Jade River: A history of the MahurangiDr Ronald H Locker
First published 2001; second edition 2001; online 2014—
This online edition is a work in progress.
Pages 179–183in printed edition
Life aboard the Kasper scows
I left school at 14, having passed standard sixthe ‘proficiency exam’, then the culmination of schooling at year eight, and went to work for Warnock Brothers, the big soap people at Grey Lynn, wrapping up sandsoap.
I stuck it out for about four months and then joined my brother Jim at Donald Brothers fellmongery. This meant a rise of two shillings and six pence a week to 15 shillings, but the work was harder. Then my brother Reg came home one day and told me he could get me a job with Harry Kasper in a boat called Tiri. Next morning my mother had my swag packed and waved me goodbye as I went off to sea, for 15 shillings a week plus keep.
After a few days Tiri pulled into Nelson Street wharf, where I stayed on board. Someone had to, for there was a lot of thieving going on from vessels alongside.
We took on a load of timber, with matchlining and cement, to build a house for Bob Wech’s mother at Pūhoi. We were two days loading and it was hard work. Beside what was stowed in the hold, there was a huge pile of timber on deck, higher than I could reach. We took off with a nor east wind and a rough sea. I was left steering while the skipper was doing something to the engine. The ss Manaia appeared to seaward. I knew an aunt was coming down from Whangārei on her about that time, so there I was, steering straight for Manaia, which would have run us down, had not the captain come up from below and grabbed the wheel, giving me a damned good talking to. We got into Tiri PassageWhangaparāoa Passage as it was getting dark. The sea was rough, and the cargo began shifting to one side. We had to turn tail into the WadeWeiti River, where we anchored about 9 pm, boiled the billy, and had bread and jam. The Kaspers were all wonderful seamen. My boss on this occasion was Harry, but I served with them all.
Next morning, shifting the cargo back into place, I nearly drowned on my second day at sea. We were carrying four-by-twos from one side to the other until we got back on an even keel. I had the end of one in my stomach, while Harry at the other end, walked me backwards and over the side. I got full of water, made a grab at the rudder and missed. A fisherman in a boat nearby, hurried over and grabbed me as I was about to go down for the third time. From the WadeWeiti River we continued to Pūhoi, where a big dance was being held in the hall. Harry said ‘cheerio’ to the boys at the wharf, but because a steamer was coming in we pushed on to the mouth of the little creek by the hall. We were told it was all right, but by the time we tied up we found ourselves sitting on old tree trunks as the tide went out. We were forced to unload the vessel lest the weight of the cargo forced snags through the bottom.
When the ship was unloaded, the skipper said he was going to Saddle Island to load sand for Auckland. All I had to do was keep the barrows loaded while he wheeled them. After three hours of back-breaking work there was a tea break. I looked into the hold and was disgusted to find only a small heap, in spite of our hard graft. It had to be filled, a frightful prospect for the skipper’s mate, especially as darkness had fallen. When we floated off at high tide, I expected a night’s sleep, but instead we set off for Auckland, which we reached at 5 am, to start unloading at 8 am.
I worked with Harry Kasper for 12–18 months. Old Harry, like Lord Nelson, had only one eye, but it was a good eye; he never missed a thing. The Kaspers came from Mahurangi Heads. Harry, Jack and Charlie were all born there. All were first-class seamen and navigators.
I have always been fond of fishing, but it was rather hard to do on the Kasper vessels. I wanted a job on a sailing vessel, so that I could fish. I had this in the back of my mind when I landed a job with Charlie Kasper on the scow Huia. When becalmed I could fish; nor was the work as constant. Often we had to beat up from TakatuTakatu Point, or, more accurately, Tāwharanui Peninsula to Auckland, a day and a half’s trip, which gave us more time at sea. Depending on sail we always looked for a fair wind on the quarter. Often lines could be thrown over with good catches. The principal cargo was sand and shingle for Auckland. The scow couldn’t sail in bad weather or the cargo would wash off the decks.
I was with Charlie for quite a while until, in his own words, he ‘dropped anchor’. He clipped my ears a few times. The reason for one skirmish was that I went for the mate. It was a ding-dong go, and largely led to my signing off Huia. I was the boy, and the boy takes all the raps, but I had to stand up for my rights. It was seldom that any boy left a vessel because of such quarrels. As a rule, there were only three hands: captain, mate and boy, but a few vessels carried four when handling larger cargoes.
Old Jack Kasper was brought up the tough way. He’d made his money out of boats and earned every penny of it. I never remember him going to sea in my time; he just superintended everything to the finest detail, about whither, whence and what cargoes were to be carried. Fred and Charlie were his sons. Charlie, the younger, had a very good master’s certificate and could take Niagara around the New Zealand coast. But perhaps Fred was the better seaman and the best worker.
I next went with Fred in Lena Gladys. Fred owned this scow. He was a man highly thought of, and I got along with him very happily. Lena Gladys was a larger vessel, carrying 20 tons more than Huia, but still with a crew of three, who thus had a good deal more work to do. I had filled out by this time and could work harder with less effort.
