Patea Cheese Boats

The Patea Cheese Boats

Ramblings with Old Nic –Reminiscences by Nic Campbell

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Most of us know where Patea is. Most of us know it’s a small country town. Most of us know too, the Taranaki Main railway line passes through it. Most of us also know that the town is recovering well from the depression caused by the closing of the freezing works some years back. But how many of us are aware that up until the early 1960’s Patea was the world’s largest cheese exporting port? This may sound  unlikely especially as  during the 110 years life of the port only one large overseas cargo ship ever called there ( NZ Shipping Co’s. “Otarama” in Jan. 1900) and she was loaded, not with dairy produce but 1200 bales of wool transferred to her by lighter while anchored in the roadstead off the port.

The Beginnings

Patea is central to what is arguably the world’s most intensively farmed dairy region from where cheese is still the primary end product. (Kiwi dairies in Hawera, which is serviced by the new milk trains, continues the grand tradition in being arguably the biggest dairy factory in the world) The town had the advantage of being situated at the mouth of the only sensibly navigable river in South Taranaki so was ideally suited for the transport of produce. Although not officially proclaimed as a port until 1871, Patea had its beginnings as early as 1864 servicing both the surrounding settlements and the military forces. A cheese grading store was built on the river by a co-operative, The West Coast Refrigerating Company, in 1901 and the Harbour Board agreed to build another wharf alongside. This facility  eventually grew to command all cheese destined for export from a  huge catchment extending as far south as Oroua Downs and Taikorea, (near SH1 and just north of Himatangi) as far north as Rata, (about 17 ks. north of Marton) and the whole of South Taranaki (from north of Opunake to Eltham). The cheese volume grew to such extent over the years that by the 1920’s it required the full commitment of three ships for some 10 months of the year to transport it and often the service needed added capacity which required the chartering of an additional vessel. Although the port once handled large volumes of general cargoes as well as the output of the large freezing works, these gradually died away as railway efficiency increased and most coastal ships carrying on inter-island trade became too large to use the port and began transshipping cargoes consigned to/from South Taranaki to/from rail at Castlecliff or Wanganui. I should also mention that Castlecliff was also often a terminal port for cheese loading, especially when the grader cool store in Patea became overloaded or when the Patea River bar became unworkable.


Despite all this, how on earth could Patea become the largest cheese exporting port in the world when only small coastal ships frequented the port? It happened like this.  Eventually, the South Taranaki Shipping Company overcame all competition to the port and entered into a contract with the Grader that was to last almost 50 years and thus became the sole cheese carrier from Patea.  This cheese was transshipped into Harbour Board cool store in Wellington to await consignment to overseas ships. Naturally, this involved considerable handling, wharfage dues, and the many other administrative charges and paper shuffling that seems to attach to the movement of export goods. This added considerably to costs. In the early 1920’s, however, the South Taranaki Shipping Company gained an agreement with the overseas shipping lines that enabled export cargoes  consigned from Patea to pay the  same rate as those shipped from Wellington. Thus cargo from Patea destined for export became essentially en route to distant destinations as soon as it was loaded.  The Patea ships now, whenever possible, berthed directly alongside overseas ships in Wellington and unloaded  their cheese directly into the big ships holds.  The Wellington Harbour Board cool store was  only used when direct transshipment was not possible but the cheese stored therein was officially regarded as transit cargo no longer situated in the New Zealand realm. This formula continued for administrative convenience and so Patea became the largest cheese exporting port in the world by contrivance rather than design but, nevertheless, was entitled to assume that mantle.

Different Ships Different Short Splices

As a young officer I took a temporary job in the Patea ships which eventually stretched to some eighteen months in the various ships but I retain a certain affection for one particular vessel the Inaha. Looking back I remember this time fondly and learned more about seat of the pants seamanship than ever was possible in the larger ships. I remain grateful for experiencing this time even though the work was wet, hard, the accommodations basic and the hours very long.  My first impressions were of a very relaxed and casual commitment to the operation of the ship and her navigation but I soon quickly realised the short coasting trips, usually overnight, meant there was little time available for other than essential maintenance. The fancy paint work and scrubbed decks of the distant water ships were not practical on small coasters. So it was with their navigation. Bridge books and fair copies of the Log had no place here , instead a large diary was provided in which all the ships passages were recorded by the watch officers showing courses steered by standard compass, changes of course, and the times of passing various notable features. Taffrail log lines, the almost universal tool, at this time, in recording distance traveled, although necessary when steaming over long fetches, were not used frequently as the small distances steamed made elapsed time sufficient in calculating a dead reckoning position.  Although compass errors were recorded this was most often done by checking the transit of known landmarks or leading lights and only rarely by star or sun azimuth. Not in evidence, either were the neat uniforms of the big ship men but rather was worn the more practical old clothes of the gardening variety.

