THE DAYS OF THE SAILING SCOWS
by Anthony G. Flude ©2000
The origin and design of the flat-bottomed trading scows used in New Zealand is believed to have come from the United States and
Canada and the methods used in their construction brought by
the early immigrant settlers to Auckland in the 1870's.
Prior to the first scows being built, small schooners and river
cutters carried much of the freight and cargo throughout the
Auckland Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf. Cutters were given
fancy names by their owners, Saucy Kate, Gipsy Lee, Harvest
Home, Ettie White, Stag, Teaser, and Tickler, to name but a few.
The cutter Stag was built in Freemans Bay, Auckland, to the
order of a Mr. F. Archard in the year 1864, for trading around
the shores of the Hauraki Gulf. She was later purchased by the
firm of Henderson & Macfarlane in 1885 and continued to give
service to other owners until she was wrecked on Waiheke
Island in the year 1917.
Large stands of Kauri and Totora trees stood tall in the thick bush around
the Auckland shores and back into the bush country and hills
beyond. Here the bushmen felled the trees, then cut them into logs which were flushed down the creeks to the tidal
booms, where, floating in the water, they would wait to be delivered to the Auckland sawmills.
The first flat-bottomed scows were rigged as a fore and aft
schooners and were only sixty feet long with a twenty-foot beam.
Their depth of hold was generally no more than three feet, as
this area was designed to carry timber and large logs and was
totally unsuitable for general cargo.
Square on the bow, square in the stern, these scows were fitted with leeboards, making the loading and discharge of cargo's difficult. These were later replaced with a large
centreboard, which were easier to work and more suitable for
use in rough seas while sailing in open stretches along the
These centreboards, working up and down in the slot amidships,
proved to be much more practical than the leeboards in the
earlier design. As the scows were built larger in later years, they
needed two or even three centreboards to be fitted. The rudder
of the earlier timber scows was a large square solid timber frame, which hung
on iron gudgeons from a heavy sternpost, stretching out from the
stern of the vessel. The rudder steering and movement was
achieved by shackled chains attached to this, which led through
iron sheaves to the wheel barrel.
Out of the shipyards of Chas. Bailey snr. of Auckland, in the
year 1883, came one of the fasted scows ever launched in New
Zealand. Built of kauri and pohutukawa, she was named VIXEN and was built
to the order of Captain J. Biddick expressly for the purpose of
transporting cattle and sheep around the Hauraki Gulf and north
to Mahurangi and the Bay of Islands.
So successful was this vessel, a second cattle scow was ordered to be built, on this occasion by the firm of Bailey and Lowe of Auckland, which Captain Biddick named the VESPER. [front right]
High railings enclosed her decks fore and aft, while a space was
left so that the fore sheets could be worked. The decks were all
divided into pens which the crew and drovers could put up after
the cattle were aboard. To prevent injury to the cattle when
the seas got rough and the scow began rolling about, coarse sand
was strewn over the decks within each pen to help them stay on
The stock for freight and the distance to each destinaton would vary on every voyage. At times a mixture; cattle, horses, sheep and even pigs, would wade aboard from a sandy beach or be driven from the stockyard pens onto the vessel. Sheep, being the most docile of creatures, were found to be the easiest cargo to transport.
The crew of the scow, barely afloat on the beach at low tide, would watch as the dogs began to drive the stock aboard though a single railed-in
gangway, nipping at their feet, as they cautiously stepped onto
the unfamiliar sandy surface of the scows decks.
As the tide rose and floated the scow off the beach, the vessel
would be hauled out to an anchorage in midstream, to begin
preparations for the long sea journey ahead. By 1883, many of the scows had been ''ketch rigged" and it did not take long for the crew to hoist canvas and
heave up the large sea anchor. A stiff land breeze astern left the distant shoreline behind.
Soon the cattle would begin stomping and voice their disapproval of the heaving decks beneath their hooves, as the scow ploughed onwards with the sound of the wind in the rigging, creaking timbers and straining canvas.
