October 13, 2015

An explosive tale from Down Under

STAND BY for a long, long story. It comes from a reader in New Zealand who saw my previous column about automated ships. It reminded him of an incident that happened some years ago, and which seemed to be worth relating in print. He doesn’t want his name used so I have taken advantage of his anonymity to change some of his prose from New Zealandish to American — mostly harbour to harbor, even where harbor is actually wrong.

So I recommend that you fortify yourself with a six-pack of your favorite beverage and settle down for the longest read this column has ever produced:


The following is a story that while seemingly unlikely, is true.  It occurred sometime in the late 1980s or possibly the earlier part of the 1990s, however I cannot recall the actual year. I read about it in an obscure magazine in the 1990s.  I believe very few people actually know the tale.  Just a few years ago I happened to mention it to an acquaintance with a long history in the navy, whom, it transpired, had been directly involved in the issue at the time (New Zealand has a small navy). 

I related the story to him as I remembered it, he told me that I had a good memory and whoever had written the article had known what they were talking about.  He assured me it was completely correct.

To fully understand the saga it is firstly necessary to provide a background to the harbors of Auckland and the navy of New Zealand at the time.  The main North Island city of Auckland has two coasts, the East Coast and the West Coast and two harbors, one on each of these coasts.  The East Coast is generally reasonably calm.  The main harbor is the Waitemata Harbor and the city was originally started around it.  Within it is the main commercial port for the city, directly in front of the central business district on the Southern shore and the naval base opposite on the Northern Shore, known as Devonport. The Waitemata is very well protected and opens into the Hauraki Gulf, a large body of water itself quite protected, surrounded on three sides by land and containing hundreds of islands big and small, truly one of the best small-boat cruising grounds in the world, as people like John Welsford attest to.

The West Coast Manukau Harbor is several times larger than the Waitemata, and consists mostly of shallow sand and mudflats.  A 15-mile-long tidal channel from the entrance to the city provides access to a small commercial wharf that hosts fishing boats and very small coastal container ships.  As with most West-Coast harbors, there is a narrow entrance with a highly dangerous shifting bar (of the sand variety, not the alcohol type).  Tidal currents here push well over 5 knots with seas of 2–3 meters on a good day. In bad weather seas can be in excess of 10 meters. There is a harbor station on the remote southern head where signals indicate the state of the bar and whether the entrance is open or closed due to dangerous conditions. Once outside the harbor you are in the often stormy Tasman Sea, the coastline inhospitable, the next land Australia. Whereas the Waitemata and Hauraki Gulf are packed with cruising boats, virtually no one cruises the Manukau Harbor, though a smallish number of recreational fishing boats do use it.

The two harbors back onto each other and almost cut the North Island into two separate pieces.  At the narrowest point, only about a mile separates a muddy mangrove lined upper Waitemata creek from a muddy mangrove-lined upper Manukau one. A long time ago there was talk of a canal to link the two harbors. But the reality is if a boat in one harbor wants to become a boat in the other harbor, then (short of a trailer), the vessel must voyage up to and around the top of the North Island and back down the other side, a distance of around 400 nm, or a journey of twice that distance around the bottom of the Island and back.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, NZ’s Navy consisted primarily of four elderly frigates —  in size and capability Americans would probably consider them a light destroyer.  They were of the Leander Class, a British design from the late 1950s/early ’60s with a twin-barrel 4.5 inch turret gun, a small first-generation surface-to-air missile system known as Seakat and an antisubmarine mortar. A small torpedo-carrying helicopter known as a Wasp was carried in a hangar on the rear deck.

Live ordinance for weapons is not stored at the main naval base due to the proximity of residential housing and the commercial port. Instead there is a small base for this in the upper Waitemata known as Kauri Point. Naval vessels requiring ordinance provisioning are towed up the narrow channel to Kauri Point and loaded there. When supplies were needed, they had to be ordered from Europe – I assume England, due to the origin of the vessels and weapons systems. These would be sent via a charted freighter which would arrive in a designated ‘safe’ area for explosive-carrying vessels behind Browns Island just outside the port, whence the navy would meet the vessel and take it through the main port and up to Kauri Point to unload. As the navy had not seen any live action for at least several decades, ordinance usage was limited to training and quite minimal. I am not sure, but I suspect resupplying only occurred every few years at most.

