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Port Bowen

"The ship that came and never left"  
This text from NZ Maritime News Vol.54 no 2 (2006) "The ship that came and never left" by Ian Farquhar


EightyThree years ago the loss of the 8,267 gross tonnage, 1919-built steamer Port Bowen on Castlecliff beach close to the Wanganui roadstead in July 1939 was the last significant marine loss on the New Zealand coast for vessels of the New Zealand-United Kingdom Conference Lines. Having loaded at Auckland, Napier, Lyttelton and Picton, Port Bowen was almost fully laden when she grounded about a mile from the mouth of the Wanganui River, virtually on the Castlecliff beach. She still had to make a final port call at Wellington before sailing for London. She arrived off the port to load 20,000 carcasses of meat just before 1 a.m. on 19th July and was turning to anchor when she grounded almost broadside on to the beach. She went aground at low water and immediately a call was sent to the Wanganui Harbour Board to send its tug Kahanui to assist. The night was fairly clear looking seaward but misty towards land. The ship was drawing 24ft. 6 ins forward and 28ft. 6ins aft, so it seemed realistic that by discharging the cargo already loaded, and some coal bunkers, she could be floated clear. However unless anchors were set to hold the ship, the swell would push her further up the beach. The sea was calm at the time of the grounding. 

The first salvage attempt by the Kahanui took place at 9p.m. on 20th July but Port Bowen remained fast and the two harbour tugs from Wellington, Terawhiti arrived on the scene early on 20th July and Toia at 10p.m. that night. Work also commenced with two lighters discharging general cargo. The three tugs worked in unison in a concentrated effort to pull the vessel off the sandbank and were making their fourth attempt to no avail at noon on the 21st April. By 1.30p.m. on 22nd July six attempts had been made by the three tugs, and throughout all efforts were made to lighten the ship, with significant quantities of bunker coal being dumped over side. The 700 crates of cheese were landed by the 22nd July and then attention was directed at discharging the frozen meat cargo. Port Line also made inquiries on the availability of the new Lyttelton tug, Lyttelton II, in case she was needed. 

On 23rd July the Lyttelton II left its home port for Wanganui and although all four tugs attempted to pull Port Bowen clear on the afternoon of the following day the seas became too rough and by 29th July it was reported that spray was going right over the ship. She still continued to move up the beach and was only 350 feet from the shore at high tide. For a brief time during the rough weather the refrigerating machinery was turned off but it was found that the temperature of the holds only dropped one degree over this period. There was concern about sand being sucked into the intakes during periods of bad weather. To avoid any problems of this nature in the future two boilers were obtained and placed on the ship to ensure the refrigerating plant could be kept going. A generator was also put on board to maintain continuity of lighting. All discharge had to stop during the spells of bad weather and sixty-six waterside workers were marooned on the ship for four days in late July. 

Thirty-five tons of salvage equipment came over to Auckland from Sydney in the Awatea and was trucked to Wanganui. Captain D.W. Gibson, a partner in the Sydney-based marine consultancy of Gibson and Minto had also arrived in the Awatea and was put in charge of the salvage operation on behalf of the underwriters. A fortnight later another salvage expert, Captain James W. Herd of Brisbane, arrived to look after the interests of the Salvage Association, which operated under the umbrella of Lloyds of London. He was the principal Special Salvage Officer for the Salvage Association in Australasia and had a much broader salvage experience than Captain Gibson. 

Winter storms continued to play havoc and by 29th July an estimated 400 tons of coal bunkers had been dumped over the side. The residents of Castlecliff were out on the beach every day picking up pieces of coal. It was decided at the end of July that all three "outport" tugs should return to their home ports but would come back when there were suitable spring tides and much more of the cargo had been discharged. Mushroom anchors also had to be laid out. Rough seas continued to hamper the unloading. It had been planned to run slings of cargo from each hatch over steel cables like a flying fox. The cables would be anchored to sheerlegs ashore and a twenty-ton steam hauler from a King Country sawmill was brought to Castlecliff to provide the power for the operation. However it was felt this method would be too slow and it was decided to build a two-way staging from the beach to the ship, allowing motor vehicles to travel out to the ship and transfer the frozen meat carcasses to the nearby Wanganui Harbour Board cold stores. The Wanganui City Council started work on a road to the beach to provide the trucks quick access to the main road to Wanganui. 

