The Mahurangi Magazine

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Pages 150–152in printed edition

Cutter era

Mahurangi Regatta 1901

Cutter Clutter: By 2001, mullet boats, most of them still working, were beginning dominate recreational sailing. Of the two outer cutter-rigged craft recorded here at the Mahurangi Regatta, the larger appears to be a yacht. A much richer photographic record survives of the scow era, the form of which largely supplanted that of the cutter. photographer Henry Winkelmann

Although Mahurangi settlers were not far from Auckland, the journey overland was arduous and to be avoided.

By water it is only thirty nautical miles to the Waitematā, via the semi-sheltered waters of the Hauraki Gulf. From the 1850s till the 1930s, sail was the settlers’ lifeline. In the beginning it was the cutterssingle-masted craft, with two or more headsails that provided the service—workhorses of the New Zealand coast.

The cutters were the craft of the small maritime entrepreneur. The skipper–owner could, and did, style himself master mariner—it looks well on a tombstone—although his crew might number only one or two. These local master mariners did have nerve in sailing their small craft, taking on evil bars and making long passages on exposed coasts, even to the South Island or to Pacific islands.

Some of the first cutters arrived from Australia, but in the 1840s the new yards on the Auckland waterfront were turning them out in numbers, and soon afterwards they were being built in any cove where kauri grew. The Mahurangi had the necessary attributes, close to town, and soon became a flourishing cutter factory, beginning with Scott’s William in 1849 and Darroch’s Hori Tepara in 1851, and ending with Southgate’s Eleanor in 1876 and Malcolm Darrach’s Rose in 1878. The intense activity of the years between is described in another chapter. These early working cutters bore little resemblance to the sleek racing versions turned out in the last quarter of the century by the Logans and the Baileys. They were heavily timbered and broad in the beam (11–17 feet) and carried huge gaff rigs of the kind now seen only on a few vintage mullet boats: booms extending far over the stern, and bowsprits almost half the length of the boat. The average size was around 20 tons, but the largest were as big as the smaller scows. For example, the America, Scotts’ last cutter but one from their Mahurangi yard, was 40 tons, 52 feet long, 17 feet in the beam, and 7 feet 4 inches in draft. It should be noted that there were more schooners than cutters about, and a trend towards the former. Of the ships built at Mahurangi, only a third were cutters. However, the difference was largely a matter of rig; the hulls were much the same.

The sudden decline in cutter building arose from two new kinds of competition.

The newfangled steamboats were multiplying on the Hauraki Gulf, offering more reliable services. An odd sidelight on the clash comes from a letter to the New Zealand Herald, written on 26 October 1864 by “Cautious”, obviously officer on a steamer. He expresses his concern that:

Now that steamers are so constantly running in and out of Auckland will you be kind enough to call the attention of owners and masters of sailing vessels (especially the small coasters) out of this port, to the necessity of their vessels being supplied with proper lights, in order to show at night what tack they are on, so as to avoid collision. The approaches to Auckland, especially about the KawauKawau Island area and Tiri TiriTiritiri Matangi Island are swarming with small craft; sometimes as many as a dozen of them are passed in one night, and the generality of them, I observe, content themselves with merely showing a light over any part of the vessel where it is best seen. This is not as it should be, and serious accidents, with loss of life, are likely to occur, if the proper lights are not shewn. In a dark night, especially in the vicinity of the land, it is next to impossible to distinguish how the small craft are steering, until you are close to them, and then, perhaps, the very means you have taken to avoid collision causes one. The Admiralty Regulations, with regard to the lights to be carried by sailing vessels, are very plain, and are strictly enforced at homein the United Kingdom, and in other colonies. The cost of providing them for small vessels would be very trifling, as they are not required to be fitted to the side. A single lantern with the different colored glasses would suffice, if care was only taken in exhibiting it over the side. The expense would not exceed 10s to £1, and might be the means of saving a much larger sum to the owners, in the escape of the vessels, as well as the lives of those employed in failing them. Hoping these few remarks will call attention in the proper quarter to this matter, and trusting that you, Sir, will, through your columns, also advocate its necessity.

This density of sail traffic at night reflects the cutter practice of working the cargo and turning around by day and making passage at night.

The second form of competition came from sail. By the time the Rose had been launched, six scows had taken the water. Superior in almost every respect for the conditions of the northern coasts, they were destined to replace the cutters, and would be built over a period of 52 years, up to 1925.

