Boating – Hard workers on the water

Scows were once an integral part of coastal shipping in this country, especially in northern waters.

They contributed greatly in the development of coastal settlements such as Puhoi, Whangateau, Riverhead, Warkworth and Coromandel as well as offshore islands such as Great and Little Barrier, Waiheke and Rakino, where they provided a link in the days before road transport.

A scow is a sailing barge, flat-bottomed and anywhere from 12 metres to 40 metres long. They are very beamy with large areas of deck space on which the cargo was carried. They weren’t a particularly efficient sailing craft, as their design emphasis was on cargo carrying. Most were two-masted, either schooner or ketch rigged, depending on the owner’s preference .

The first scows built in New Zealand were copied from the sailing barges operating in San Fransisco Bay ,although this design was modified by changing the scoop bow to a pointed one. This was better able to handle the bigger seas encountered off the New Zealand coast .The first one built in New Zealand was by the Meikljohn yard at Whangateau in 1873, to be followed over the years by about 130 more. Only two of these remain today in a working role – the Jane Gifford based in Warkworth and the Ted Ashby at the Maritime Museum on Hobson Wharf in Auckland.

They have never been the easiest craft to sail – a lot of muscle-power is needed and their relative slow speed requires plenty of patience from the crew.

In the early days the crew were paid by the month although later some wily (or maybe stingy) owners began paying the crew per trip. This meant that if the vessel was held up by lack of or too much wind, adverse weather and the like, the crew was effectively not paid! And boy, did they work hard A boat like the Jane Gifford would be crewed by maybe five men and as well as sailing, the boat had to do all the loading Imagine laying up on a sandbank at low tide and wheeling maybe 50 tons of shingle up planks before the tide lifted the boat again!

Things got a bit easier in the 1920s when many of the scows fitted engines that gave the owners and crew greater versatility, keeping the craft gainfully employed more often and making the crew’s lot much better.

Two good books were written about scows in New Zealand – Neath Swaying Spars by P A Eady and The Phantom Fleet by Ted Ashby. These are both good reads and possibly available at your local library. Good sailing (and good reading) this summer.