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A Brief History

In Her 94th Year of Service to Wellington & NZ

Based on a History written by Geoff Bennett in the 1990s, last Update of this bulletin 22 June 2020.


Monday 21 December 2019 was the 93rd anniversary of the arrival in Wellington of the historic floating crane Hikitia. She was launched at Paisley, Glasgow from Fleming & Fergusson slipway on 15/4/1926.

ikitia was built by Fleming and Ferguson of Paisley, Scotland, in 1926 for the Wellington Harbour Board, from the same set of drawings as the floating crane Rapaki built for the Lyttleton Harbour Board earlier in 1926. Hikitia measures 160.1' (48.58m) in overall length with a beam of 52.35' (15.88m) and a moulded depth of 11.35' (3.44m).

Twin screws are driven by compound surface condensing direct drive engines which were supplied with steam by a coal fired Scotch boiler with two furnaces. A similar but oil-fired boiler replaced the original boiler in 1963. In 1980 this was also removed and the present two small modern package boilers were installed.

The crane was built by Sir William Arrol and Co. of Glasgow. It was designed to lift 80 tons at 50' radius but bettered this on test by 25%. The crane can lift 60 tons at 65' and 15 tons at 75'. The speed of the lift is 80 tons at 4' per minute, 40 tons at 8' per minute, 25 tons at 12' per minute and 15 tons at 24' per minute. The crane weighs 310 tons and at a radius of 65' the maximum height of the hook above the water is 95'.

Following trials, Hikitia left Glasgow on 29 September 1926 under Captain J Fullerton for Ponta Delgado in the Azores, a distance of 1445 miles. She arrived on 9 October. After bunkering, she left for Colon and the Panama Canal, passing through on 2 November. Out in the Pacific, Hikitia encountered strong head winds and rough seas, which caused the vessel to pitch heavily. The next 48 hours were anxious and stressful for the crew with the superstructure straining and some deck plates beginning to crack but then conditions improved and repairs were made. The ship reached Papeete harbour on 1 December and took on stores and coal, sailing next morning for New Zealand. The final part of the voyage was not without incident, as on 13 December Hikitia ran into a submerged object and several days were spent battling rough seas and strong winds.

The log of the Hikitia's delivery voyage has been preserved in the archives of the Museum of Wellington, on Queen's Wharf. The master said Hikitia was a good sea handling vessel.

Hikitia arrived in Wellington harbour on 21 December 1926 after a voyage of 83 days. It has been generally accepted that Hikitia's delivery voyage represents a record distance sailed by a vessel of this type with its jib up.

She began work almost immediately and for 93 years has been a familiar sight on the harbour, taken for granted and unheralded. She has worked on all types of construction projects including wharf construction. Her main role was in lifting heavy cargo onto, and off, ships. She spent some time helping to demolish the wreck of the Wahine.

The largest change from her original design was in 1980 when the large Scotch boiler was replaced by two smaller, NZ made, package boilers. The electrical wiring and main electric board was upgraded at that time. In 1982 the windlass from the former harbour dredge Kerimoana was fitted to the stern of the Hikitia. The other major changes over the years are the addition of a starboard deck Washroom immediately forward of the former Steward’s Locker, and the addition in 1962 of the enclosed Upper Wheelhouse.

Hikitia's last job for the Wellington Port Company was the removal of piles near the position of the old Floating Dock.

In 1989 the old vessel was put up for tender and ship lovers imagined Hikitia would be for the knacker's yard and that she would be lost forever. But this did not happen. Two enthusiastic couples Bob and Mary Box and John and Joy Ackrill bought her on 12 April 1990, for preservation.
On 30 July 1992, after much hard work by volunteers, Hikitia carried out an 88 ton test lift. This was the final legal requirement for survey and she was then available for commercial lifts up to 80 tons.

Since then she has continued her role in private ownership as Wellington’s floating crane and has carried out over 300 lifts, plus other jobs. These include:

  • Removing cranes from Glasgow Wharf and Aotea Quay; the last of the Aotea Quay cranes has now been re-erected on Queen’s Wharf;

  • Lifting and turning pontoons for the Lynx link span, for painting and, subsequently, placing in the water;

  • Lifting various ferry gangways at Rail Ferry Terminal;

  • Putting Suilven’s linkspan in place, and helping with modifications for the Kent;

  • Acting as launching platform and control centre for several fireworks displays;

  • Putting Top Cat’s link span in place;

  • Lifting Global Challenge yachts onto wharf for servicing in 1997 and, again, in 2001 and 2005;

  • Salvaging fishing boat Vanguard after she sank at her berth;

  • Lifting Westpac Trust ferry onto wharf for survey;

  • Shifting Fishermen’s Co-operative ice house from Waterloo Quay to Glasgow Wharf;

  • Lifting Breum (an old Danish wooden fishing trawler now serving as a yacht) onto King’s Wharf for renovation, and later putting her back in the water;

