As I Remember: On the Ferries

On the Ferries

Jillian Burcher recalls commuting by ferry in this “As I Remember” story from Radio New Zealand National’s Sounds Historical programme which used to be produced and presented on Sunday evenings by Jim Sullivan.

For those of us who lived on Auckland’s North Shore, the ferries were a way of life. The only other way to the city was the long drive around the top of the harbour through Albany and Whenuapai. The service we used in the 1950s when we lived on the farm at Chivalry Road was the one from Bayswater. Later, when I lived in Takapuna and started work in the City, I travelled through Devonport.

The ferries were double-ended and had saucer-shaped bottoms which were just what was needed on the Bayswater run. Shoal Bay is shallow and, even with a marked, dredged channel, the ferry sometimes ran aground during spring low tides and had to go astern to dislodge itself.

The Bayswater run was across the prevailing westerly winds and sometimes the boat rocked so much my mother had to hold on to my skirt to save me sliding off the end of the seat. Often the ferry would come into berth with an alarming list as a full load of passengers sheltered from the weather. In the winter some passengers preferred not to be inside but congregated around the funnel in the centre of the upper deck where it was warm. The coal-fired ferries gave off plenty of soot so if you were on the outside upper deck it was a good idea to work out which way the wind was blowing the smoke from the funnel.

Toroa approaching Auckland City Ferry Wharf
Photo: Eric W. Young, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries 1021-15

The last ferry left the city about 12.30 in the morning and then the night launch took over with hourly trips. Regular commuters who travelled at peak times every morning and evening had their favourite seats – almost as if they had reserved them.  Woe betide anyone who took someone else’s seat.  They were usually given a very black look.

We were a group of four or five girls who travelled to work on the 8 am ferry from Devonport.  When it was wet we sat in the lower stern cabin on the starboard side.  When it was fine we sat outside.  A short, thickset fellow often sat opposite us and he caught my eye because he seemed to have a head that was too large for the rest of him.  He was the future prime minister, Robert Muldoon.

A regular event on our morning trip was the departure of the TEAL Solent flying boat which left from Mechanics Bay for Sydney.  Later we saw smaller aircraft using the same area for their service to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf. I usually managed to catch the 5.15 ferry home.  I would sit in the upper forward cabin and read the Auckland Star.  Outside the ferry building there was a little cart that sold hot roasted peanuts and one which sold flowers and sometimes I’d buy a little something to take home to my mother.  It was interesting to watch the friendships and romances blossom on the ferries and a good many did.

Waiting to disembark at the Ferry Building
Photo © David Frith

This article was published in the
magazine New Zealand Memories, Vol. 26, 2000, and is reproduced with the permission of Radio New Zealand (formerly National Radio).