Discharge of the frozen meat commenced on 7th August, but after a week only 7,000 carcasses out of a total of 75,000 carcasses had been discharged. Each lorry carried approximately forty carcasses. Further heavy seas moved the ship 33 feet closer to the Wanganui River entrance. The ramp was finally completed at the end of August but then the ship had moved half its length so that the ramp that was built on a direct line to No.1 hatch, was left lying hanging beyond the Port Bowen's stern. The sudden ship move also snapped a heavy steel cable that was intended to restrict vessel movement. An extension was added to the ramp but rough seas moved her closer to the shore by 16 feet on 13th September. All activity continued to be dogged with bad weather and she started to rock badly in the heavy seas. Discharge was continually delayed and constant adjustments had to be made to the ramp to keep it usable and safe. Pipes supplying fresh water from shore had been taken out on 28th July but they were carried away in the rough weather on 13th September. 

Efforts continued over following weeks and by late September all cargo and the coal bunkers had been removed. The bow of the ship was also progressively hauled around to seaward. However a final attempt on 30th September at high water, spring tide, failed to achieve any movement and both lines to the mushroom anchors carried away. It seemed Port Bowen was destined to remain on the beach forever and her presence attracted huge interest with people from all over the North Island making the pilgrimage to Castlecliff beach. Although the ship listed slightly under the ever changing sea conditions she remained firmly upright on her bed of sand. 

Crowds of people continued to come out to the beach and it was reported that the Wanganui-Castlecliff tramway had doubled its revenue since Port Bowen arrived. At low tide it was possible to walk out to the ship and touch the side of the hull, although the water was 13 feet deep on the seaward side. At one stage during the long bout of rough weather, instructions were sought from the owners and underwriters in London on whether the ship should just dump all the cargo overboard and make an early attempt to try and tow her clear. The proposal was not approved. The discharge of the frozen meat cargo was finally completed at 5a.m. on 25th September. Because of a run of fine weather the unloading had continued around the clock and the carcasses were landed directly from the ship on the backs of lorries on the beach, as the ramp from shore was almost totally collapsed through the ravages of the rough weather. 

Heavy weather again returned with a vengeance on 1st October and Port Bowen was pounded by the sea breaking two steel lines to mushroom anchors and the bow once more swung back to be parallel to the beach. It had been hoped to tow her and warp her off the beach as the tug Lyttelton II had arrived that day. She could do nothing and immediately steamed back to Lyttelton. Rumours abounded that the owners had abandoned Port Bowen and by 11th October, preparations were made to take off all the stores on board the ship and Captain Gibson, the man in charge of the salvage, returned to Sydney. In mid October all the salvage gear was removed and shortly afterwards there was a large auction of the equipment comprising large quantities of wire rope, snatch blocks, shackles and the 26 large baskets used for discharging the bunker coal. More than 300 people attended, coming from as far afield as the Hawkes Bay, King Country and Timaru. During her time on the beach, Captain S.A.E. Gregory, the Port Line Marine Superintendent in New Zealand, said he had received hundreds of suggestions on how to refloat the ship. Even after the auction a consortium of Wanganui and Wellington businessmen undertook to take the vessel to sea at the earliest spring tides for a sum of £11,000. Not one of the suggestions made was feasible and some proposals would have cost much more than the ship was worth. 

The armchair experts were in full cry for several months expressing their opinions on how Captain Francis William Bailey managed to put his first command aground. It was not until 2nd November that a Magisterial Inquiry was held in Wellington to determine the cause of the stranding. J.L. Stout, a Stipendiary Magistrate presided and he was supported by two nautical assessors, Captains L.C.H. Worrall and A.J. Charman. Captain Worrall had retired from the Union Steam Ship Company of N.Z. Ltd. in 1926 and he had a high reputation as an assessor in previous shipwrecks, having been a member of the Inquiry panel into the losses of the Manuka, Tahiti, Progress and Kaponga. Captain Charman was just on the verge of retirement from the position of South Island Marine Superintendent for the Shaw Savill and Albion Company with fifty years continuous service with the company. 

Captain Bailey, and Fourth Officer, John Devlin, who were on the bridge as the ship approached Wanganui roadstead on the evening of 19th July, were the principal witnesses. They said they saw a distinct orange light sometime before the ship stranded in the sand. Captain Bailey said he had picked up the Castlecliff harbour light that he estimated was nineteen miles away and he adjusted course to bring the ship on the correct course to the anchorage. Twenty five minutes later the mysterious orange light was sighted, but later on, when operating at half speed, a red light was sighted close to the Castlecliff harbour light. Captain Bailey immediately realised he had over-run the distance by three-quarters of a mile and called for the engines to be stopped. At 12.11 a.m. on 19th July the ship touched ground and despite every effort using the engines, the helm and the starboard anchor, Port Bowen was firmly aground. The master had used the echo sounder but did not take any hand-held soundings. The red light seen was the light on the end of the mole at the entrance to the river port and what he should have been expecting to see were the two fixed green lights on beacons positioning the correct anchorage position. Under cross examination, Captain Bailey said he had been at sea for twentyeight years, the last twentyfour years with Port Line, and had been an officer on ships at the Wanganui roadstead about six times. 

