Airedale exposed by low tides

Two parts of the rear section of the Airedale are visible off the end of the reef on a good low tide.
Two parts of the rear section of the Airedale are visible off the end of the reef on a good low tide.

It remains a mystery. A ship captained by an experienced sailor, who knew Taranaki's tricky coastal waters, wrecked just a couple of miles from home.

A ship that had plied the waters in the Crimea in the aftermath of war, travelled halfway around the world to a new country at the end of the earth and played an important role during this country's Land Wars. Forever stranded just short of safe harbour.

After the steamer Airedale slammed into the reef at Taniwha Point, near the entrance to the Port of Waitara, in 1871, Captain Kennedy and his crew were cleared of wrongdoing. The skipper was praised for his professionalism during the incident, and generally held in high regard in the industry.

The maritime inquiry blamed natural causes for the shipwreck. Something had messed with the ship's compasses, putting it on a collision course with the reef: Maybe it was the region's black iron sands upsetting the accuracy of the instruments, or the electrically charged atmosphere during the stormy weather the ship had encountered.

The cause may have been unclear but the result is anything but. Taking advantage of the very low tides last week, the wreck of the Airedale could be reached without getting the feet wet.

A part of the front section of the ship rests on what is now named the Airedale Reef, north along Waitara's east beach. It faces the beach and several sections of the rear section remain, pointing out to sea, off the end of the reef, almost directly behind the front section.

Many small pieces of wreckage litter the reef. It's a great wreck to see for those interested in our Taranaki shipping heritage.

But it was not low tide when the ship hit the reef, 143 years ago, almost to the day.

Captain Kennedy told the inquiry into the wreck that, "At 3.35am he heard the crash, and the grinding along the bottom, and the second officer yelling, 'Hard a port!'.

"He went to the bridge and put the telegraph to 'Slow Ahead', but the engines would not respond, as the fires were out, and the water was up to the bottom of the cylinders. The saloon deck had to be cut away to get the English mail out.

"It was close to high tide when the ship struck, and from the way the ships hold filled up with water. It was felt straight away, that there was going to be no hope of getting her off the reef."

It was under the flag of the company owned by Messrs Henderson and McFarlane of Auckland that the Airedale steamed out from Manukau on February 13, 1871, followed soon after by the steamer Phoebe.

During the voyage to Taranaki the two ships lost sight of each other in drizzly weather.

The Phoebe arrived on the 14th, Valentine's Day, and Captain Worsup was puzzled as to why the Airedale had not berthed.

The answer came 2 1/2 hours later - she was stuck on the reef north of Waitara.

A post office messenger, who was on his way to Auckland, and the chief mate off the Airedale, had ridden to New Plymouth on horseback to sound the alarm.

Twenty passengers and the English mail were stranded on the reef and the Phoebe's captain and crew set off to the aid of the vessel.

Captain Grundy of the ship Industry, which was in the Waitara River at the time, also aided the rescue, bringing in passengers Mr and Mrs Gledhill, Reverend Reid, and a lady with a little girl. Waitara solicitor William Halse provided breakfast to all at his home.

During the day the ship's agent, Major Brown, and Lloyd's agent Mr W S Atkinson, proceeded to the wreck to survey the damage. Major Tuke and the Armed Constabulary marched to the reef, camping there to stop looting and to rescue any wreckage washed ashore.

During the day the Phoebe remained offshore, taking on the passengers, officers, crew, the mail and cargo, before returning to New Plymouth.

In the following days sightseers flocked to the beach at Waitara to see the wreck.

A break of fine weather enabled Captain Kennedy, officers and crew to remove everything it was possible to salvage. Cabin fittings, engines, running rigging and all cargo worth saving was taken to Waitara and offloaded.

They were aided by the crew of the Industry and Captain Bradley of the ketch Woodquest. These two smaller vessels later took machinery and gear to Auckland. Other general cargo was salvaged and later consigned to Nelson, Wellington and Otago.

The main extent of the damage was a large hole in the starboard side. It was hoped the Airedale could be floated off, however bad weather crept in and a heavy swell from the north made it impossible to salvage anything more. After the cylinders of the engines were removed, Captain Kennedy abandoned the ship.

On February 25, an auction took place in Waitara where stores and furnishings were sold. Crockery, spoons and plated forks all stamped with the ship's insignia fetched good prices. The contents of the captain's cabin drew a lot of interest. Even the lifeboats were sold.

Over the years a few items have come to light which were bought at this auction, including the captain's clock and a brass bell with the Airedale's insignia embossed on it.

It was an unfortunate end for a ship that had provided good service along the New Zealand coast.

Built in 1857, the steel-hulled steamer was brig rigged and carried 30 crew. She weighed 286 tons and had two 35hp steam engines which were fitted with a patent apparatus for economising fuel.

After spending some time in the Crimea following the war she was then used as a steam yacht by Lord Cardigan, cruising the Mediterranean, before returning to England in 1869 to prepare for her voyage to New Zealand.

When the NZ and Australian Inter- Colonial Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was formed, the Airedale was one of the ships sent out from England for the service. She was regarded as a fast and reliable vessel. She arrived in Nelson on August 3, 1859 under Captain Johns.

After a check over and the installation of new machinery she was ready for service, arriving in New Plymouth for the first time in September 1859 with three passengers and a small amount of cargo. She sailed the same day for Manukau with nine passengers and a more varied cargo of sheep, cattle, quarters of beef, bacon and bales of wool.

After the outbreak of the Land Wars, the Airedale was commandeered by the military to carry families of settlers and soldiers to Nelson, and she made countless trips, proving to be a very reliable and safe vessel for the purpose.

Early in 1861 Captain Kennedy was her master, remaining on board for 10 years and through various companies.

At some point in the 1860s, Coleman and Co amalgamated with the Panama Royal Mail Company, but this company deemed the Airedale unsuitable for service and she was passed into the hands of Messrs Henderson and McFarlane of Auckland.

They would be her last masters. But her final resting place remains just off Waitara, easy to reach during an especially low tide.

Taranaki Daily News