The Coasting Men

These coastal men were fine seamen, though, and their expert knowledge of the coastal routes they worked made unnecessary the same attention to the checks and balances that were constantly performed in bigger ships . Generally coasting ships were only capable of much slower speeds than long distance vessels and this lack of power often made it necessary  to  navigate closer to the shelter of land or to make much closer approaches to dangers than could be tolerated in big ships.  This was necessary if they were to keep to anything like a schedule and sometimes because their lower power gave them no option. I came to understand this but I had been trained to take a ship anywhere in the world and such training by its nature did not require comprehensive detailed knowledge. That’s what pilots were for. These coasters I eventually realised were a different world where the important thing was local knowledge, and local knowledge was what turned the profit in this type of seafaring.  I had not understood  this so well before and  regretted my past attitudes to the small coaster men who often appeared to run their vessels in contravention to what would be regarded as good big ship practice. The catering, however, if not provided on silver service, was totally first class, and I enjoyed far better meals than I have experienced in any ships I have been in before or since. This was a hallmark of coasting vessels and compensated well for the less agreeable accommodations and the often uncomfortable ride that the small ships could not avoid in boisterous sea conditions. The time came, however, although it did not cross my mind then, when ship owners would be forced by legislation to fit radar and other electronic aids in their vessels. Such aids together with more modern ship design and changing transport patterns eventually ended the need for the acquisition of the old  practical coasting skills and they are atrophying and slowly being forgotten,  probably to be lost, with  the demise of the  last old-time coastwise mariners.

Signing on:

I joined the Inaha as Mate and was shown to the smallest cabin I ever lived in, in the whole of my time at sea but generally this small ship although built in 1923 had better accommodation than most her size and had the luxury of a spacious saloon (officers dining room.) She was, despite her size, a handsome little ship, handy, well designed and had exceptional sea keeping qualities. Her trade mark was her delightful capped funnel. On the other hand, all she offered in the way of personal hygiene was a cold water washing basin in the toilet. Showers were provided on the wharf in Patea or by arrangement in the Harbour Board offices in Wanganui.  This only proved a disadvantage when the ship went to other ports around the country in the off dairy season and a distinct disadvantage for a young man intent on capturing the eye of likely young ladies.  One always wondered about personal hygiene if a close embrace seemed possible with the guilty knowledge that ones last body wash had been taken in the ships toilet using a bucket of cold water! An added misery was when servicing out ports in the off season; it was always in the depths of winter. 

The First Sailing

The ship was up to sail for Patea an hour after I joined her and being trained in big ships I immediately went through the motions of testing the navigation gear, an absolute requirement in big ships.  While I was testing the steering gear the old captain came up to  me and asked me what I was doing. I replied I was testing the steering.  “Don’t bother with that,” he replied, “we only came in this morning and it was all right then.”  This was the first intimation I had that I had entered a different world.   The next was when the boatswain asked me my name and from that time I was no longer Mister but Nic.  So we sailed. Although it was my watch the captain remained with me until we had passed Karori Light and then told me to alter course to  NNE as soon as we cleared Cape Terawhiti.  I was concerned  both that  we had passed closer along the south coast than I had ever been before and that, other than the compass and wheel, no chart or  other navigation  instrument was in evidence. Now, I was being told verbally to alter course towards Patea on my own initiative and to steer a course that may or may not take us there!  Sure, it was the master’s instructions but an officers duty was to check, recheck and to know what dangers lay about him and above all to be confident where his course was leading him. I already knew that this task was going to be somewhat difficult with the complete lack of any reliable means to verify this.  As the master left the bridge I asked him for a chart which I felt would at least be available. I was wrong! The captain looked at me in suprise and said “A chart! Ah, yes. I’ve got one somewhere. I’ll look it up.”  As a matter of fact it was months later that the captain handed me his chart saying, “You wanted to look at a chart. Well I found it in a draw under my socks.”  It was dated about 10 years earlier and had never been corrected so as to be currently accurate. (This may sound like a tall tale but I can only assure the reader that it actually happened.) By this time, however, I no longer needed it and had become a competent and knowledgeable dog bark coaster seaman. I was still a professional, however, and had surreptitiously provided myself with my own charts as well as the required instruments, books and ports information manuals including aerial photos of the ports we visited that I knew little about. I still retain these photos.

