Wairoa in 1905 for their own use as a timber trader with a 30 h.p. engine to help her in and out of port. She cost £3,700 to build. She was later sold to the Karamea Steam Ship Company for the Wellington Karamea trade and then to Richardsons in 1916. Her engines were changed to more powerful ones and she was used to carry frozen meat and coal between Wairoa and Napier until the opening of the railway.

In July 1920 she was sold to Charles Alexander Eckford of Blenheim and became the third scow in their small fleet that traded between Blenheim and Wellington.

Even before she joined the Blenheim fleet the Echo seemed to be accident prone– during the seventy years of her active life she clocked up an amazing number of disastrous happenings, but somehow survived them all! Surely a tribute to her builders. Before she was owned by Eckfords she had survived two fires. After 1920 there was no less than thirteen reports of mishaps such as broken shafts and masts and damage to machinery; at least eight collisions with other ships and beacons; and then there were strandings– eleven of which are reported. The famous Wairau bar was responsible for some while the narrow and winding twelve miles of river accounted for others.

One of the more spectacular accidents was in 1932 when she stranded at Pencarrow Head and struck the Pinnacle Rocks in heavy seas. The crew of ten took to the life boats thinking the scow had come to the end of her life. While they were at Fort Dorset in the care of the army the Echo slipped off the rocks, rolled over on her port-side and drifted towards the Port. The tug sent to locate her failed to find her, but next day she was found and towed to Clyde Quay Wharf where it was righted by the crane and unloaded. Her cargo consisted of Marlborough cider, wool, barley, about fifty crates of eggs (scrambled by now?) and boxes of butter– some of which had landed on the Petone Beach. The mate who was at the helm was sacked, it was said he was in a hurry to catch the last train to his home in Hutt Valley.

When she stranded on the Wairau bar she was sometimes freed by the next high tide, but often had to wait for a spring tide and the help of other boats. Eckfords did not keep a tug, but the small cargo lighter, Standard, would go along side and take off 27 tons of cargo.

In 1960 when the Echo was the only ship the firm owned, she was bar-bound for ten days when returning to Blenheim. It happened to be the page 43whitebait season so the crew occupied themselves catching them by the 4 gallon tinful. Fortunately the weather remained calm and at low tide it was possible to walk round the ship. Eventually a road was bulldozed to the side of the scow and local trucks drove alongside. Nearly 200 tons were unloaded and brought into Blenheim. The scow was re-floated on the next spring tide with the help of a pull from fishing vessels. When she stranded in the river she usually lifted off on the next high tide.

There were collisions between the Echo and various harbour ferries, and even beacon lights, as well as with other small ships; in most cases with little damage. In 1948 heavy seas were responsible for a disaster. The scow had successfully navigated the 12 mile river journey and the Wairau bar and got as far as Cook Strait where there were heavy seas. Progress was slow with high seas and strong winds buffetting the small craft. It soon became apparent that she was being blown past the entrance to Wellington Harbour and toward Hawke Bay; then a huge wave struck the starboard side damaging the bow. Captain Tom Eckford had to radio for a tug to come to the rescue and tow her to port. She was unloaded and repaired but the master lost his job!

The most unusual experience of the Echo was during World War 11 when she was requisitioned by H.M. the King and the United States Navy for service in the Pacific. From 1942 - 1944 she was in and around the Pacific Islands. As part of the American Navy she voyaged over 40,000 miles. She was fitted with two extra lifeboats, extra crew and extra accommodation and A.A. guns. It was reported she met a few Japanese but escaped. She returned to the N.Z. Government in 1944 and was purchased by Eckfords. Her war service became a film in 1961, "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" (she actually served in the Navy!) The picture company wished to buy her but Eckfords refused to sell or let her be taken out of N. Z. waters, so in most sequences it was not the real Echo who appeared. Those who knew the ship were not impressed with the film.

I recall a visit to the Echo about two years before she ceased to cross the Strait. The wharf is right in the centre of Blenheim, it was a cold night but the scow was warm, we wandered all over her ending up in the engine room just as the first engine was started. From the wharf we saw the captain board the scow and watched as the Echo was pulled astern and twin searchlights were switched on to help the Master in his navigation of the dark Opawa river.

From 1965 all local freight for the North Island was carried by railway wagons via the Cook Strait ferries. As the wagons are hired by Transport Nelson Ltd., the service is called Trans Echo. In August 1969 a disastrous fire completely destroyed the old wharf, hundreds of tons of freight plus some historical shipping photographs dating back to the first ships owned by the company. It was a great blow to Captain Thomas Sugden Eckford whose grandfather of the same name started the locally owned river service in 1881.

And what of the fate of the Echo? On August 20 1965, under Captain Delziel, she sailed from Wellington for the last time. Just after midnight she grounded on a mud bank some 500 yards from the Wairau bar, but the next morning the rising tide re-floated her and she set off up the Opawa River. She arrived at the Wharf about 2 p.m., her last river voyage over. She was sold to the Chatham Islands for cray fishing but this venture failed and she was at a Lyttelton wharf for sale. She was bought by Mr R. Mason of Spring Creek (now of Blenheim). She was brought back to Marlborough and kept at Picton and later at Blenheim. An Echo Restoration Society planned to restore her page 44but this also was found impractical and after some years was lowed to Picton and handed over to the Marlborough Cruising Club. She is now their headquarters, beached on heavy wooden blocks and securely bolted down. Her masts have been stepped with two of her sail spars and what was once her cargo hold is now a large dining area, dances can be held aboard also. Today one can see the Echo near the Boat Marina and visits can be arranged. So the Echo who is said to have crossed Cook Strait 15,000 times sails no longer, but today looks a picture to those who once sailed on her and stands as a memorial to all the little scows of yesteryear.

An early photo of the Echo. – J. N. W. Newport.

An early photo of the Echo. – J. N. W. Newport.