The strange story of a yacht & its owner lost for 30 years

by Anthony G. Flude 2006.

THE SLEEK NEW ZEALAND RACING YACHT "AWATEA" began her life in the boatyards of Chas. Bailey snr. in Freeman's Bay on Auckland's waterfront after he moved from Devonport in 1880. Acknowledged to be one of the best yacht builders in those times, the yacht was built in the traditional style of New Zealand heart kauri planks secured with copper nails onto pohutukawa timber knees and stem.

Her sails were skilfully sewn from newly imported American cotton, each one cut and snugly fitted to the gaff-rigged single mast and long bowsprit. She was registered as number #455 and listed as a Gaff Cutter, 36ft [11 meters] in length.

Launched in January 1887 down the slip way of Chas. Bailey's shipyard, she soon proved herself a fast sleek inner harbour racer, competing in several sailing regatta's held on Auckland harbour during the period 1886-1900, winning several line honours and cups.

Her owner, Chas Bailey jnr, offered her for sale in the year1900. After a brief inspection and survey, she was bought by wealthy Queen Street lawyer, Henry Charles Swan.

Born in Gateshead, England in 1856 to wealthy parents, Henry qualified as a lawyer in the 1870's and practiced law in Gateshead, Newcastle, where he joined the firm of Arnott and Swan. In 1881 he married 19 yr old Edith Widdrington-Brooks of Ontario, Canada and emigrated with his wife to Canada in 1890 when he was 34 years of age. Discovering that he would be unable to practice law in Canada, he took several labouring jobs including building and bricklaying, before deciding to move on to New Zealand in 1895.

He settled on Auckland's north shore with his wife Edith, (they had no children), in Carisbrooke Flats, Devonport, from where he commuted each day by ferry to his law firm in Auckland City. A quiet, tall man, with a full head of white wavy hair at 46 years of age, he was described as a meticulous lawyer and businessman. Henry soon became a valued member of the Auckland Northern Club and the Auckland Institute Museum.

Henry Swan

In 1900, much to his friends and business partner's surprise, Henry told them that he had decided to take an interest in sailing. He began an intensive course to learn to sail his newly acquired yacht, cruising under instruction in the inner Auckland Harbour and Gulf and later around the coast of New Zealand. He also purchased from Arthur Marsh and his brothers in 1898, sixty-nine acres of bush, mangrove and scrub covered land on the outskirts of Henderson township for the sum of 220, a small back-water country area in those times, situated some thirteen miles west of Auckland. A small tributary ran from Henderson's Creek into the property.

During the following year, in 1901, news leaked out to the Auckland press that Henry Swan was planning to solo 'circumnavigate the globe' in his yacht. Heads began to shake among the Auckland yachting fraternity. They considered the venture foolhardy to be undertaken by a novice in the 'Awatea,' mainly because the vessel had only one foot [30cm] of freeboard amidships and had not been designed or built to operate as an ocean going yacht. Many considered his idea of taking her to sea as suicidal, especially in the stormy Southern latitude's.

Henry Swan ignored the warnings and had the vessel fitted with new sails and rigging, laid a copper sheath over the kauri hull to prevent an attack by worms in tropical waters and made preparations for a long sea voyage. The Auckland seafaring public watched with increasing curiosity, while the 'Awatea' rocked quietly on her moorings in the harbour at the bottom of Queen Street. Finally the day of his departure arrived. At the wharf he said his farewells to his wife Edith, (who had made it clear from the beginning that she wished to have no part of his seafaring adventures), bid his friends and well wishers a fond farewell before casting off his lines from the wharf and setting sail, nosed out into the Auckland harbour with the wide Pacific Ocean beyond, to begin his solo world voyage.

Henry held his course, sailing east past North Head and the dark outline of Rangitoto, Auckland's dormant volcano. In the failing daylight, Henry Swan turned the AWATEA about and headed west up the Auckland harbour to the wide Henderson Creek, where he eased the vessel inland from the harbour until he came to the small tributary running up into his recently purchased bush and mangrove covered land. As the flood high tide approached and the mud flats covered, he nosed her forward up the little tributary until she finally stuck fast on the sticky, muddy bottom, hidden by the surrounding trees and scrub, almost completely out of sight.

Henry Swan and the AWATEA were about to spend the next 30 years in exile, entirely lost from the view of the Auckland public!