Going Deep Sea?

I recall once going from Greymouth to Onehunga in this small ship. This course takes one well off the coast and due to heavy weather, bad visibility and the fact that the master wouldn’t have the patent log streamed, (“Never trust the things, anyway, they can get you in trouble!”) our DR positions were not really reliable and the Manakau Bar (Onehunga) is not a place to approach in thick weather unless you are confident where you are.  The master had muttered a few doubts about this. I had just bought a particularly accurate watch and by coincidence had set it by time signal only the day before. During my watch the sky cleared and I obtained a noon shot which confirmed my watch time.  I knew Venus was about and was lucky enough to be able to find it about an hour and a half later. These two position lines gave me a pretty reliable fix. (This was probably the only time in my sea career I ever had to resort to reducing a star during full daylight so in my retelling of this please allow this small conceit!) The captain watched all this with complete disinterest and suggested it was really a waste of time but after I went below I knew by the motion of the ship that we had altered course. Sure enough when I came back on watch we were steering the course I had calculated. The captain explained this by remarking that as the visibility had improved he was bringing her closer in.  We picked up Manakau Heads Light later that night and were snug alongside Onehunga Wharf soon after breakfast. We had saved some twelve hours as we would surely have missed the morning tide had we not changed course. The old captain was very experienced and perhaps he really did alter course out of years of sea wisdom and not because of anything I did. I’ve always wondered.

A Fish Story

Anyway back to my first trip in the Inaha which soon provided more suprises than I was prepared for and exposed me in quick time to the unique climate in which the cheese boats operated. We arrived off Patea a few hours before the tide and I was called on deck.  I knew  the engines had  stopped a couple of hours earlier and imagined we were simply drifting awaiting the tidal signal before crossing the bar. Again, imagine  my suprise to find we were still some miles from Patea and the  whole 11 crew members were lining the port rail fishing. The fishing positions on the ship I learned later were strictly apportioned according to seniority, the captain right aft, which was supposedly the best place and descending in rank forward to where the deck boy stood by the break of the forecastle head. The deck was already covered in high quality gropher, blue cod and schnapper .  Seeing me the captain hauled up his line unhooked his fish and said nonchalantly , “You’ll have to get your own line next time we’re in Wellington but the cooks just going to get breakfast so you can use his  for the moment.”  By this time I was past suprise and dumbly baited the line and threw it over  next to the captain and to my suprise brought up a fine  schnapper and a fat blue cod within a minute or two.  Soon, however, the engines were started and we headed off towards Patea which was still about an hours steaming away. I went down to breakfast and in the galley the cook had selected a beautiful baby gropher almost still kicking which he began slicing into succulent steaks. The galley had a coal fired stove the top of which was glowing a cherry red.  He tossed a steak onto the stove flipped it after half a minute and served it up with eggs and bacon. I had never tasted anything  so delicious and this was a regular and frequent  addition to the menu all the time I was in the Patea boats.  Since then I have become only an occasional fish eater because, I think, I am now aware how fresh fish should really taste and bought fish never does.

The Local Fish Market

 There was a social side to this fish story, however. Patea River bar is very dangerous and every fishing boat that had tried to work it regularly had been wrecked, often with loss of life. This had become so frequent that the Ministry of Marine (as it was then) refused to give license to any fishing boat that wanted to work out of Patea. This had left the town without a local fish industry so the cheese boats began to fill the need. With the three ships arriving up to ten times a week  and usually managing to do a bit of fishing on the way this worked well.  As we sold our fish the town had backed up an application from the ships and each had a commercial fishing license!  This sideline was so successful that my earnings from fishing meant that I never had to touch my wages during the season.  The wharf would be as crowded with locals on arrival in Patea as the ships decks  would be covered in fish and ships business took second place to selling our fish but it was generally all sold within a few minutes.  There were standard prices 2/6 for a gropher,  1/- for a schnapper and  from 1/- to 6d for blue cod depending on size.  Sometimes the fishing bounty was so large that we would get an empty railway insulated  wagon from the grader,  load it with our excess fish then consign it by rail   to the market in New Plymouth.  We had some big cheques. We usually fished in particular spots over the Whenuakura Spur or off the Longbush  but  don’t expect such fishing beneficence these days, the big trawlers have all but fished out the area. It’s hard to believe that we always baited several hooks on our lines and it was common to pull up, not only more than one fish on a line, but that the fish were hooked almost immediately the line was dropped.  (The wisdom of the fishing restriction was proved again in 1965 when a 42 foot boat was engaged to survey the fishing potential out of Patea. She was very soon overturned and lost on the bar with loss of life. I am unaware if any further attempt has been made to fish commercially out of Patea)

