The Captain's Ships

© Vic Young. Gratefully acknowledged to Vic Young and not to be reproduced without his prior permission. (See the link to Vic's website.)

MV Ngapara, the very last ship that Captain Robertson commanded. When built in 1966 the Ngapara was the latest of a class of four cargo vessels that, during the 1960s and 1970s, were the best in the Union Steam Ship Company's fleet outside of their roll-on, roll-off ships. Captain Robertson's appointment to the Ngapara and, before her, to the Ngapara's sister-ships Ngakuta and Ngatoro, demonstrates the high regard in which he was held by the management of the Union Steam Ship Company. Throughout most of the Twentieth Century the Union Company was the largest commercial sea freight operator in all of Australasia. They did not attain this pre-eminence through generosity to masters who lost or hazarded the company's ships. Normally a master deemed at fault would have his employment swiftly terminated, with little prospect of ever commanding a ship again. This did not happen to Captain Robertson. The Kowhai, his first ship after the Wahine, was a humble 16 year old freighter, a near-sister of his beloved Komata of which he had been master for almost three years during the 1950s. Life aboard these ships was the type of seafaring Captain Robertson enjoyed the most. Within a few years of the Wahine's loss he was again promoted to the Union Company's leading vessels, exemplified by the Ngapara and her sisters. "He has served us well" were the words used in the company memorandum finalising Captain Robertson's retirement in August 1973.

© Vic Young. Gratefully acknowledged to Vic Young and not to be reproduced without his prior permission. (See the link to Vic's website.)

The Union Steam Ship Company's motor vessel Kokiri. It was on ships like this that Captain Robertson proved his abilities as a navigator and ship handler. Built in 1951 the Kokiri was one of a large fleet of colliers operated by the Union Company, delivering coal from West Coast mines to ports all around New Zealand in the days when coal was the predominant energy source for heating and cooking, as well for the manufacture of town gas. Crossing the river bars and manoeuvring ships in the river ports of Greymouth and Westport on the West Coast demanded particularly skilled seamanship, with no room for error. The Kokiri's job was to supply coal to Wellington; her route was from Greymouth or Westport, north around the top of the South Island, across Cook Strait and into Wellington harbour where she unloaded at the Aotea Quay Coal Berth. During the more than two years that Captain Robertson commanded the Kokiri, she maintained this vital service week in and week out. In addition to the treacherous bar harbours, the coastal route required precise navigation and very careful watch-keeping. The Kokiri had no radar and nothing of the computerised systems found on ships' bridges today.

Captain Robertson's Ships

These are all the ships Captain Robertson served aboard during his 34 years as a ship's officer and master with the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd.

Dates given for each ship exclude holidays and "time off".

Short assignments of a few days or a few weeks were all part of normal shipping operations. Captain Robertson was either temporarily relieving a fellow officer or master who was away on holiday leave or sick leave, or a ship was being repositioned from one port to another and needed a deck officer or master for this single voyage.

The right-hand column states the gross register tonnage of each ship and the years she served in the Union Steam Ship Company's fleet. The Aramoana was owned by New Zealand Railways but manned by Union Steam Ship Company personnel.

Gross register tonnage is a measure of a ship's internal capacity (not of her weight). One ton is equivalent to 100 cubic feet capacity.

Third Officer

1. Waipahi

11 days from 9 Sept 1938

1,783 tons, 1925-55

2. Waimarino

5½ mths from 1 Oct 1938

3,067 tons, 1930-57

3. Korowai

4 mths from 15 Feb 1939

2,525 tons, 1938-65

4. Terawhiti

2 weeks from 19 July 1939

salvage tug, 1907-47

5. Waipiata

6 weeks from 7 Aug 1939

2,826 tons, 1926-56

6. Kaiwarra

one mth from 9 Nov 1939

3,051 tons, 1919-42

7. Rangatira

two mths from 8 Jan 1940

6,152 tons, 1931-67

8. Aorangi

5½ mths,18 Mar-28 Aug 1940

17,491 tons, 1924-51

8 ships; two years from September 1938 to September 1940 as Third Officer.

Second Officer

1. Wainui

8½ mths from 28 Sep 1940

1,633 tons,1930-58

2. Korowai

6 mths from 17 June 1941

2,525 tons, 1938-65

3. Kiwitea

4 mths from 13 Feb 1942

2,350 tons, 1925-55

4. Kakapo

5 mths from 14 July 1942

2,498 tons, 1937-60

5. Kurow

4 days from 15 Dec 1942

3,900 tons, 1939-65

6. Wahine

3 mths from 19 Jan 1943

4,436 tons, 1913-49

7. Karetu

5 weeks from 12 May 1943

3,219 tons, 1924-51

8. Waipori

5 mths from 23 June 1943

4,282 tons, 1938-65

8 ships; 2¾ years from September 1940 to November 1943 as Second Officer.

Chief Officer

1. Waipori (Acting Chief)

8 days from 19 Nov 1943

4,282 tons, 1938-65

2. Wainui

3 weeks from 28 Feb 1944

1,633 tons,1930-58

3. Waipahi

11½ mths from 6 Apr 1944

1,783 tons, 1925-55

4. Wingatui

6 mths from 8 Jan 1945

2,378 tons, 1920-51

5. Karepo

13¾ mths from 14 Jul 1945

2,563 tons, 1929-54

6. Karu

8½ mths from 4 Sept 1946

1,044 tons, 1935-64

Six months private leave to Canada and UK from 15 May 1947

7. Kaitangata (building in UK)

7 mths from 17 Nov 48

2,485 tons, 1948-68

8. Kaitoki (building in UK)

9½ mths from 12 June 1948

3,551 tons, 1948-72

9. Wahine

4 months from 19 April 1949

4,436 tons, 1913-49

10. Rangatira

6½ weeks from 1 Sept 1949

6,152 tons, 1931-67

11. Monowai

7 mths from 19 Oct 1949

10,852 tons, 1930-60

12. Hinemoa

19 mths from 9 Oct 1950

6,911 tons, 1946-67

13. Konui

24 days from 16 April 1952

2,485 tons, 1949-69

13 ships; 8½ years from November 1943 to May 1952 as Chief Officer.