As the yacht slid to a halt, Henry stripped off his clothes and jumped overboard into the water and mud below. Hitching up a rope to the yacht, he began to manually haul the vessel further up the small tributary until the creek water beneath the yacht mingled with a fresh water stream from the surrounding high ground. Satisfied, he propped up the AWATEA, washed himself off and fell sound asleep on the bunk in her cabin. As time passed he became more of a recluse, working on clearing some of his land in which he planted apple and plum trees and grew vegetables along the banks of the small fresh water stream in the well drained areas of land he had cleared. He lived off the food he grew. Vegetables grew quickly in the rich creek-bed soil beneath his apple and plum trees. He drank rain water collected during the showers and rowing out in the yachts dinghy, caught fish, eels and snared the occasional duck from the creek.

Awatea1930 He took great care however to work well away from the entrance of the main creek so that his yacht would not be spotted by passing boats and erected a wooden barrier across the tributary at the entrance to his property, claiming all riparian rights above that point. On the infrequent occasions he was seen walking into Henderson on his way to the local general store in George Street, (owned in 1923 by J. Woolley and later the "Norcross Universal Store"),

Henry Swan was described by the early residents and children as a tall upright man, with long unkempt white curly hair, a dark sunburned face, arms and upper body, since he seldom wore a shirt. He mostly wore his khaki shorts, often walked barefoot, or wore an old pair of leather sandals. Henry seldom stopped to converse with anyone for a few years, giving just a wave or a smile but by 1907 he had become part of the Henderson community. In later years he became very popular with the young local children and they would chase after him calling out his name.

Finding that the AWATEA was slowly deteriorating and the cabin roof leaking, Henry built himself a corrugated iron roof which spanned over the top of the cabin to keep out the worst of the wet winter weather. He needed somewhere cool to store his boxes of apples and plums when harvested and hit upon the idea to dig into the soft clay of the banks either side of the little tributary. He began tunneling, opening the area out into a wide cavern extending 7.3 meters long, three meters wide and 1.95 meters high.[24ftx10ftx6.5ft] Henry shored up the roof and sides of the domed shaped cave with timber he cut down from the many young pine trees growing on the property, while he constructed concrete and brick retaining support walls each side. He built a two meter [6.6ft] wide entranceway in brick, with steps leading down to the interior of his storehouse cave below the rising ground level.

underground cave

He was not finished. Digging into the soft clay he opened up a second cave, approximately the same size, in which to store his precious text books on a variety of subjects and his volumes of the 'Encyclopedia Britannica'. Henry was a keen reader and had become knowledgeable in many subjects. Earlier in his career in law, he had made an extensive study of silicosis, a medical condition brought about by inhaling silica dust. He had written an article for the Law Society Journal on this subject.

He had a 'strange method' of ripening his apples. At summer time when the fruit was almost ready, he picked his apples and tied them by the stalk, one by one, onto the rigging of his yacht, decking it out like Christmas lights. When they had ripened to his satisfaction, they were transferred in wooden crates into the cool interior of his 'cave'. He liked to experiment with the varieties of apples which grew so successfully in the Henderson area and propagated a species which he called the 'Golden Swan' apple, perhaps an earlier version of the present 'Golden Delicious' variety.

Henry had an ambitious idea to utilise his skills in construction and bricklaying which he had learned in his earlier days in Canada. He drafted out his own plans and specifications for his project, estimating that the project would need considerably more than 3000 bricks. [Adv. 1910: Bricks @ 5.17.0 per 1000] He now needed to excavate a low area just above the AWATEA to form the base of a pool in which to float her hull after he had removed her mast, spars and rigging and also to become a swimming pool for the local children who visited him. He carefully mapped out the area and began digging the flat base and foundations for his archway and its surround.

Over time as he built the cave entrance and the arch, he would have ordered house bricks, sand, cement and tar blocks from W.F. Dorman, the local Henderson carrier. The red bricks he used were plain, (170x100x30cm) and bore no impressed 'makers mark.' (ie. 'ABC' Auckland Brick Company) Some bore slight corner damage, suggesting that he could have purchased them from a local brick maker, or from the piles left behind lying in Duncan's Brickyard, not far from his land on Henderson Creek, which ceased operation around the turn of the century. The tar, which he melted in a bucket over a hot fire until it could be poured, was for waterproofing the roof of his caves and also larger boxes which contained his personal belongings.

In the spring of 1925 with all the foundations dug out, he was ready to begin building. His arch was built to four meters in height from its concrete base plinth to the top and had a three meter wide inside span. Two side piers supported the four meter wide arch, which was capped by a flat cement slab. Only one of the curved side wings appears to have been fully constructed, the left one capped with flat cement bricks and neatly finished. The right hand wing may have been partly built but unfinished at the time of Swan's death in 1931 and collapsed over time.

