By Jacoba Charles, OTM Inc Investigative Reporter
The twin Atlas-Imperial engines of the M.V. Tuhoe rattle in well-tuned percussion as John Thompson, one of the ship’s chief engineers, eases on the throttle. The engine room is tidy, and the fixtures are color-coded with bright, glossy layers of paint to help newly trained volunteers.
Emerging to the deck of the 108-foot-long, two-masted wooden schooner one sees the placid green expanse of the Kaiapoi River. Just upstream is the small southern New Zealand town of Kaiapoi, the Tuhoe‘s home port for over 40 years. Before arriving here, the ship – built in 1919 – spent several decades working as a trading vessel. During World War II, she spent three years providing supplies to troops in Papua New Guinea.
Today, the ship’s rich history has made her something of a local treasure.
“This is an icon for Kaiapoi and the surrounding district,” says Thompson of the boat that is now a non-profit, held in public trust for the town. “Everybody just loves it.”
The Tuhoe (pronounced “two-hoi”) was built to hold 100 tons of cargo in a triple hull made from Kauri. The native timber was once widely used for ship building; the trees grow tall and straight, and the densely grained wood doesn’t shrink, twist, or bow.
For two decades the Tuhoe‘s life was fairly peaceful, running up and down the west coast of the country delivering cargo to all the small ports between Gisborne and Whangarei. She was perhaps a little accident-prone: records show she struck a bridge at Whangarei twice, and in 1929 she collided twice with the ship Coronation. In 1934 she ran aground two times, and in 1937 she got stuck in the Waihou River.
“Most mariners would say it’s more likely to be a reflection of the competence – or lack of – of her master and crew at the time,” Thompson says. “Ships don’t have accidents on their own.”
Everything changed in 1942, when the Tuhoe was called to duty in the Second World War. First taken over by the New Zealand Army, she was then sold to the small ships division of the U.S. Army. For three years, she was known only as Z8 as she ran supplies up and down the small rivers of Papua New Guinea. Captain Couldrey and his crew of New Zealand citizens faced constant risk, yet also suffered weeks of idleness and boredom. Armed only with two 50-caliber machine guns, they would hide from enemy planes under mangrove trees. Once little Z8 towed damaged vessels to safety – something Thompson described as “almost unheard-of” for a vessel of her size, and for which the crew received a commendation.
After the war, the Tuhoe reclaimed her name and was returned to her previous owner, but she didn’t work much for the next 50 years. In 1962 the Kaiapoi Shipping Company bought her, but the following year modernization killed local trade. She was then equipped as a fishing boat, but wasn’t really suited for it. For the next several decades, the ship was just tied up most of the time, Thompson says, describing her condition as “run-down and derelict.”
Life as a non-profit
In 1980, a group of eight locals – including Thompson – decided to salvage the ship and turn it into a resource for the community. She was bought by the Cure Boating Club, under which the MV Tuhoe Preservation Society was formed and operated.
“Both main engines were seized solid,” Thompson says. “It took engineers Jim Wingham and Gary Hullen about two months to free them up. Fortunately, being diesel engines, the cylinders were not rusted, just gummed up with dried out diesel residue. The cam shafts, cam followers, push rods, valve stems, and overhead rocker gear were a different story however; they were rusted and took a long time to free up using CRC and kerosene. Then of course the ancillary equipment including the old Ruston engine and compressor, air valves, safety relief valves, plus onboard engine compressors, all of which provided the compressed air to the air start tanks had to be freed up as did the bilge pumps, bilge valves, and alternator.”
The all-volunteer crew worked for months to get the Tuhoe mobile again; but when she finally moved under her own power in July of 1982, two thousand people showed up to watch her go.
A year later, the group took passengers out for the first time – taking the cruise from Kaiapoi to the mouth of the Waimakariri River and back that she still does today. Throughout that time, both repair work and fundraising were still intensive. In 1984, she spent nine weeks in dry dock, where the volunteers worked “every available hour,” restoring the aged hull under the guidance of professional wooden hull ship builders.
A few months after she was granted full survey certification and licensed to carry 150 passengers, a major crack was discovered in the port engine’s block. “This was apparently known by the original owners who used to seal it up with Defcon (a plastic metal) to stop it from leaking,” says Thompson. For a time, repairing the engine seemed like an impossible task.
“One day a passenger came into the Engine Room after a sailing and said, ‘I know where there is an engine just like that, a farmer has one in his cow shed on the Coromandel,’” Thompson recalls.
He was able to find the farmer, who agreed to give up the engine. The Tuhoe‘s two original engines were serial numbers 21600 and 21610; the new one fit in perfectly as number 21605. “They must all have come to New Zealand in the same shipment,” Thompson says. “How is that for a coincidence?”
In 2004, the Tuhoe was bought from the Cure Boating Club and became a separate non-profit. The river tours had shut down a few years previously due to a dispute between the boating club and the preservation society, and the ship had begun to fall again into disrepair. When it was put up for sale, the locals were worried about where it might end up.
“We bought it back again, and put the ship in trust to all citizens of Kaiapoi,” says Thompson. “It can’t belong to anyone else now.”
Every Saturday these days, a dozen or so of the ships 50 volunteers show up to paint, clean, oil and otherwise keep the ship in shape. They also can get special training in the area of their interest, such as being a captain or engineer. As a result – and to ease the responsibility for the twice-monthly cruises – the Tuhoe now has roughly three complete crews. For example, Thompson says, in addition to the three chief engineers there are six “ordinary” engineers trained to help run the engines.
One 84-year-old volunteer, Captain Anderson, has been with the ship since she was an active trading vessel out of Kaiapoi in the early 1960s and he was paid to drive her. His advice about steering the temperamental Tuhoe was so popular it’s now on a brass plate in the cabin: “Find out what she wants to do and help her.”