The Patea Bar

I was soon in for another suprise as we approached Patea. The entrance isn’t very obvious from seaward but the captain pointed out the harbour light and told me the entrance was adjacent to it. I could see seas breaking over something and decided to wait and see. As we got closer and the training wall became more obvious I was aghast at how narrow and intimidating the entrance was. I looked at the captain and asked, “Surely that’s not the entrance it looks far to narrow?”  He replied that not only was it the entrance but that part of it was shoaled up and we could only use half the width.  I was starting to wonder if I was in a ship full of mad men.  Soon we saw the signal for “take the bar” (4 horizontally disposed black balls along the spar of the signal mast) and headed in on the leads. The boatswain arrived on the bridge and went to the starboard  side of the wheel. I was told to take the port side and help him..  So we made for the bar . The ship scended, rolled and surfed on the incoming waves while the captain worked frantically with us on the wheel and ran back and forwards to the engine telegraphs to lower or increase power on different engines if the ship took a bad sheer (and she did often!) but mainly we ran in under full power and  there wasn’t much of that either.  To me it was simply bedlam but somehow we got inside and  everything suddenly became calm as we began our tranquil approach to the wharf about a mile up the river. Yes, I did become used to the Patea bar and worked it many times but it needed great caution and good knowledge. As a matter of fact, I have over the years crossed most of the bars in this country as well as many overseas but it remains my opinion that until you have worked  the Patea bar  you’ve never seen a real bar!

Dog Bark Navigation

Dog bark (local knowledge) navigation although good enough in reasonable conditions could have its down side for the inexperienced.  On one occasion in rain and poor visibility  while making a northerly course through Cook Strait from Cape Campbell, past the Brothers and round towards Cape Koamaru I had allowed leeway for the expected the tidal flow through the Straits that should push us to the east.   One must treat Cook Strait tidal flows with caution and this time  the tide did not turn and remained running to the north. This often happens in the Straits, however, and while running in bad visibility (before the advent of radar) there was  no satisfactory  way of checking this. I was standing on the bridge as the murk began to clear and suddenly I saw what I took to be Cape Koamaru ahead, fine on the port bow, approximately where I had expected it to be.  I began to relax when the man at the wheel drew my attention to a high land mass that was  appearing through the mist and towering over the ship close in to port.  We were close inshore and within a short time  would have been ashore on the rocks below Wellington Head  (This headland on the north side of Tory Channel has now been renamed Perano Head to save confusion.) The pinnacle rocks off the headland  had almost the same shape as Cape Koamaru and in the mist had given the impression that I was viewing the Cape from a distance rather than  rocks close to. Of course, I should have known better, but the rocks had appeared exactly where I had expected the Cape to be and I unwisely accepted this.  The lesson, as always, was never to take anything for granted.  The tide and weather had combined to dramatically alter our track made good


Eventually the standard run between Patea or Wanganui and Wellington, that lasted most of the year,  became second nature and I seldom had recourse to any  great navigation skills.  Being a West Coast run, bad weather was frequent and one learned many things about ship handling that were not to be found in any seamanship books. Southerlies were always  a hazard, especially when visibility became heavily restricted in continuing rain and if approaching the Straits at night one stood for hours looking ahead into driving rain and spray trying to make out Ohau Point or some point of reference to enable you to round Cape Terawhiti. There was a light beacon on Ohau Point but it had been placed on top of the hill and the beam oriented 30 degrees upward to double as an aircraft beacon, consequently, it was often shrouded  in hill top mist and because its main beam was aimed skywards  it was without the luminosity  to shine through any cloud to seaward. Even after managing to overcome this one had to fight through the Straits and pass through the rips and roughs off the south coast because our steaming time from high water at Patea and Wanganui would usually coincide with a head tide in the Straits and we  lacked the power to  make an good off shore course.  There were also the days spent tossing off the bars during heavy seas with an empty ship at Patea or Wanganui waiting for the bars to become workable.  Shelter was not always an option.