Although the Court returned his certificate, it found that the stranding was due to an error of judgment on the part of the Master, as follows: In coming in too fast after picking up the Castlecliff light, in view of the fact that he had not picked up the leading lights at the anchorage. In not paying sufficient attention to the record of the echo-meter sounding apparatus: and In not stopping the vessel when the sounding of 80 feet was recorded, which indicated that the vessel was close inshore The Court concluded: "As we feel that the error of judgment was brought about rather by lack of knowledge than any culpable act, we consider that the circumstances do not call for suspension or cancellation of the Master's certificate". The Court also made no order for costs. 

On the commencement of the Inquiry it was announced that the Port Line had abandoned the Port Bowen to the underwriters and this decision had been taken at the 19th October meeting of the Port Line board in London. On 18th October the Wanganui Harbour Board had given notice to the company to remove the steamer from Castlecliff beach within six months, a mission impossible within the timescale specified and even more so with the wartime conditions then prevailing. Having already made many failed attempts to pull the ship off the sand into deep water, Port Line was rebuffed by the Harbour Board when it said it planned to strip the vessel, cut holes in the sides of the hull so that water will freely flow through her while the sand would hold her. The Harbour Board insisted "the whole ship must be moved"! 

The dilemma faced by the Port Line insurers was finally overcome by the wartime situation. In June 1940 the New Zealand government announced that the Ministry of Supply would arrange for the Port Bowen to be dismantled for scrap with all the equipment from the ship being used for the war effort. By this time a crack had appeared in the hull and had started to widen and it was clear the vessel was on the verge of breaking her back. Wm. Cable & Company Ltd of Wellington was awarded the contract, and a call went out for riggers, fitters, carpenters, gas-cutters and labourers. James Cable said that as a contribution to the war effort his company would provide all the equipment necessary to do the job free of charge and would only charge five per cent over the actual cost of the wages paid. 

Work commenced in the first week of July. Fifty men were also employed to build a new ramp to the ship and a railway line was extended from Castlecliff beach so that the salvaged material could be railed direct to Wellington. It was known as the Port Bowen railway. Initially everything movable was taken off the ship. One often hears of rats deserting a sinking ship and the saga of the Port Bowen was no exception, when it was found that the rat population around Castlecliff had dramatically increased and a number of residents found their hens and chickens were killed by rats desperate for food. 

Once work commenced, Castlecliff beach was fenced off, with police patrols around the clock. By August two large holes had been cut in the hull with the ramp being split to serve each hole so that trucks could drive in one hole and out the other. By September 1940, eighty men were employed. Pumps and mechanical equipment had been taken for installation in the Wellington Public Hospital. Refrigeration equipment and granulated cork insulation had gone to the Kakariki Freezing Works near Wanganui and other refrigerating machinery was adapted for use as a cold store at the Waiouru military camp. One of the ships generators was large enough to supply all the electrical needs of the Wanganui Public Hospital. Copper piping, navigation instruments, cabin fittings, winches and other items were used in the construction of nine New Zealand built minesweepers. Dairy factories used other materials, as did lime kilns and a wide variety of other industries. Considerable quantities of non-ferrous metals, and even nuts and bolts, were also very valuable wartime commodities. 

By January 1941 most of Port Bowen's top hamper had been removed and the beach resembled a scrap dealer's yard with piles of pipes, plates, timber and thousands of minor parts. Many of the steel plates were carefully removed and were used in ship repair work. On 31 July 1940 the Trinder Anderson motor ship Armadale (5066 gross tonnage, built 1929) was in collision with the tanker Ole Jacob (8036 gross tonnage, built 1939) 20 miles east of Cape Campbell and 40 miles south of Pencarrow Head in Cook Strait. Both ships were traveling without lights because of wartime conditions. The significant hole in Armadale at No.1 hatch extended from below the waterline to about six feet from the foredeck and was twentysix feet wide. Ole Jacob had a severely crumpled bow running back about forty feet. It was thought that steel plates would have to be imported from Australia but the availability of steel plates from Port Bowen meant that both vessels could be repaired without a long delay. 

