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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 11 (January 1, 1939)


This is the story of a journalist who went to sea, but had to use the New Zealand railways to get home. It gives an insight into the workings of the light-house service of the Dominion, a great sea-signalling system maintained at high point of efficiency through the work of the Government light-house tender, the Matai.

Four times a year this trim little steamer makes the regular round of our three thousand miles of coast, going into waters which the average seamen likes to shun, but this is the job of the Matai's commander, Captain Burgess, to get as near to the light-houses and automatic beacons as possible, for on the Matai everything depends. With her white hull delicately picked out in blue, her cruiser stern and an ample supply of smart-looking boats and a launch on the top deck, one might take the Matai to be a particularly well equipped yacht, until one finds out how business-like is the whole equipment, built for the roughest of conditions. Look down into the forehold and see the piles of Westport coal, which the crew will bag up for precarious handling out of surf-boats so that the light-keepers’ families shall not go short of fuel. As for the rest of the cargo which I saw there before we left Auckland, it resembled an auction-room for miscellaneous variety, including even a consignment of live poultry and a sewing machine.

The run up the East coast from Auckland was certainly a yachting experience, with the sunlight, calm seas, and the lovely islands dotted around the Gulf. It gave one time to reflect on the value of the light-house service, its contribution to the safety of travel by sea, just as the signalling system ashore makes possible the combination of speed with safety which has to be provided nowadays. Fast passenger schedules now have to be maintained on the sea routes, but it is not very satisfactory to speed across the Tasman at twenty knots, and save more than a day on the old schedules, if visibility has been bad and much time spent in making a safe landfall.

Dead reckoning enables the captain to realise that the coast of New Zealand is ahead, but exactly what part of it? He is looking for the distinctive flashes of the light-house to fix his position beyond doubt, and once these are seen, the course is set with confidence on the next “leg” which brings the boat nearer port. But bad visibility may persist, and here the radio directional signalling system provided at the most important light-houses gives a bearing, and the land-fall can be made just the same. A couple of these radio bearings from the land, and the ship's exact position can be fixed almost to a few cable-lengths.