The first sea-going square-bilge scow was built at Big Omaha, some fifty miles north of Auckland in the Darrock shipyard. Others followed, built by Barbour on the Kaipara and in Auckland by Geo. Niccol, at his boatyard in Freeman's Bay. In 1882, one of the largest and better known scows, the KAURI, was launched; she had a length of 102ft, a beam of 23ft and a depth of hold of 5ft.
These timber scows also carried their cargo on deck, making the loading and discharge of large tree logs a reasonably straightforward process. Kauri logs, cut in the bush and driven down the creeks to the tidal booms, could weigh up to 10 tons when waterlogged. These were rafted up alongside the scows when 'parbuckling' chains were attached around them and they were slowly hoisted aboard.
The logs were never hoisted bodily out of the water, but were picked up by a steam driven hoist aboard the scow, the tackle of which was hooked into the ends of the parbuckling chains. As the weight is taken up, the log rolls up the scow's side, when, as soon as it is level with the deckline, it is rolled inboard and then jacked into position by the scow's crew.
The task of unloading and discharging the logs was an even easier operation. The crew needed to only loosen the parbuckling chains, before jacking the first of the logs overboard and down into the water below. Once the first log had hit the water, others would quickly follow with a splash and a roar.
In the water, alongside the scow, the floating logs would be 'herded' into the booms, where steel hawsers would be attached to drag them up the slipway to the mill, to be sawn by the large circular saws into flitches, house planks and timber beams for the many buildings being erected.
A crew of a scow would normally be three to four hands, the ordinary seaman aboard getting the task of being cook. Many had no idea of how to boil an egg, let alone prepare an meal and some weird and wonderful dishes were cautiously tasted by the remaining crew or thrown to the fish in disgust.
Certificates for Masters of these vessels were not required in the early days, however, a Certificate of Service was given by the local Superintendant of Marine to any man who could show that he had been in charge of a scow for more than twelve months sailing around the coast of New Zealand. Scows would generally hug the coastline so no formal training or experience in navigation was deemed to be needed.
However, in heavy rain, high winds and foggy weather when visibility was restricted, many scows ran aground or were wrecked, due to the the captains inexperience in plotting a course by compass. This was altered by law soon after the turn of the century when the large ocean going scows were built and examinations were required to be sat before a Masters ticket was issued.
The captains and crew of the scows became very competitive over passage times and their ability and expertise at sailing these ungainly vessels. On Aniversary Regatta Day, January 21st each year, a large assembly of yachts, schooners and ketches would line up for the races. It was not until 1884 that the first scow races were organised on this day, the course running out to the island of Tiri Tiri and back to Auckland in the fastest possible time.
The larger ocean going scows were built from 1890 onwards, the KORARA and the HAWK, both three masted scows, were each capable of carrying 180 thousand super feet of sawn timber on deck between the ports of Auckland and Sydney. Timber exports by these vessels was at a peak in the years around 1909.
Locally, scows were used extensively around the coast of New Zealand to transport supplies and goods. Coal scows loaded at the Kirapuka mines, Whangarei before setting sail bound for Auckland. During the building boom in Auckland prior to 1914, many of the scows were engaged in shipping loads of shingle, used for base-core and mixing concrete, shovelled from the beaches around the Auckland and Hauraki Gulf and from Kawau and Mahurangi.
Gangs recruited from local labour, would be employed to load these vessels, where the scows would ride up on the beach at high tide and go aground as the tide dropped. Several strong timber planks would then be set out from the deck to the beach so that the gangs could load their wheelbarrows with shingle and push them up the ramps and empty them onto the decks.
Gradually the life span of the scows gave way to diesel motor or towed barges and very few remained in working shape by the year 1935. The larger sea going scows were purchased by Australian shippers and finished out their working lives around that countries shoreline.
Many of the scows in New Zealand ended out their days as coal hulks and were finally buried in harbour reclamation work for new wharves and cargo sheds.