But the existing cutters had a lot of working life in them yet. With low overheads they were able to compete even with steam. A writer in 1879 noted that Warkworth did not need to be on a railway—the route was even then in dispute—because the Mahurangi already had an efficient service by water:

…goods are taken by steamers from Mahurangi to Auckland for 10/- per ton, and when the Mahurangi people can load a cutter the freight is 5/- a ton.

The shipping page of the New Zealand Herald from its first year, 1863, records the movements of coastal vessels in great detail: ship, tonnage, skipper, itemised cargo, and port of origin or destination. (By the 1870s, such fascinating detail had disappeared from the shipping columns). The following entries, sampled unselectively in late 1863 and late 1864, are for vessels in from, or out to Mahurangi. Clyde, Francis and Vision were cutters, and most of the rest probably were, although Mary and Mary Ira were small schooners, differing only in rig. The entries give a fascinating picture of the traffic on the Mahurangi:

Clyde 15 tons, Kasper. In with 19 tons firewood, 24,000 shingles. Out in ballast with one passenger. In with 5000 palings, 5000 laths, 6000 shingles, 150 rails, five posts, one ton firewood. Out in ballast.

Francis 20t, Dam. In with 720 bushels lime, 23,000 shingles, three pass. Out with sundries and three horses. In with 450 bushels of lime, 38,000 shingles, four totara piles. Out in ballast. In with 16 head cattle, two boxes eggs, three pass.. Out in ballast, three pass.. (Combes and Daldy agents).

William and Julia 33t, Scott. In with seven horses, 6000 shingles, 700 palings, 30t firewood, one pass.. Out with Ht flour, two head cattle, two casks beef. In with 50t firewood, three totara piles. Out in ballast.

Three Sisters 26t, Trimmer. In with 50t firewood, one pass.. In again eight days later with the same cargo.

Prince of Wales 23t, Ngahere. 12,650 feet sawn timber, two pass..

Volunteer 22t, Sullivan. In with 45t firewood. Out with three bags flour, three casks beef. In with 46t firewood, three pass.. Out with four bags flour, two bags sugar, four pass.. (Winks and Hall agents).

Vision 18t, Brown. In with 105 bags flour, 20 bags meal, 14 bags bran, 500 ft timber, four pass.. Out with sundries, four pass.. (G. S. Dakin agent). (Vision also came in under Lynch and Williamson. Brown also came in with firewood in Maruiwi, 16t, and Mary, 16t. This group of captains and ships must have belonged to one firm.)

Tay 18t, Carley. In with 7000 bricks. Out in ballast.

Sea Belle 28t, McGechie. In with 50t firewood, three pass. Out with 22t chain, 14t spun yarn, one bale felt, two pass.

Mary Ira 16t, Thomas. In with 34t firewood.

Comet 17t, Martin. In from Pūhoi with 20 tons of firewood, 700′ house-blocks, five pass.. Out to Pūhoi in ballast, one pass..

The information gives a picture of how the settlers were making a living, in this time of the wars in the Waikato and the founding of Pūhoi. Firewood dominates the exports. In those days before coal was exploited in the Waikato, there was a huge demand in Auckland, fed from all around the Hauraki Gulf. Split wood products were next in importance, particularly shingles for town roofs, before corrugated iron came into use. Then there were piles for Auckland’s wharves, boards from Brown’s mill, lime from Southgate’s new kilns, bricks from Cowan’s kilns, flour from Palmer’s mill (and a reverse trade from Partington’s windmill). The cargoes into the Mahurangi were lean indeed, reflecting subsistence living. There is a notable lack of pastoral produce going out, and considerable salt beef coming in. This is in line with the description of Crawford in 1864:

…as there is no natural grass, the process of bringing the land into cultivation is necessarily slow.

Most of the cutters were tramps, going wherever a cargo could be picked up. Some, for a time, specifically served the Mahurangi in a kind of packet service, carrying the mails and passengers. The Francis under Captain Dam and others, and Four Sisters were among them. There was no set timetable, but there was enough cutter traffic to provide a frequent service. John Darrach seemed highly satisfied when he wrote in a letter of 1870:

We live 28 miles by water from Auckland, can go or come almost any day in the week. I have come up in four hours, cost five shillings.

Some of the cuttermen had their home base on the Mahurangi, for example John Sullivan, Thomas Scott, Charles Kasper, Alex Grange, Joseph Ragg, Frederick Morgan; some became settlers, such as Charles Morgan. Others moved on to larger vessels and retired on the Mahurangi, such as Robert Queen, Charles Emtage and Charles Lamb. Some made the transition to steamboat captain, such as Charles Kasper, William Southgate, Fred Morgan and Emtage, as mate.

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