The arch was built to professional standards, the bricks neatly laid and pointed, showing that Henry had gained some expertise and experience in this type of construction at sometime during his earlier years.


Meanwhile, in Auckland, nothing had been heard of Henry Swan, the lone voyager, or his yacht AWATEA. After seven years had elapsed, his wife Edith sought to have him legally declared dead, presumed drowned at sea and his will executed. The contents were in favour of Edith.

Swan's hidden yacht, AWATEA, was discovered by chance in 1910 by two young canoeists paddling up Henderson Creek exploring its tributaries. Their father, on being told the name of the derelict yacht they had seen, alerted the Henderson Police and he and a constable went to visit Henry Swan. Henry made no attempt to deny his identity or that of his yacht but stated that he wished to remain on his land undisturbed. The Auckland newspapers quickly fastened onto the story. He refused to speak to reporters anxious for a story, or give any reasons as to why he had decided to invent his world voyage tale in 1902 and then choose to lead the strange life he had chosen for himself.

Henry had made friends with several of the so-called 'creek people.' Another good friend was a Dr. Chatfield, a dentist of Parnell, who also owned a motor launch. He and his wife, son, also a dentist and their daughter, (pictured in the cabin ) spent many hours together with Henry aboard the AWATEA and later up the Henderson Creek during the summer months when they spent their holidays aboard their motor launch, often staying a week or more.

Henry was known to be generous with his fruit, giving away apples and plums to the local Henderson residents during the season and sometimes a box or two from his cool store during the winter months. He also supported many of the Henderson charities which he felt were in need of monetary assistance, especially the local primary school, where he often gave money for the purchase of books and stationery as he was keen for the children to learn.

But what of his wife Edith? We need to return in time to Henry Swan's departure from Auckland aboard the AWATEA, where having waved her husband farewell on his world voyage, Edith began to settle down to her own solo life in her Devonport flat. Her husband had made arrangements for her to collect her allowance of 2 a week from the lawyer's office in Queen Street, which she did regularly, catching the ferry from the Devonport Wharf to the City. A young early teenage Devonport girl in those days, Patricia Milsom described Edith as being a small 'bird-like' woman, who, on most days, wore her hair neatly pinned on top. She joined the Bridge Club evenings held in Devonport which were run by a Dr. Wheeler, when the ladies attended in all their finery and came to dinner in dark dresses with beading and high necks, adorned with pendants, gold chain, rings and bracelets. Each member was given their own invitation cards with which they could invite a new or visiting member to the club.

"Notified at first by the police and then by the newspapers, Edith Swan soon began to visit her husband at his Henderson property", wrote Pat, then in her seventies, casting her mind back to recall things from her young days as a teenager. "Edith caught the 10 o'clock ferry across to the city wharf and then the train from the railway station out to the Henderson township", she wrote.

"'Auntie' Edith sometimes took my brother Desmond and me during the school holidays, which was an exciting day out for us. On these occasions we would all swim in the pool below the falls on Henderson creek which was a popular place to visit for both swimmers and boaties in those days."

She recalls the walk from the Henderson Railway Station into Edmonton Road, the first part metalled in those days, until they came to a track leading into Swan's property. Here they saw the rows of apple and plum trees in a large well kept orchard with the yacht propped up at the top of the creek and some sort of brick bridge and cave he was in the process of building.

'We were told to wait while auntie Edith went ahead to warn Henry, calling out,"cooee, Harry, cooee" loudly so he would hear", she says. The warning was to allow Henry time to get himself decent and put some clothes on, for being isolated on his own property, he often worked naked or with the barest of cover. In 1915, Henry had decided to subdivide his land, keeping only thirteen acres while selling the remaining portion to Ruskin Cranwell of Henderson.

The children who lived in Henderson came to visit him frequently. He loved the younger boys and girls whom he allowed to cross the plank onto his yacht. Aboard there were telescopes and maps and Henry would often entertain them from his vast knowledge about the stars and read them stories and tales from his books while they sat around him on the floor of the cabin. During the summer months he taught some of the young ones to swim at the Falls pool on Henderson Creek.

In later years, some of the older Henderson boys made a nuisance of themselves and pelted the yacht with windfall plums and clay but there was little Henry could do, except shout at them and complain to the local police; he was getting too old to chase them away

During the summer of 1921 a scrub fire broke out in the surrounding bush on land adjacent to his property which destroyed a small shed he had erected which contained some of his personal possessions. Fortunately, the fire did not reach the AWATEA, but burned much of the low scrub to the edge of the creek.

