Submarine Chasers that became Auckland Ferries

Christmas Card MY Ngaroma c1954 Pic: InkEatsMan

Christmas Card MY Ngaroma c1954
Photo: InkEatsMan

Sometime in the late 1990s a friend living in Pt Chevalier helped an elderly neighbour clear her house as she prepared it for sale. A box of old magazines found their way to my doorstep. Placed between the pages of a 1954 New Zealand Women’s Weekly was a Christmas Card from the ‘Skipper and Crew of the Motor Yacht Ngaroma’. Tied to the wharf in Northland’s Whangaroa Harbour, Ngaroma is enveloped by a picturesque and peaceful New Zealand scene. I cannot tell you how many times the Ngaroma visited Whangaroa Harbour in the 1950s, but I can tell you that in entirely different circumstances during World War Two, on the night of February 7 1944, the same vessel – then ‘ML 402’ of the Royal New Zealand Navy – anchored at Whangaroa with four companion Fairmile submarine chasers (MLs 401, 403, 404, and 406). This was the last New Zealand anchorage the vanguard of a 12 strong Fairmile fleet would see for the next 18 months; their destination, the Russell Islands – via Norfolk Island, Nouméa and Tulagi – their allotted task; anti-submarine patrol off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

Christmas Card MY Ngaroma c1954 Pic: InkEatsMan

Christmas Card MY Ngaroma c1954
Photo: InkEatsMan

In his book Fairmile Flotillas of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Ken Cassells – then a 19-year-old able seaman serving on ‘ML 401’ – recounts from his diary: “The boom gate (an opening in the anti-submarine defences) was passed at 1525 and speed increased. An hour later the guardian of Auckland Harbour, Tiri Tiri Matangi, was fast slipping astern. Our course lay coastwise all night until off Whangaroa. It was a lovely night, full moon and a following wind. Progress was good and dawn saw us entering Whangaroa Harbour. By breakfast time all five boats were alongside the small wharf where waiting were several RNZAF petrol tankers. The morning was spent topping up our fuel tanks. Crews were allowed an hour ashore and some had a farewell drink in the nearby pub. It was a real treat to wander around the many beautiful coves and look over the glass-like water. A more pleasant last impression of New Zealand would be hard to find.”

With major seaborne threats to New Zealand merchant shipping and harbour security from German armed merchant ships and Japanese submarines, the Fairmiles were built to patrol New Zealand waters. Both raiders and submarines operated in the South Pacific, both with the ability to lay mines and attack allied and local vessels on the surface.

From early 1940 New Zealand’s Chief of Naval Staff, Commodore E. Parry, began lobbying for a fast fleet of compact vessels capable of operating anti-submarine radar, to carry depth charges and be armed for surface engagement. Despite  extensive research,  meetings and consultation, it wasn’t until he visited Singapore later that year and saw a Fairmile under construction  that a definitive vessel appeared to have been found. The Rt. Hon. J. G. Coates, New Zealand’s Minister of Armed Forces and War Co-ordination was visiting America at the time, he took the opportunity to visit Canadian boat builders who also had Fairmiles under construction. Consequently on January 1941 a brief notice appeared in Wellington’s Evening Post, “Contracts have been let for the construction of 20 anti-submarine vessels of a new type. Known as Fairmile patrol boats, they have a double mahogany hull 112 feet long and travel at a high speed.”

Fairmile Submarine Hunter ML 404 Pic: NZETC

Fairmile Submarine Hunter ML 404
Photo: NZETC

A design of Britain’s Fairmile Works – established by Noel Macklin in the 1920s to build sports cars – it was developed before WWII (Macklin believed war with Germany was inevitable) specifically as a fast coastal defender against submarines. When a proposal made to the British Admiralty was met with disinterest, Macklin funded design and prototype construction of the Fairmile ‘A’ and its follow-up, the refined ‘B’. Ultimately designed as a kitset to be shipped to boat builders for completion, the Admiralty soon saw its potential, particularly in delivering to allied countries.

Fairmile plans were acquired from the British Admiralty and prefabricated hulls of plywood keel framing and stringers were arranged to be shipped to New Zealand. All timber for hull planking and decking was to be sourced in New Zealand – including a myriad of necessities – known to boat builders as ‘hogs’, ‘aprons’, deadwood stems’, and ‘knees’. Pohutukawa was used for the boat’s stem and sternposts, Kauri for the keel. An extensive list of major fittings – from the anti-submarine detection equipment, the non-magnetic steel plating for wheel houses and bridges, copper fastenings and steering gear, to the American 600 HP engines and Rolls Royce Mark XIV quick-firing 2 pounder guns (interestingly derived from the anti-tank gun mounted in Hurricane fighter planes) – were also sourced and shipped to New Zealand through the British Admiralty.

The Auckland Star reported on the 29th September 1942 that our first Fairmile was launched in Auckland from the boatyard of Roy Lidgard, “Her job will be to sort out and destroy underwater vessels,” said Mr Coates, the paper also reported the Minister placed emphasise on the need for such vessels, in consideration of the “peril that threatened our shores” and of the “tremendous forces that were ranged against us”. The last and twelfth Fairmile, built by P. Vos Limited, was launched on the 2nd September 1943.

