Kauri boats carried great explorers

17:00, Apr 30 2013
SPECIALIST GEARS: The boatbuilders’ toolbox that Erik Thompson brought to Dargaville.

The piece of land at the meeting point of the Kaihu and Northern Wairoa rivers has witnessed the launching of many boats in the past 123 years.

Hansen's boatyard occupies the land today.

The original boat-building business was founded by Erik Thompson who initially chose to work at Aratapu to be close to the sawmills.

Erik was born in Sweden in 1844 and educated in Finland where he learned his trade and then spent nine years at sea as a ship's carpenter.

He came to New Zealand and settled in Dargaville in 1869. Erik carried the tools of his trade in their custom-built box but it was to be 12 months before they were put to use.

He first worked in a flax mill and became a naturalised New Zealander in 1877.


Over time Erik and his son Charles designed and built hundreds of boats, ranging from whalers and sailboats to commercial and recreational launches.

Many of the smaller boats featured in regattas on the Northern Wairoa and the Kaipara Harbour and beyond.

Charles built the 15-metre coastal trader the Settler in 1906 and later the SS Pioneer for the Northern Wairoa Dairy Company. All the early boats were made of kauri.

Erik's grandson Reg continued the family tradition, turning out sought-after speedboats and cruisers.

In 1907 the Thompsons were contracted to build whalers for Ernest Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition. It was known as the Nimrod Expedition after the 40-year-old Norwegian ship that carried Shackleton and his team of 15 men to Antarctica.

Planning was hurried for this race to the pole and the Thompsons would have had a limited timeframe to make the boats ready for Shackleton's planned arrival at King Edward VII Land in January 1908.

On his return to England Shackleton wrote to Erik and Charles, "In regard to the boats, it will interest you to know that they gave every satisfaction under trying conditions in the Antarctic.

"They proved to be admirably suited for the work of the expedition, and reflected great credit upon your firm."

This letter is on display in the Dargaville Museum.

The Thompsons were then commissioned by Dr Douglas Mawson to build a 6m double-ended whaleboat for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition on the Aurora in 1911.

Dr Mawson's skipper, Captain Davis, in a public lecture following that trip, paid tribute to the builders of this particular boat but he did lack some vital information in that he was unable to name the builders and stated that it was built in Auckland.

According to The NZ Herald, September 9, 1963, this order was soon followed by another for two whaleboats of the same design for Captain Scott's fatal Terra Nova expedition in 1911-1912. The paper also reported that Shackleton requested three more Thompson boats for his 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole.

One of the boats on this voyage was the James Caird. This was the whaleboat that carried Shackleton and five men 800 nautical miles through mountainous seas from Elephant Island to the whaling stations in South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean, a seemingly impossible feat.

They were racing to seek help for the rest of the crew waiting back on Elephant Island.

There was some speculation about the origin of this particular boat used in the rescue.

Some suggest it was a Thompson boat. Its current English owners, Dulwich College in London, claim it was built in London.

Frank Worsley, a New Zealander, navigated the James Caird on this epic journey. He records in his book Shackleton's Boat Journey (1933) that the boat was built in London according to his specifications.

Although Dargaville may not be able to claim this famous craft, Thompson boats took part in these important expeditions.

Just as the love of boats and the skill in their construction was passed on from father to son over three generations, it is likely the tools in Erik Thompson's original set may have been used in the construction of these Antarctic boats.

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