Zeitblick / Das Online-Magazin der HillAc - September/Oktober 2007 - Nr. 25

City, My City

Series 3, Part 2

The Ladies of Wellington Harbour

My sincere thanks to Sergeant David "Tex" Houston for information provided for this story and for his infinite patience in "showing me the ropes". Also thanks to the New Zealand Police Force for their help with research and for permission to use images in this story. Once again sincere thanks to the Alexander Turnbull Library for their permission to use some of the images below.


Lady Elizabeth III lying in calm waters at her mooring on Wellington Harbour. The Police Maritime
Unit base is to the left, out of shot. © Peter Wells

The New Zealand Police have had a presence in Wellington Harbour and on the Wellington waterfront almost continuously from the early days of colonisation in 1840. In 1841 the police were housed in a small building at Thorndon on the western shores of the harbour. Four constables were appointed as part-time boatmen whose duty it was, amongst others, to search departing ships for discontented immigrants who attempted to depart the country without repaying their passage money which had been paid for them under the assisted immigrant scheme of that time. Although charged with policing the shoreline and waters of Wellington Harbour the police had no vessel of their own, often relying on an 18 foot open cutter belonging to the harbourmaster which was borrowed as required. Water policing was not to become an enduring part of Wellington until ninety years ago on August 23rd 1917. On this date the Police Commissioner of the time, John O'Donovan, was informed that the Ministry of Justice had authorised the appointment of a sergeant and six constables to be assigned for continuous duty on the Wellington waterfront. This was the beginning of the Wellington Police Maritime Unit.


Sketch of the Wellington Waterfront 1841 by Mr Isaac Nattrass showing the first Wellington Police Station near the beach (6 in the picture). This building was a combined Church, Post Office and Police Station. © Alexander Turnbull Library - scanned from the book Early Wellington by Louis Ward

Apart from the huge decimation to its male population, World War One left New Zealand virtually untouched with the major conflicts being in Europe, half a world away. In the main life carried on as peacefully as it had always done and there was no need to augment local policing. World War Two, however, was an entirely different matter as the war in the Pacific brought a real threat very much closer to our country. 1940 saw not only the "friendly invasion" of American armed forces - Marines, Army and Navy - but the close approach of a powerful and deadly enemy - the armed forces of the Empire of Japan. United States warships, troop carriers and supply ships became very frequent visitors to the harbour, in ever increasing numbers, bringing supplies, many of which were glamorous to New Zealand's reserved British lifestyle. With these supplies being stockpiled on Wellington's wharves, the police were issued an edict to safeguard the harbour and its environs and in 1941 staff numbers were increased to 23 officers. These new maritime police, however, were missing one essential piece of equipment - a boat of their own. In the past the police had borrowed and commandeered vessels as they required them, but with the changes brought about by the presence of so many ships, servicemen and equipment there was a need for the police to have their own vessel. Detective Sergeant Harding travelled to Australia to look at the operation of the Harbour Police in Sydney and on his return the recommendation to provide harbour launches for Wellington and Auckland was taken up. Wellington's first police launch was the aptly named Antipodes, a 10.3 meter pleasure craft. Not especially designed for Wellington Harbour and Cook Strait conditions, the Antipodes was slow (6 knots being her top speed) and narrow in beam and as such she was inherently unstable, rolling excessively and continuously in even the lightest swell. As Constable Wright was heard to quip, "she was the nearest thing to perpetual motion". Antipodes was quickly deemed unsuitable for the role and a replacement was sought.


Police Launch [17 Aug 1950] Reference number: 114/185/02-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image. The first Lady Elizabeth attracts a lot of attention on the Wellington waterfront.

Whilst events unfolded in Wellington in an attempt to find a suitable craft, in Blenheim on the other side of Cook Strait, Fred Musgrove had spent many years planning and building the pleasure craft of his dreams a 12 meter cabin cruiser. The launch, which Fred named Lady Elizabeth after much-loved grandmother, was designed to spend its days cruising the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island and was launched on New Years Day 1941. A representative of the Ministry of Defence spotted Fred's launch and decided that it would be ideal for another purpose. Under the Shipping Requisitioning Emergency Regulations, brought into force on September 2nd 1939 when hostilities commenced, Fred was told that he was "selling" his launch and was offered a non-negotiable £2,000 for her which was a fair price in those days. On September 6th 1941 she was sailed across the strait to Wellington where she entered service and history as the first police vessel to carry the celebrated name. Unfortunately conditions for the police crew didn't really improve with her acquisition. She was slow - just one knot faster than Antipodes - and, like her predecessor, she rolled excessively. However this boat was now the property of the New Zealand Government, and the responsibility of the harbour police, and for the first time since their inception the police "owned" their own vessel.