And so it came to pass at this time that new supplies were needed. An order was sent and someone got hold of a small Danish-registered freighter. This was loaded with all manner of the above weaponry and away it sailed from Europe to New Zealand. An expected date of arrival behind Browns Island in the Waitemata was noted. The weeks passed. The expected arrival date came. And went. Every morning the navy would literally look out of their office windows in Devonport and check behind Browns Island. No ship. They began sending out radio calls and asking arriving vessels for sightings. Nothing. Over a week went by. Just as people were starting to get a little nervous, the navy received a call from the Manukau Harbor Master at remote South Head.  The harbor was closed due to poor conditions at the entrance, but a strange foreign ship had appeared off the bar requesting assistance to enter ‘Auckland Harbor.’ The Harbor Master had heard the navy trying to locate a ship.  Might this be the boat in question? The navy despatched a car to the site. Trusty binoculars confirmed the identity of the vessel.  Communication was established. The conversation with the Danish Master went something like this.  You’ll have to make up your own accents.  I imagine something like the Swedish Chef of the Muppets on one side and a toned down Crocodile Dundee on the other (New Zealanders sound like cultured, polite Australians, though I realize this is something of an oxymoron):

Ship: “’Ullo ‘ullo. Ve are trying to vind Auckland Harbor and zee navy. Ve haf a delivery.  Lots of boom bang stuff?”

Navy: “Gidday Mate. Well this is Auckland and the navy, but you’ve got the wrong blinkin’ harbor. You need to be in the other harbor.”

Ship: “Vich ozer harbor?  Can ve not cume into zis one?”

Navy: “No way hozay.”

Ship: “Vere is zis ozer harbor?”

Navy: “On the other coast mate. When you came across the Pacific, you should have come through into the Waitemata Harbor. Crikey, you’ve gone round the block and come to the Manukau Harbor.”

Ship: “Blast and damn. How do ve get to zis ozer harbor?”

Navy: “Shake out your chart mate.  Feast your eyes on that and you’ll see you need to turn around and go back around the North Island and come down the East Coast.”

Ship: “Um. Er. Uh. Can you gif me directions pleaz?”

Navy: “Hang a 180. Steam North for about 200 miles. When you run out of land, hang a right. About twenty miles on you’ll run out of dirt again.  Hang another right. Trundle on about 200 miles. Keep close to the coast and you’ll enter the Hauraki Gulf. The Waitemata Harbor is on the right when you run out of sea. Ah, watch out for Islands, rocks, and reefs and she’ll be right.”

Ship: “Roger, Wilco. Out” (or the Danish equivalent)

Navy: “Beaut mate. Catch ya in a couple a days.”

The vessel duly appeared in the Waitemata several days later. When the navy went on board it was discovered that although the ship had charts for the Atlantic, it did not have a single nautical chart for the Pacific Ocean. All they had was a school atlas. They had navigated their way across the entire Pacific using nothing more than an A4-sized child’s map. Given that New Zealand was little more than a squiggle in the corner, it was unsurprising they had mistaken which side of the country the correct port was on. Quite how they had managed to avoid the countless islands and atolls across the Pacific, to say nothing of the hazards of the NZ coast was, and probably will always remain, something of a mystery. This was before the days of GPS.

Normally spending most of their days steaming around the Atlantic, they apparently saw little point investing in charts for other places and decided to wing it when they entered the Pacific. Imagine that day on the bridge. “Well, Number One, that’s the Atlantic gone. Roll out the Pacific charts and let’s have a look.” 

“Ah, Captain, there are none.  However I noticed I accidently packed my son’s school book. There’s a map of the Pacific in there somewhere.”  “Jolly good. Pop it down here on the table. How hard can it be? Full steam ahead!”

I suppose you have to admire the fact that they got all this way without serious mishap, while carrying enough high explosive to do some serious damage and start a small war.

Today’s Thought

There is a great deal of unmapped country within us.

— George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

"Dad, what's bigamy?"

"Well, son, it's when two rites make a wrong."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Don said...

That story has been repeated by a number of other vessels who have arrived at the wrong port. One is the log ships from Japan calling at Mangonui when they should be arriving at Maunganui. The explosive ships, in the 80s we shared them, having commercial explosives delivered to NZ with military munitions.
The charter company is Ridgeway Charters, and checking their website they are still in the business. http://www.ridgewayintl.com/group-news.asp?#id17
They used small Danish built container vessels, and added a cook for the voyage south. We would discharge in Auckland, then have dinner and lots to drink ---- that crew needed company they had been non stop across the Pacific from Panama.

Alden Smith said...

As a Kiwi myself hearing the Navy man saying "Beaut Mate" makes me wonder if the tale has been lost in translation - he sounds very Australian - Are you sure the ship isn't entering Sydney Harbour?