In January 1943 work was concentrated around the bow, which was firmly embedded in the sand, and anchored the fore part of the ship when it broke in two in 1941. By this time only a small gang of men were still engaged (at one stage at the height of the work one hundred men were employed). Workers were also starting to remove the propeller shafts and the propellers. The task of dismantling Port Bowen was finally completed in August 1943. It was estimated that over 5,900 tons of metal was removed. Some lower parts of the hull were left in the sand to rust away. By the end of the war the only reminder of Port Bowen's enforced stay were two warning signs on the beach, some 600 feet apart, advising bathers not to swim between the signs in case they touched steel remnants of the ship. 

The circumstances of Port Bowen posed some insurance problems. Tyser & Company, as the leading hull underwriter for Port Line settled for a total loss. Removal of wrecks is usually the responsibility of the Company's Protection and Indemnity Club. The P & I Clubs originated more than two centuries ago and they were intended to cover abnormal risks outside the usual cover. The clubs were funded by "calls" made from time to time from all the members in each club at a rate per ton on the gross tonnage entered by each shipping company in a particular club. The P & I Club was also entitled to the proceeds from the sale of salvaged items. The Port Bowen was entered with the United Kingdom P & I Club. With prices of metals and equipment soaring as a result of the Second World War, the New Zealand government decided to take over the vessel, well aware that much of the cost of scrapping the vessel where she lay would be recovered from the sale of salvaged items. The only remaining issues to be resolved were all the costs incurred by the Wanganui Harbour Board. In signing an indemnity when the government took control of the vessel, the underwriters made an "ex gratia" payment to the Wanganui Harbour Board to cover all their expenses, a very modest 'substituted" expense when set against the requirement to remove the vessel entirely. 

The cargo discharged from Port Bowen was shipped on other vessels of the four British lines engaged in the New Zealand trade. Much of the frozen meat was shipping by Doric Star but she was captured by the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the south Atlantic on 2nd December 1939 and was scuttled using time bombs. Despite not being censured by the Court of Inquiry, Port Line had its own views on the actions of Captain Bailey, and he was reduced to the rank of Chief Officer. He was in this role on Port Wellington in November 1940 when the ship was attacked by the German commerce raider Pinguin. The Master and radio officer were killed by a shell from the raider, leaving Chief Officer Bailey in charge. He and other crew members became prisoners of war for the next five years and his organising abilities and leadership in the camps, earned him an M.B.E. 

After his long penance, F.W. Bailey was appointed as Master of the Port Hobart in 1946. He subsequently commanded the Port Jackson, Port Pirie, and Port Brisbane. He was appointed Commodore of the Port Line fleet in June 1958 and retired from the company after fortyfour years of service in July 1959. Something of an enigma, he was often cutting with junior officers with his sarcastic remarks, but he also had a softer side and was obviously well respected by the company and his peers in later years. Throughout his career the spectre of Port Bowen ashore would always be with him. He developed diabetes in retirement, necessitating the amputation of his right foot and the lower portion of his leg in 1964. He died a few years later. 

The Tyser Line Ltd, the principal shipping line involved in the formation of the Commonwealth & Dominion Line Ltd in 1914 (which became the Port Line Ltd in 1937) had a long history with Wanganui. In 1890 Tyser and Company, the managers of the Tyser Line, had taken a shareholding in the Otaihape Freezing Works at Castlecliff and the first meat loaded at the roadstead was on the chartered Duke of Sutherland (3,116 gross tonnage, built 1873) which arrived at the anchorage on 7th August 1891. 

Shaw Savill & Albion Company and the New Zealand Shipping Company held a monopoly on the New Zealand trade and were reluctant to call direct at "outports" like Wanganui. When Tyser and Company concluded an arrangement for a monthly service from Napier in 1887, it provided a measure of competition and forced the hand of the other lines. Eventually a rationalised service was developed with Wanganui becoming a regular port of call by all lines. 

Despite the grounding of Port Bowen, vessels of the four British shipping lines (Blue Star Line had joined the exclusive club in 1933) continued to load vessels by lighters in the Wanganui roadstead until February 1941 when Port Campbell made the last call. Thereafter Wanganui cargoes were centralised to New Plymouth or Wellington. There was also concern that ships at roadstead ports like Wanganui could be targets for enemy raiders. Two small refrigerated steamers from the United Kingdom, Baltannic (1,739 gross tonnage built 1913) and Baltraffic (3,297 gross tonnage, built 1918) were sent out to New Zealand to assist in centralising cargoes from smaller ports to the main ports. Baltannic made three calls at Wanganui between 1941-1943. The roadstead calls were not resumed after the war. 

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