Longest was 19 months aboard T.E.V. Hinemoa as Chief Officer.

Captain Gordon Robertson. This is a formal portrait taken in 1952 shortly after he was promoted to Master and appointed to command of his first ships. He is 41 years of age. On the left shoulder of his uniform jacket are the two rows of campaign ribbons from his Merchant Navy service during World War Two. Captain Robertson was dressed in this uniform throughout 10th April 1968. This photo was given to Murray Robinson by Mrs Noeleen Knott, Captain Robertson's sister.

Master

1. Kanna

4¾ mths from 15 May 1952

925 tons, 1946-67

2. Karu

3 mths from 11 Oct 1952

1,044 tons, 1935-64

3. Konui

1 mth from 8 Jan 1953

2,485 tons, 1949-69

4. Kokiri

21¾ mths from 9 Feb 1953

2,470 tons, 1951-68

5. Kaponga

13¾ mths from 1 Dec 54 (London)

2,772 tons, 1955-61

6. Waipiata

7½ mths from 12 April 1956

2,826 tons, 1926-56

7. Komata

9½ mths from 27 Nov 1956

3,543 tons, 1947-67

8. Koromiko

3 weeks from 6 Sept 1957

3,552 tons, 1947-67

9. Komata

8 mths from 28 Jan 1958

3,543 tons, 1947-67

10. Kokiri

5 mths from 26 Jan 1958

2,470 tons, 1951-68

11. Kurutai

5¾ mths from 12 May 1959

3,528 tons, 1952-72

12. Kaimai

1 mth from 23 Nov 1959

2,007 tons, 1956-72

13. Extra Chief

2 weeks from 8 Jan 1960

Officer, Rangatira

14. Kaimai

2¼ mths from 3 Feb 1960

2,007 tons, 1956-72

15. Tamahine

1 mth from 22 April 1960 (cancer)

1,989 tons, 1925-62

16. Waiana

4½ mths from 24 Aug 1960

3,3363 tons,1937-66

17. Komata

19¾ mths from 20 Jan 1961

3,543 tons, 1947-67

18. Aramoana

6¾ mths from 18 Sept 1962

4,160 tons, 1962-84

19. Tarawera

1 mth from 29 April 1963

2,103 tons, 1958-74

20. Aramoana

15 days from 4 June 1963

4,160 tons, 1962-84

21. Kaimiro

1 mth from 25 June 1963

3,722 tons, 1956-75

22. Aramoana

26¼ mths from 26 July 1963

4,160 tons, 1962-84

23. Hinemoa

4½ mths from 1 Dec 1965

6,911 tons, 1946-67

24. Maori

3¾ mths from 19 April 1966

8,303 tons, 1953-74

25. Wahine

17¼ mths from 31 Oct 1966

8,944 tons, 1966-68

26. Kowhai

3¼ mths from 2 Oct 1968

3,528 tons, 1952-73

27. Kawerau

16¾ mths from 27 Jan 1969

3,698 tons, 1955-75

28. Kaituna

3¾ mths from 16 Nov 1970

3,722 tons, 1956-75

29. Karetu

5½ mths from 5 March 1971

3,222 tons, 1964-80

30. Waimea

3 weeks from 17 Feb 1972

3,657 tons, 1953-75

31. Koranui

2 mths from 6 April 1972

3,722 tons, 1956-75

32. Ngakuta

5 weeks from 12 June 1972

4,576 tons, 1962-83

33. Ngatoro

3¾ mths from 13 Nov 1972

4,576 tons, 1962-76

34. Ngapara

6 weeks, 29 Apr-11 June 1973

4,575 tons, 1966-86

A certificate of discharge for an able seaman who had completed a voyage aboard the Kanna while Captain Robertson was her master, and who was then re-engaged as a member of the Kanna's crew. Captain Robertson's signature appears in the bottom left corner.

Captain Robertson's first command after the Wahine was this vessel, the Union Steam Ship Company's 16 year old, 3,528 grt freighter Kowhai. She is seen here manoeuvring in Wellington harbour with the shoreline of Kaiwharawhara in the background. The tops of a tug's funnel and mast are visible behind the Kowhai, under the forward set of raised derricks. This is a photo of her from the 1950s when all the Union Company's cargo ships had black hulls with their superstructures painted an orange-brown colour.

Total of 27 ships commanded over 21 years (between 15 May 1952 and 11 June 1973)

Captain Robertson was Master of 17 ships prior to T.E.V. Wahine. The Wahine was Captain Robertson's 18th command. He commanded nine ships after the Wahine.

Ships commanded longest:

1. Komata, total of 37¼ months

2. Aramoana, total of 33½ months

3. Kokiri, total of 26¾ months

Sources:

Union Steam Ship Company archives, Wellington Museum of City and Sea

Private papers of Captain H G Robertson

Conversations with Anne Robertson (Captain Roberton's wife) and Noeline Knott (Captain Robertson's sister)

I J Farquhar Union Fleet