By the exacting standards of today's harbour police early activities in bringing policing to the harbour and the waterfront were certainly rudimentary. Crew members had no formal nautical qualifications and the constables were appointed as "drivers" based entirely on their having an ability with small boats. They were also expected, of course, to be good swimmers. The vessel itself was not designed for the open sea and exhibited few of the safety features that today we take for granted. On-board communication was almost non-existent and she carried - "to be used as a defensive measure" - an old army issue .303 rifle and a few rounds of ammunition. Those who manned this craft over the years continued to utilise "Kiwi ingenuity" to make a disagreeable circumstance into something more bearable. Such events as a standoff with the American warship USS President Jackson, the disappearance of Lady Elizabeth when she floated free from her mooring one night and her apparent theft by crew members of the troop carrier SS Durban Castle all gave rise to a colourful and occasionally amusing, life for the first Lady Elizabeth and her crew.


Lady Elizabeth II, the first purpose-built police launch for Wellington Harbour. © Wellington Police Maritime Unit

The crew of Lady Elizabeth succeeded in keeping her running for over 22 years but by the late 1960's she was beginning to wear out as she neared the end of her effective life span. Her engine was replaced in 1963 but the hoped for increase in speed and performance was not achieved. She now barely achieved 9 knots, two knots above her previous top speed and no obvious moves had been made by police administration to obtain a replacement vessel. In 1971 the Marine Department withdrew her certificate of survey which meant that she could no longer operate on a legal basis and the police were once again without a vessel. As it would be another two years before a replacement vessel became a reality, two "loan" vessels were used in the interim. The first of these was the Tuna a single engined survey vessel of some 9 meters in length. Unfortunately this was extensively damaged by a ships propeller while working at Point Howard Wharf and again the search commenced for a replacement. The Kaikoura, a 10.6 meter vessel powered by a 100HP engine and capable of 10 knots was then utilised until the arrival of Lady Elizabeth II.


Japanese fishing vessel Choyo Maru 5 aground in Fitzroy Bay, Wellington - Photograph taken by Jack Short or Merv Griffiths [ca 29 Mar 1976] Reference number: EP/1976/1125/23-F Lady Elizabeth II, just off-shore, busy working on Wellington's south coast. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Construction of the new police launch began in early 1972 and by March 1973 she had arrived in Wellington. Unlike any who had gone before her she was of very sturdy build, stable, 15 meters in length and powered by two 250HP engines giving her a top speed of 18 knots. Lady Elizabeth II was a purpose-built patrol launch designed to withstand the harsh conditions in Cook Strait and over her 13 years of life she and her crew were responsible for saving hundreds of people and millions of dollars worth of shipping which would otherwise have faced certain destruction. Conditions were not, however, all plain sailing for the second Lady Elizabeth. On April 1st 1978, going to the aid of the 18 meter yacht Bounty in hurricane force winds, Constable Greg Rowe was swept to his death, aged just 23. Later, in 1982, the government required budget cuts of all its departments and in an attempt to meet the reduced spending level it was suggested that Lady Elizabeth II be transferred to Auckland to replace that cities aging police vessel. As has been often stated, two things are very dear to a Wellingtonians heart - the harbour and the police launch. Such an angry public outcry ensued, backed by an unwavering media campaign, that the authorities backed down and Lady Elizabeth II remained in Wellington. As if dogged by bad luck, however, tragedy was again to strike. On July 2nd 1986, in a severe southerly storm that Wellington sometimes sees, Lady Elizabeth II was overpowered by mountainous seas surging through the harbour entrance and capsized. No rescue boat could make it to the stricken vessel and were it not for the actions of helicopter pilots the late Peter Button and his son Clive in the Westpac Rescue Helicopter all four crew on the Lady Elizabeth II would likely have drowned. Flying with superb skill and bravery Peter was able to pluck two of the four crewmen to safety, often flying around and below the level of the waves. Tragically Senior Sergeant Phillip Ward and Constable Glen Hughes lost their lives on that day and Lady Elizabeth II was dashed to pieces to be washed up on the opposite side of the harbour some days later. Peter Button, a much respected and skilled pilot, was tragically killed in 1987 during a routine search for an escaped prisoner.