On completion of their Solomon Islands duty the 12 Fairmiles returned to New Zealand, in the Evening Post (29 July 1945), Lieutenant Commander H. E. Cave, the officer in charge of the flotilla, praised the sea-worthy abilities of the vessels, “The Fairmiles stood up to the work very well, and I must congratulate the New Zealand builders of these little ships on their excellent workmanship“. Particularly he noted, when considering “that this was not at all the work for which the ships had been designed, they had been intended for short coastal patrols, but during the Pacific tour had taken part in convoys over hundreds of miles”.

ML 402 made 32,115 miles in her first year on Pacific duty; she undertook her 2000-mile journey home on the 26 June 1945 in flotilla with MLs 411, 409, 408, 404 and 400. Immediately on arrival, and no longer required by the Navy, the Fairmiles were mothballed in Auckland’s upper Waitemata Harbour at Greenhithe. By September the crews began their own demobilisation, on the 3rd of September the Auckland Star carried notice from the War Assets Realisation Board that nine of the Fairmiles were being readied for sale to the public. Many began new lives as passenger ferries, including ML 403 as the Tiare in Tauranga (until 1952), ML 406 which in 1950 as the Motunui served the next 32 years in Auckland (initially with Waiheke Passage Service Ltd), ML 409 was initially sold then repurchased by the Navy (for harbour transport), around 1963 she was purchased by another Auckland company, North Shore Ferries as the Iris Moana (New Zealand Marine News 1967 Vol. 18 No. 4).

MV Ngaroma (foreground) & MV Motonui (left background), Auckland 1980's. Pic: Eric Young Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Record ID 1021-526

MV Ngaroma (foreground) & MV Motonui (left background), Auckland 1980’s.
Photo: Eric Young Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Record ID 1021-526

Cassells notes that ML 402 was initially sold to J. A. Lawler of Auckland who named her Ngaroma. To date I do not know her role during the next couple of decades, however the New Zealand Marine News (Vol. 19 No. 3) reported in 1968 that she underwent maintenance in Bluff while “undertaking an ocean floor mapping programme in search of minerals”. At some point Ngaroma become part of either the Waiheke Shipping Company or the North Shore Ferries fleet, as she was part of that acquisition when the Hudson family purchased both fleets in 1981. This purchase of the pioneer ferry fleets of Leo Dromgoole included the Motunui and the Iris Moana. In 1985 Fullers Captain Cook Cruises were added to the fleet, “The well known name of Fullers was retained to market the tourist and charter services while Gulf Ferries Limited and North Shore Ferries Limited continued to operate the ferry services… in 1994 the group of companies adopted the name Fullers Group Limited.”*

MV Ngaroma (forground) & MV Iris Moana (left background) c1982 Pic: Fullers Ferries Ltd

MV Ngaroma (forground) & MV Iris Moana (left background) c1982
Photo: Fullers Ferries Ltd

ML 402, the MV Ngaroma, was possibly the longest to stay in service as a ferry on the Waitemata Harbour, calling at Devonport and Waiheke Island into the 90s (I recall a number of day trips to Rangitoto Island between 1980 and 1990 on Ngaroma). In 1992 she left New Zealand waters to continue ferrying passengers in Sri Lanka. Here her story appears to end – unlike ML 409 the MV Iris Moana however – who earlier had also been let go for a similar role in Sri Lanka. Tamil Tiger guerrillas infamously hijacked her in late August 1995. The Associated Press reported on September the 1st “…rebels halted the ferry off the north-eastern coast on Tuesday. That action drew two navy gunboats to the scene, which the rebels sank, leaving 21 sailors missing and presumed dead.” It was reported later that the Iris Moana was anchored some 175 miles northeast of Colombo with around 140 passengers and crew held hostage on-board. Their Captain and at least one crew-member would not be released for another two years. ML 406, the MV Motunui was sold off ferry duties in 1984, in 2003 New Zealand Marine News (Vol. 50 No. 4) reported, “Former Fairmile No. 406 has been extensively refitted and on 31st July 2002 moved to her new mooring in Coromandel Harbour.”

Fairmile Statistics

Crew: Two officers, two petty officers, 12 ratings
Length: 112 ft
Speed: 18-20 knots
Petrol tank capacity: 2320 gallons
Endurance at 16 1/2 knots: 708 miles
Maximum endurance at 7.5 knots: 1,925 miles
Distance travelled on Solomon’s duty: 380,000 miles
Engine cost: £4,500
Armament cost: £2,200
Cost per boat: £35,000
Local timber used in each boat: 14,000 ft
Construction hours per boat: 35,000
Auckland Boat-builders involved: Lidgard (x4),Charles Bailey and Son (x2), Shipbuilder’s Limited (x3), P. Vos Limited (x2)


Fairmile Flotillas of the Royal New Zealand Navy by Ken Cassells. Wellington, New Zealand Ship & Marine Society 1993

The Royal New Zealand Navy by S. D. Waters. Wellington, Historical Publications Branch 1956

Noel Macklin

Fullers Ferries* (this source from redundant web page 2006)

The Auckland Star and Evening Post Papers Past

New Zealand Marine News New Zealand Maritime Index

Hijacking of Iris Moana Associated Press