I stayed with Fred for several years. We used to sail up to Whangārei for coal, and down the GulfHauraki Gulf to the Thames River for shingle and sand. We also used TakatuTakatu Point, or, more accurately, Tāwharanui Peninsula, where there was very good shingle on Waikauri beach. Little did I think that I would own that property one day (in 1946). It was hard work shovelling in those days before machines. When a southerly had been pounding the beach hard for days, we took up to six hours to load. We had to wait for two and a half hours past the ebb. and then pull the scow broadside on the beach. Immediately all ropes were pulled tight so she couldn’t move. Then the big main plank was put down to the beach, as well as smaller ones, so that 20–30 barrows of shingle could be wheeled aboard quickly and put on the top side to keep the scow from listing. Otherwise it rests on the slope of the beach, making it difficult to wheel along the deck. I used to fill up aft with about 12 yards of shingle, while the captain and mate each put about 20 yards fore and aft of the centreboard. I made the tea and had the privilege of the middle plank, because I wasn’t an expert wheeler, nor would be for many years. Getting the planks fixed securely was an expert’s job and vital to safety. We travelled up to a chain along the beach. The shingle occurs in pockets, and we had to dig a lot of holes. When deeper deposits were found, a white stick was driven in as marker. When loading was finished, great holes were left, which four or five tides would fill in. As the tide came in we pulled up the planks and laid them on the load, to walk on while preparing the sails. We were wholly dependent on wind and tide.
We had a cup of tea when the boat was half loaded, and not another until heading for home. Some movement would be felt about an hour off high water. As the waves rolled further in, the boat began to move up and down the beach. When movement became pronounced, we would haul on the anchor, which had been let out on 75 fathoms of chain. Others used only 50, but Kaspers were very particular about the 75 fathoms. The further out the anchor, the bigger the haul we could get without it dragging. If the wind changed towards the beach and the anchor dragged, we’d had it! We would be well off the beach with half the chain in by the time the tide was in. Then we would hoist all sails, set the topsails and turn head into the wind. The water would begin to lap over the deck of the heavily laden boat. The centreboard was let down to touch bottom, then raised 18 inches. We would wait for the boat to swing on to the right tack before lifting the anchor. Out of the bay, the board would be lowered to full sailing depth of six to eight feet.
We used to work all night, coming off duty at 2 to 4 am, depending on the wind. We had ‘hallelujah lamps’ or ‘flare-ups’, placed on boxes so as not to dazzle our eyes. Later I found the carbide lamp from my bicycle much more efficient. It was the boy’s job to see the port and starboard lights were clean and filled with oil, for lighting at dusk. Fitted with lenses to concentrate the light, they could be seen for four to five miles. ‘Green to green and red to red, perfect safety, go ahead’ was the rule and still is. I took the wheel from 6–8 pm and 4–6 am (the ‘dog watch’). With a fair wind, the journey from TakatuTakatu Point, or, more accurately, Tāwharanui Peninsula to town might take eight hours; sometimes it took 12–14 hours, even 20 on occasion. On a westerly we would head for Tiri PassageWhangaparāoa Passage and on to Rangitoto beacon. The tide would be with us by then. With adverse winds we would get up to the passage on the ebb, and anchor until low tide. If possible, the sails would be left up. One man could set all those big sails unassisted.
I remember a night which showed what a good seaman Fred Kasper was. We were in a storm and met the brig Talisman slashing through it. Other tactics had to be used on Lena Gladys with its sand aboard. We were reefed down and exercising great care. In an equinoxial gale at about 3 am, we were trying to get down Rangitoto Channel. I was in my bunk and things were getting pretty lively—too lively for me. So I donned my trousers and went up on deck. The captain was at the wheel and the mate alongside him. It was so dark I couldn’t be seen standing six feet away. ‘You’d better call the rooster’ said the skipper. ‘You needn’t bother’ I replied, ‘He’s here’. How relieved we were to get up to Craigs’! We had had a terrible night. I went to bed while the captain went home. I heard a siren go and jumped out of my bunk, thinking it was 7.30 am, but it was 5 pm. I had slept right through the day. I went below to inspect for leakage, but this boat never let water in. A foul smell in the hold was a sure sign that she was tight.
To measure the load in Auckland, long rods were plunged into the sand or shingle in about ten places. Our owners were paid five shillings and nine pence per yard, less one shilling royalty for the owner of the beach and threepence wharfage. By the time the crew were paid and fed there wasn’t much in it for the owners.
A big bin was built in the sea which would hold 150 yards. The shingle was about 600 yards long and 1150 wide, which had washed out of the paddock. Mr Bob Quintal entered into an agreement with me, paying a royalty. He worked there eight to ten years and took away thousands of yards. Scows also came from Auckland. They would drop a grab into the big bin and get away with a load of 80–100 yards within an hour; the bin is still there. Mr J H Goodfellow has the farm now, but isn’t keen on selling the shingle. The taxes on it amount to almost as much as he could make out of it.
Ronald Locker footnote The old cutterman, Ludwig Kasper, settled at Mahurangi East and produced a dynasty of scowmen. Fred Kasper married my aunt, Mabel Jamieson. He was skipper of the Ronaki for years, and later of harbour ferries. It was a source of pride to me as a child to see Uncle Fred in gold braid at the wheel. Tudor, when with Fred on the Lena Gladys is said to have had an eye on my mother, but failed to become my father.
In 1946 Tudor bought over 200 rough acres which included the Waikauri shingle beach where he had once toiled with a barrow. While developing the farm he made some ready cash from the shingle, loading it by machine into a sea-bin for easy pick-up by the scows. Today this bay is the entrance to Tāwharanui Regional Park. The lakes on the foreshore were shingle pits.