Lady Elizabeth III cruises at speed on Wellington Harbour. She has three steering positions - fore and aft of the flying bridge as well as in the wheelhouse, well protected from the elements. © Wellington Police Maritime Unit

The day following the loss of Lady Elizabeth II a fund-raising campaign was initiated by the citizens of Wellington to raise funds for a replacement launch. In the ensuing 18 months $280,000 was raised to which the government added $900,000, part of the money received from the French Government in reparation for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. This new vessel was to be state of the art in terms of its design, equipment, safety and functionality. The investigation into the loss of Lady Elizabeth II, while finding no one at fault, had recommended that any replacement vessel be self-righting. Such vessels were not common and an exhaustive research around the world failed to turn up anything suitable. As is common in New Zealand we usually find the solution closer to home than first expected. A naval architect, John Harrhy, living in the north Wellington suburb of Upper Hutt, was contracted to undertake the design. The new vessel was to be 17.5 meters long and powered by twin 500HP engines which gave her a top speed of 22 knots. Relatively light but extremely strong she was built using the latest boat building materials available (Divincell, Nomex, carbon, kevlar and glass fibre) and construction commenced in January 1989. Government bureaucracy dogged her progress, however, and further budget cuts gave rise to suggestions that the project for Wellington be cancelled and the launch, when completed, be stationed at Auckland. True to form the outraged residents of Wellington raised a public petition, achieving 54,000 signatures within the first two weeks and, with support from the, then, two daily newspapers and a protest on Wellington harbour by over 400 vessels authorities were forced to back down and confirm that Lady Elizabeth III would be stationed at Wellington.


Lady Elizabeth III undergoing self-righting trials at Nelson, New Zealand. © Wellington Police Maritime Unit

Throughout the last century the Wellington Police Maritime Unit and its antecedents have been responsible for and crucial to the policing of the harbour and its environs and have become involved in many of the key rescues in our local waters - the steamer Penguin in February 1905, Progress in 1931, the inter-island passenger ferry Wahine in 1968, Pacific Charger in 1981, the cruise ship Mikhail Lermantov in 1986 and the fishing vessel Maria Luisa in 1996. Lady Elizabeth III is often seen cruising the waters around Wellington and far beyond the harbour entrance undertaking a vital role in official activities in our waters and along the foreshore. She and her crew are responsible safeguarding domestic and foreign ships, undertaking fisheries patrols, ensuring the safety of recreational users of the port and taking part in search and rescue activities. As such she and her crew have become an integral part of life in and around the harbour. In many situations the crew have put their life and well-being at risk in the sworn undertaking of their duties as part of the New Zealand police force. Recently these duties have been captured by Television New Zealand in its series "Coast Watch", giving us a glimpse into the activities of a vital sector of the policing of Wellington's regional infrastructure.


Wellington wharf police tow the upturned fishing boat Maria Luisa to shore - Photograph taken by Ross Giblin [ca 30 December 1996] Reference number: EP/1996/3725/3A-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Time marches on and even the days of the current Lady Elizabeth are numbered. Plans are afoot to up-grade this elegant vessel and provide her crew with a more modern equivalent. Just what form this new craft will take has yet to be decided but we can rest assured that those in authority now fully understand the requirements of a purpose-built police cruiser. Wellington needs it's own harbour police and a suitable launch, high-tech and capable of withstanding the rigours of Wellington's changeable and sometimes violent weather patterns, is an absolute necessity. It must be safe and virtually incapable of foundering while offering protection to its crew and those they rescue. This story commemorates not only those who have gone before - in some cases at the expense of their lives - but also the current maritime force whose keen dedication to duty ensures a safer and more secure harbour for the residents of Wellington and those who visit from time to time. While researching this story I have had the pleasure of meeting members of the Wellington Maritime Police Unit at their base on Waterloo Wharf and of being given an extensive tour of Lady Elizabeth III. Thanks guys, it's been quite an experience.


The wheelhouse of Lady Elizabeth III showing some of the high-tech equipment including radar, GPS and communications equipment. © Peter Wells

© Peter Wells, Wellington, New Zealand