Foreign Going?

The Patea ships were busy and hard working and often were able to load at Patea and sail on the same tide which was good for profit but very tiring for the crews. Even in the winter off season they had little rest other than a weeks survey in Wellington or Nelson. At this time they worked the apple run from Nelson, Mapua, and Motueka and once I even called at Collingwood.  They ranged through the Marlborough Sounds picking up wool from the isolated stations and carried cargoes to ports as far south as Timaru  and as far north as Onehunga. The West Coast of the South Island was sometimes serviced too if cargo was offering and I once went as far south as Jackson Bay although Westport or Greymouth were more usual.

The End

The West Coast Refrigerating Company (the Grader) merged with The Taranaki Producers Freezing Works Company in 1954 and gradually this new company began to ship cheese through New Plymouth and finally concentrated all dairy products at New Plymouth. The South Taranaki Shipping Company then decided to cease operations and the Inaha made the last trip from Patea in August 1959 ending a service from the port that had survived for a century.                     

The last three Patea  ships:

 t.s.m.v. Inaha

Built Montrose, Scotland in 1923.  115.5 tons net register. 108.2 feet x 23.15 x  9.  Built new for the  South Taranaki Co. First diesel ship to work in NZ and the first with electric winches.   Steel vessel built with twin Plenty hot bulb diesels but later re- engined with  twin Polar Atlas diesels. An exceptionally good sea kindly vessel.   Speed 8.5  knots. Hold capacity was  about 2,800 crates of cheese but draught restrictions at Patea  restricted this to around 2,100 crates loaded well forward to adjust her draught for the Patea Bar.  Foundered off Cape Lambert, New Britain in 1963 after throwing a propeller.  (Being built soon after WW1 there was a shortage of steel plate but the builder had built small warships during the war and had a supply of armour plate  on hand. This was used to construct her hull and upper works  so that if any minor alteration or modification  was needed it was always necessary to employ the services of a fully equipped boilermaker. On the other hand she was almost indestructible.  While lying in Wellington one day an older  man approached me and told me he was  an electrician who had spent his life ashore in England and was now doing a once only overseas trip in a British ship before his retirement. His ship was currently in Wellington. He said he that as a first year apprentice at Chapman Clarke in Sunderland UK.  in 1923  he had helped to construct two small electric winches by special order. They were the smallest he had ever known and he had always wondered if their small size would make them unreliable and he had always wondered what they were for and what had  happened to them. In passing the Inaha he was suprised to see them  working  happily thirty years later on a small NZ coaster.  I introduced him to the Inaha’s Chief Engineer who assured him that the winches he had built were not only still working well but had proved exceptionally reliable over the years.)                  

 m.v. Foxton

Built in Auckland in 1929.  99.75 tons net register.  101.66 feet  x 27.91 x 7.66.  Owned By South Taranaki Co. from 1939 to 1959.  Wooden twin screw vessel.  Generally a good seaworthy vessel. Twin GM diesels.  Speed about 8 knots. Cargo capacity not known but would have been around 2000 crates of cheese.  Last known location Papeete, Tahiti where she was named Namoiata.

 m.v. Tiroa

Built in Auckland in 1916.  99.65 tons net register.  112.8 feet x 22.6 x 7.8.  Owned by South Taranaki Co. 1942 to 1957.  Wooden single screw vessel. Nice vessel but difficult in a head sea, could not be pushed as she was inclined to open up and let in water.  Single Fairbanks Morse wick diesel.  Speed about 7.5 knots. Cargo capacity probably about 2000 crates of cheese.  Dismantled in 1965 and hull towed to Wakatahuri, Pelorus Sound.

A picture on Google earth shows her currently in a dismantled state.(2006)

For those wishing to know more I suggest reading ‘The Little Ships of Patea’ by Ian Church. Dunmore Press Ltd., 1977. This little book has a number of historical photos of both the harbour in its heydays and the ships  that went there.

Ramblings with Old Nic – Nic Campbell