Through the years there were a number of steamers and launches which serviced the lighthouses but the NZGSS Hinemoa stands out in the lives and memories of lighthouse families over several decades and remains possibly the best loved ship to ever sail in New Zealand waters. This attractive little ship did work for the Marine Department for the staggeringly long period of 68 years. However, the Hinemoa is virtually unknown to Kiwis today. (not to be confused with the inter-island ferry of the same name which operated from 1946 to 1971 between Lyttelton and Wellington)


In the 1870s, communications were slow on land and especially difficult around New Zealand’s treacherous coastline. At the beginning of the decade there were only 7 lighthouses for more than 4000 miles of a coast notorious since the days of the first sealers and whalers. By 1800 there were 14 more lighthouses in operation and several others under construction. At that time, the Marine Board used the schooner-rigged paddle steamer Luna for delivering lighthouse supplies when she was free from other duties. In 1876 she was joined by the Stella and the slightly larger sister ship, the 542 ton NZ Government Service Steamer, Hinemoa, which was principally commissioned as a politicians’ yacht. However, the priority of both ships was to service the country’s 21 lighthouses. Besides carrying materials and equipment for the light-houses, these ships had to occasionally search the lonely islands to the south of New Zealand for ship-wrecked sailors.

NZGSS Hinemoa (nzmaritime.co.nz)


With a black painted hull, pale pink boot topping, and white upper works, and a yellow funnel with a thin black band at the top, the three-masted Hinemoa was a most attractive little ship.  The rectangular saloon contained a small upright piano. It had no outside portholes: the lighting by day came from skylights overhead. The figurehead on her clipper bow was the bust of a Maori maiden holding a trumpet in her mouth.  The sleek little vessel had comfortable cabins for the period and a welcoming atmosphere. The Hinemoa had plenty of brass fittings as well as two long brass cannons to polish which made an enormous amount of work.  Young apprentices, training to become seamen, A.B.’s and officers were the ‘brass monkeys’ who holly-stoned the decks and polished the brass.


1881 was the first year of working with the lighthouses. The Hinemoa was also engaged on special services such as carrying cargo for other government departments and moving members of the General Assembly around both the North and South Islands.. Considerable quantities of cargo were carried for the Railways and Defence Departments as both were active in the development of the young colony. In 1896, the ship was also used to established the first castaway depots on the Antipodes and Bounty Islands.

In 1890, the Hinemoa was unable to land due to heavy seas at the Cape Brett Lighthouse, so letters were sent ashore in a tin tied to a line.  That same year, the ship made a cruise to the Auckland, Campbell and Macquarie sub-Antarctic Islands. In the following year, the busy little ship was twice sent in search of the Kakanui with 19 hands apparently lost after departing Macquarie Island.  Hinemoa sailed around the Auckland and Campbell Islands and the Snares but the searchers found no trace of the lost crew. Through the 1890s, the Hinemoa was kept busy attending to the lighthouses, overhauling and cleaning buoys. The ship also undertook a hazardous trip to the islands in the Southern Ocean in search of castaways, and to inspect the provision and clothing depots that had been built on these uninhabited outposts.

On September 4th 1893, The Spirit of Dawn carrying a cargo of rice from Burma to South America smashed onto a reef in fog and was totally wrecked off the Antipodes Island.  Five members of the crew, including the captain, were drowned.  The remaining 11 crew members made it into a life boat and were able to land on the island.  During their stay their only food consisted of mutton birds, mussels and roots.  They had to eat these raw as they had no means of lighting a fire.  They remained on the island for 87 days living the whole time in a cave beneath an overhanging bluff.  They hoisted a flag in a cove on the highest point of the island, which was eventually seen by the crew of the Hinemoa.


At the end of her southern lighthouse trip in 1896, the hard-working little ship was withdrawn from service, as it was decided that a younger ship should take over.  The Hinemoa was advertised for sale in New Zealand, Sydney, and Melbourne, but no offers were received.  With no sale, the government decided to use her to carry coal, sleepers, and other material required by the Railways Department to the port at which they were wanted. The little ship’s life had been spared and she would continue to provide an essential service to the people of New Zealand.

One of the very few fatal accidents in the Hinemoa‘s long career happened off East Cape on 2nd June 1899.  One of her boats, in charge of William Brown, the chief officer, was lowered to find a suitable landing place. While approaching the rocky shore, the boat was struck by a heavy sea. It became unmanageable and capsized, and its six occupants were catapulted into the water. Two crewmen made it to land and were rescued the following day. Unfortunately, the remaining four crewmen were drowned. On returning to Auckland after this accident the Hinemoa ran into Queens Wharf, damaging the carved figurehead on her bow.


In June 1901, the Governor General was onboard the Hinemoa as it escorted the Royal yacht Ophir around the coast when the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall (later King George V and Queen Mary) visited New Zealand.  “About mid-day on the 27th of June we slipped from the wharf and went outside, returning again in the evening, after having adjusted our compasses, and dropped our anchor in the gulf some distance from Lyttelton.  A heavy swell was running and made us roll considerably. It was about 8 pm, when we perceived the Governor’s yacht approaching with the Royal Party on the saloon deck, she was brilliantly lit up with electricity, and as she came on rockets ascended in all directions.  When she came closer we saw that there would be some difficulty in getting their Royal Highnesses from one ship to another, the swell was so great, but after considerable trouble a gangboard was got out, and waiting their first opportunity the Royal Party quickly ran on board and only just in time; for the ships came together with a crash and then rolled far apart, leaving the gangboard dangling down from the Ophir’s upper deck.  One of our four principal gangway ladders was smashed to matchwood and a lot more damage was done but the Hinemoa suffered the most, she having some of her plates stove in and her bridge smashed, and after we got the royal luggage on board, she left with all possible speed for Lyttelton to go in dock and we got up anchor and proceeded on our way to Tasmania.”  (From the journal of Able Seaman Harry Price of the Ophir)

In 1911 the ageing little steamer was again withdrawn from service and offered for sale. Once again there were no buyers, so she was returned to service and became as busy as ever.  However, in 1922, as a consequence of retrenchment, it was decided to finally retire the Hinemoa and the little ship was removed from active service. On July 6th 1942, the 67 year old vessel was purchased by the Royal New Zealand Navy and converted into a waste oil barge for use by American warships under repair at Wellington.


On January 23rd 1943, the Hinemoa arrived at Lyttelton under tow. By December that year, the removal of the engines, boilers, masts and super-structure was completed. After being stripped of all useful material, she was towed out to sea on the 4th of August 1944 and was used as a target for five minesweepers but they only achieved 2 hits out of the 89 shells fired.  Maybe the gunners didn’t have the heart to sink a vessel which had proudly sailed local waters for so many decades and had also rescued numerous sailors in peril on the same seas.

Later the same day the Hinemoa’s hulk disappeared as it was sunk by explosive charges in 120 fathoms in Pegasus Bay, 60 miles North-East of Lyttelton, at 43° 17″ S, 173° 50″ E.

The beautiful little NZGSS Hinemoa is recognized by those interested in New Zealand’s maritime history as one of the most beautiful and successful ships to ever ply the waters around the country. It’s a shame that the 69 years of service the little steamer provided to the development of coastal facilities is not better known about by those born in more recent times.

Ceidrik Heward


  1. […] New Zealand had a plan too, sending several government-owned steamers to maintain the depots and check the islands for any stray survivors. Several crews made use of the depots after shipwrecks while the scheme operated, sometimes saving […]

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