Flooding was also a problem he had to face in 1929, just two years before his death, when the Henderson Creek overflowed its banks, flowing water into his store caves, as well as undermining his partially built arch. The mixture of fresh and salt water wrecked his fruit tree orchards and vegetable gardens. Now a tired man of 73 years, Henry Swan found the damage difficult to cope with.

The Cranwell family lived on the 'delta' farm in Rata Street, Henderson, which was close to Henry Swans property in Edmonton Road. The Cranwell girls, Lucy, then aged 13 accompanied by her older sister Delta, visited him on many occasions, both before and after his yacht was found, where they were always welcome.

"He did not stop work while they were there," she wrote, "allowing us children to play in the orchard and around the creek in our dinghies". "We knew never to pick the fruit on the trees" she continued, "but we were allowed to eat the windfalls.... not that we wanted them, as we had orchards of our own." "On one occasion when we visited," she recalled," when he was ill and lying on his bunk aboard the yacht, he called out saying that we could pick as many of his Burbank plums as we cared to have. We ate a few and then had a fine plum fight under the trees, boys and girls from two dinghies!" "He also kept a small tar coated box in the cave which his wife Edith kept her swimming togs and towels when she began to visit him and go swimming in the Falls Pool on Henderson Creek," wrote Lucy, "I know, because I peeked inside one day and saw that they were faded cotton with bands of white braid!".

Henry tolerated these visits by his wife and her friends children and also the local people from Henderson who also paid him visits. His wife collected her weekly allowance from him on her visits and went for a swim at the Falls pool on the creek. Another resident, a Mrs. Cooper, remembers the good time she had as a young child when she swam in Swan's pool by his arch. The bottom was smooth sandstone or bricks, she recalls, which Mr. Swan kept swept clean after every high tide when the water had receded. Henry became ill in November 1931. He was 75 years of age and died at the house of a neighbour in Edmonton Road who was caring for him.

"He had a fine baritone voice when he first came to Henderson" she remarked at his farewell service to his wife Edith, "We could hear him singing all the "border songs" while he worked". After attending his funeral at Waikemete Cemetery, Edith was to be told that Henry had died leaving the unbelievable sum of 35,000. Edith survived her husband for another nine years until the 19th December, 1940. She left a very elaborate will, giving all her remaining money to her various family members in Ontario, Canada.

But what happened to his yacht AWATEA?

As the years passed, his once fine yacht 'Awatea' slowly began to deteriorate, her timbers became weathered and cracked, her sails rotten and covered in mould from exposure to the everyday weather conditions. After his death in 1931, his land was put up for sale by his wife. The derelict hull of the AWATEA remained in place for another year until 1932 when she was bought by an enthusiastic young boat builder from Auckland, who could see that there was something left in the 'grand old lady' which could perhaps be salvaged. He arranged for her to be towed down to the shipyard of Joseph Slattery in Judges Bay, which had easy access to the harbour in those times.

Here they proceeded to remove her rotting timber, masts and cabin, sails and rigging. The knees, planks and deck beams were all stripped out and soaked for days in large tanks of linseed oil. Fortunately, the kauri planking on the hull was found to be sound after the copper sheathing had been removed. The renovations were to take nearly a year to complete, during which time the AWATEA had a new coach house constructed and three feet removed from her counter in 1933.

In October, the yacht AWATEA slid back into the waters of Auckland harbour, restored throughout but now rigged as a Bermudan cutter. In subsequent years she was sold and renovated several times when she was discovered again, rocking on a mooring at Bayswater. She was taken into storage at the Wooden Boat Workshop in Stanley Street, City on behalf of the new owners Barry and Pauline Hillyer. She passed through the hands of several more owners including the Davenport family. More recently she was bought by yachting enthusiasts, Peter McCurdy and boat restorer Colin Brown who are again working on her to restore her to her former glory at their Riverhead property.

The AWATEA lives on. Her launch from Bailey's shipyards in 1886 makes her a 'grand old lady' of 120 years old and one of the oldest surviving yachts in New Zealand. The complete inside story of Henry Charles Swan's ' 30 years up the creek ' may never be completely told. The people who knew him are long gone but valuable pieces of information and snapshots from old photo albums still surface from time to time from the Henderson youngsters who swam and talked with the 'white haired Mr. Swan, who lived on his boat on the creek'................