  • Acting as breakwater for start-line of Dragon-Boat races;

  • Lifting machinery from Maui platform;

  • Moving railway engines, bound for Australia, into position in a ship’s hold;

  • Unloading three large transformers brought in from Australia;

  • Replacing Barrett Reef marker buoy;

  • Removing a large anchor, and chain, from the harbour bed near the ferry terminal and replacing it in the water at Taranaki Street Wharf pending preservation;

  • Lifting stern of tug Levanter for propeller replacement;

  • Salvaging Maria Luisa after she was run down by Sydney Express;

  • In September 2004, a successful test lift of 100 tonnes:

  • 25 Nov 2006, lifting a 75 tonne barge on to Aotea Quay;

  • In early 2007, two separate lifts of a 25 tonne crawler crane at Kaiwharawhara;

  • Two 34 tonne concrete pillars at the North Queens Wharf development in May 2007;

  • Relocating a 22 tonne ice tower between wharves at Lyttelton on 20 Oct 2009 during Docking;

  • Pulling 3 piles at Ports Lyttelton;

  • Removal of a 29 m high tower crane in 34 separate lifts on Clyde Quay Wharf for LT McGuinness Ltd in April 2013.

Hikitia is one of the key reasons the Global Challenge fleet has been three times to Wellington.

She is part of Wellington's maritime heritage and has earned respect for her years of service to the port and the uniqueness of her construction and machinery. She continues to provide a unique waterborne lifting facility, she uplifts the ambiance and interest of the waterfront and is an ark of knowledge for ship working skills.

On 16 March 2006 ownership was transferred to the Maritime Heritage Trust of Wellington. Current Trustees include Nigel Gould [chairman], Peter McKnight, Peter Clarke, Alan Smith and Malcolm McGregor. The goal of the Trust is to refurbish and maintain the ship as a working vessel to demonstrate the purpose for which it was built, and to help earn its keep at the same time. The Ackrills remain involved and they, and with usually 12 to 20 other dedicated helpers, are on board most Saturdays carrying out ongoing maintenance and are working toward the goal of getting the ship to be truly self sufficient. New volunteers are always made most welcome!

The ship was dry docked over 35 days in 2009 at Lyttelton, allowing full hull and mechanical repairs. This was the first time in 28 years the ship had been out of the water. Extra money was found to waterblast and paint the crane structure and deck and to repair the deck belting and to make up an initial shortfall of funding. Total cost had exceeded $780,000 by November 2009. Funders for the refurbishment and operating expenses included Lotteries Grants Board, Community Trust of Wellington, Lion Foundation, Wellington City Council, Pelorus Trust, Pub Charity, CentrePort Limited and significant private donations. Photos below show the “Southern Adventure”.

Since return of the ship, on 5 November 2009, the reinstatement of the steam bilge pump and fire fighting system, the refurbishment of the Gear Room at the base of the crane, the reinstatement of rudder boxes and steering mechanisms along with re-tubing of both boilers and structural support for all counterweights have all been completed. Also well over half of the crane structure has been refurbished, allowing the sign off of a certificate stating “the ship has been returned to a condition suitable for operating at its rated capacity”. Refurbishment of many other areas including all electrics and the fuel systems are continuing. In 2018 major repairs to our boilers were completed and the 428 metre long 38 mm diameter crane wire replaced. In 2019 a new deck at Driver’s Cab level was installed. This work advances the capability of the ship to be self sufficient to ensure its long term survival. Since cessation of Covid19 control levels, one high level jib repair has been completed, a second repair needing the replacement of a channel at the Jib Head is due very soon then a Lift Survey will be organised in 2020 leading to a reinstatement of approval to carry out commercial lifts.

In 2008 Hikitia won the Heritage & Environment category of the Wellington Airport Community Awards, in 2010 Hikitia was Runner Up in the heritage section of the inaugural Encore Awards and in December 2011 IPENZ recognised the importance of Hikitia’s part in New Zealand’s engineering heritage by unveiling a bronze plaque on Hikitia. In 2019 an award from Volunteer Wellington presented by Mayor Justin Lester recognised effective use of many volunteers.

Since 1997 Hikitia has been the home of NZ’s only metals conservation Lab. This is owned and run by the Maritime Archaeological Assn of New Zealand Inc (MAANZ) and conserves objects from shipwrecks and other heritage sources. We know of no other conservation Lab on an historic vessel in the world.

The ship is now into its 94th year of service to Wellington having arrived on 21 Dec 1926.

Hikitia is the only working floating crane in Australasia of any age, the oldest working crane of any type in New Zealand and is believed to be the oldest working floating self-propelled crane ship in the world. It was one of a unique pair of historic ships in the world made from the same set of drawings. The other was the crane Rapaki at NZ Maritime Museum at Auckland that, sadly, was broken up in January 2019. Some major parts from Rapaki have been gifted to Hikitia.

For more information contact:
Malcolm McGregor
5660278, 021 618402

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