Rakaia and the Cut


Cutting a Swathe
SS Rakaia entering harbour April 19, 09SS Rakaia entering harbour April 1909 . The Nelson Provincial Museum, Print Collection: 308041
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Nelson had a significant centenary in recent years. April 19th 2009 marked 100 years since the SS Rakaia steamed through the Cut. It was Nelson's first major overseas cargo ship and the biggest ship to come through the Cut since its completion three years before. The Rakaia's visit dominated the news in the Nelson Evening Mail for three days, with headlines that told of the crowds visiting the wharf, a social function for the officers, a dance for the crew, and the loading of frozen meat, wool, tallow and horns. The arrival on the ‘crisp early morning of a beautiful autumn day' would long be remembered in the annals of Nelson.1

Because the vessel was the first big ship to come through the Cut, there was a certain amount of relief that the manoeuvre was completed successfully. The Harbour Board had no tug at that stage, so the Anchor Company's coastal steamer Alexander helped the Rakaia make the turn towards the Main Wharf:

‘The curve was gracefully negotiated, the slew was perfectly made and the great vessel swung and rested quietly against the wharf without even a bump. Bystanders remarked that even if the fenders had been made of eggs they would not have been crushed,' said the Mail.2

The Harbour Board Chairman, Mr J. Graham, addressed the crowd on the wharf from the deck of the ship, and called for three cheers for the pilot, Captain Collins. He said Nelson was now on a par with the other important places in the Dominion and spoke of the advantages to farmers and importers in not having to pay an extra pound per tonne to freight via Wellington. Later in the day, the Rakaia officers were hosted by the Nelson Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber President Mr H.R. Duncan said the arrival of the Rakaia was 'a harbinger of increased prosperity for Nelson', making it viable to open up ‘some thousands of acres of idle land' and to increase rail connections to the port. Mr L. J. Frank from the shipping agents E. Buxton and Co. said the ship's visit endorsed the vision of the people who had worked to build a freezing works in Nelson. He said already more farmers were turning to breeding lambs for export,and he noted that the manufacture and distribution of ice in the summer months should help to make the works pay.3

Over the two days of the visit crowds thronged the wharf, coming from as far as Golden Bay. The Mail reported:  ‘...motor omnibuses and cabs did a roaring business. The officers and crew were most obliging and showed visitors all over the ship. The engines etc. were a special joy to the younger folk.'

Port Nelson today prides itself on its speedy stevedoring services: what our crane and forklift drivers don't know is that this tradition dates from the Rakaia's visit. Trained stevedores were brought from Wellington, but the Nelson men soon became acquainted with the work. By 6 pm on the 20th, 14,000 carcasses had been loaded, which the Mail reported was a great credit to all, especially as freighting frozen mutton was new to both the local railway officials and the wharf hands. The Rakaia took stores on board, and 6200 gallons of water, seen as a potential money-maker for the city council if Nelson were to get more visits from large steamers. 

On day two of the visit the officers of the Rakaia entertained the city fathers on board. Captain Bone, the Marine Superintendent of the New Zealand Shipping Company told them he would be giving a favourable report on the port, but suggested the wharf should be enlarged, more storage was needed and there would have to be further work outside the Cut to make it easier for ocean-going steamers to come in ‘without anxiety'. Almost 100 years on, and after millions of dollars worth of development, the issues remain much the same!

Finally the Rakaia left Nelson, farewelled by a crowd of several hundred, with tug duties this time performed by the Koi, which had just arrived with passengers from Motueka. Three cheers from the crowd were returned by the crew and the excitement was over. The Mail's final note was that the crew had taken away gifts of peaches, apples, pears and grapes - the 'first direct fruit shipments from Nelson'.

Local photographer F. N. Jones had photos mounted by 3 pm on the afternoon of the Rakaia's arrival, (commended for ‘quick work; by the Nelson Evening Mail) and postcards went on sale from a Hardy Street shop on the same day.

This article first appeared in Port Nelson Report, June 2005.

Updated May 22, 2020.

Sources used in this story

  1. An ocean liner at last. (1909, April 19). Nelson Evening Mail, XLIII,(XLIII),p.2.
  2. The view from the wharf. (1909, April 19). Nelson Evening Mail, XLIII,(XLIII),p.2.
  3. The officers entertained. (1909, April 19). Nelson Evening Mail, XLIII,(XLIII),p.2.

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