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

New Zealand's … — Light-house Service — The Government Steamer Matai at Work

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New Zealand's
Light-house Service
The Government Steamer Matai at Work

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.

The Sun-valve Control of Automatic Lights.

Twenty-six important light-houses carry staffs of keepers, but there are 170 lights around the coast, most of them automatic.
Landing a passenger from the Government light-house steamer “Matai,” at Cape Brett light-house.

Landing a passenger from the Government light-house steamer “Matai,” at Cape Brett light-house.

They go out in the day-time, and their warning beams shine out immediately darkness approaches. Often these lights have their distinctive flashes, for otherwise their identity would not be known. How this remarkable automatic system works we were able to see when the Matai did its first job, replenishing the gas supply for a light on the Hen and Chickens group. The light is nearly 500 feet above sea level and it was the job of the Matai's crew to load a surf-boat with cylinders filled with gas dissolved in acetone, and reduced by immense pressure to liquid state. There is a porous material in the cylinders which eliminates the danger of explosion, a highly essential precaution seeing how these 200 lbs. weights have to be man-handled up a track more fit for goats than sailors. Empty cylinders had to be taken away, the lenses of the light polished, and the delicate mechanism carefully overhauled, so that it could go on doing its duty quite infallibly for four months, if necessary.
These automatic lights depend for their operation on the well-known physical law that light is heat. The governing valve is called a sun-valve, but it is not dependent on what we feel of the warm rays of the sun. What we see is a central rod coated with lamp-black, which absorbs light. Surrounding it are three highly polished rods, light-reflecting. These readily expand in the light, and a lever connects them with the black rod, page 26
Landing stores for Cape Brett light-keepers. The scene ashore.

Landing stores for Cape Brett light-keepers. The scene ashore.

which does not expand. On the minute difference in length of these rods, varying with conditions of daylight and darkness, depends the operation of the mechanism which cuts off the gas supply in daylight hours, except for a tiny pilot light, and starts everything up when the light should be showing.

The Kerosene Light-house.

We came to a different type of lighthouse at Cape Brett, where there are three families living. This is one of the old-time light-houses, with its immense lenses making the most of the light from incandescent mantles fed with kerosene gas. The occulting of the light is done by a revolving screen, operated by weights and pulleys. It is the job of the light-keeper on duty to wind up this immense grandfather's clock mechanism at intervals, and one was interested to see that it was made in Scotland. The visitors’ book suggested that although Cape Brett is fairly handy to the mainland, visitors are rare, for we could go back twenty years by turning over a few pages.

The light-house keeper's life in many stations is a lonely one, though the men and their families get so used to it that they never ask for sympathy. Children are brought up in these isolated places, and receive a thoroughly sound education through the medium of the Education Department's correspondence school, ably assisted by radio broadcasting. Some have even been successful in secondary school courses. There comes a time, however, when it is highly desirable to introduce these healthy well-educated youngsters to a wider civilisation, and these first contacts with the outside world are vivid experiences. One light-keeper's wife found the experience highly embarrassing when she took her two young sons to the mainland and they went to church for the first time in their lives.

It was all very strange to the youngsters, and when a gentleman of benevolent appearance came around with a plate, well filled with coppers and silver, one little boy took twopence, and shyly said “Thank you.” His brother selected a bright sixpence with gratitude, and also politely said “Thank you.” I am not going to spoil this very human story by detailing what the horrified mother said afterwards!

Overhauling the automatic light on North Cape.

Overhauling the automatic light on North Cape.

“A Deep Depression” Approaches.

The pleasant green undulations of the coast were disappearing as the Matai steamed further north. Long stretches of sand took their place, broken here and there by bold cliffs. Soon we were to be round the northernmost corner of New Zealand, and a deep depression which, according to the weather prophet appears to be always crossing the Tasman, was rapidly approaching. Cape Maria Van Diemen was fringed with heavy surf, rolling in immense volume under the impetus of a south-westerly swell. The light is on an island, so small that a big sea makes itself felt even at the comparatively sheltered landing place on the side facing the mainland. To work surf-boats just then was out of the question, so the Matai anchored, patiently awaiting an opportunity. Next morning she was rolling heavily, and the cliffs to leeward resembled a long-extended Niagara, with the cascades running up, instead of down.

Splendid Boat Work.

“Not much chance of working the light-house,” I remarked to Captain Burgess.

“We'll go round and have a look,” was his attitude, so up came the anchor, and cautiously feeling the way by the use of the lead, the Matai got within sight of the landing, a heavy concrete pier standing out into the page 27
The anchorage at Cape Maria Van Dieman, scene of much thrilling surf-boat work.

The anchorage at Cape Maria Van Dieman, scene of much thrilling surf-boat work.

surf which smashed against the rocks. On the pier was a crane with a long jib, to stretch out beyond the breaking surf. Out came a couple of heavy surf-boats, and the ship's oil launch. The fore hatch was taken off, and the launch took aboard several bags of ballast to keep its screw in the water as much as possible. The handy bags were used to contain the ballast because there might be emergencies when it must be rapidly thrown overboard.

Ranging up and down alongside the Matai, the surf-boats provided a problem in smart winch work. A sling of cargo went up, and was slung overside. Then upwards and inwards surged the boat, and at the exact moment down came the load with a rush, to be instantly stowed by a couple of sailors who could do the double job of cargo handling and keeping their balance.

Having been towed to a point beneath the crane jib, the loaded surf-boat was anchored, and the launch cruised in circles, its crew closely watching for any dangerous drift of the surf-boat. Landing the cargo called for the same quick action as its loading. Down into the rolling sea came a looped wire from the crane, and when boat and wire approximately coincided—which would happen for a split second—the load was hitched on, and light-keepers at the winch lifted it clear of the rising sea. Passengers had to land in the same way, and it was no job for the nervous—grab the wire, foot into loop, and hold on, while the boat surged from beneath.

Rolling into a Sou'-wester.

This job finished, the Matai steamed into the open to resume acquaintance with the “Deep depression” and the heavy south-west swell. We were bound for Kaipara, an all-night run under stormy conditions, so the skipper kept well away from the lee shore. The journalistic voyager, fortunately well enough to be observant, got interested in the great sea hollows into which the little steamer plunged, to rise buoyantly over a crest, and into the next one, to the accompaniment of rolling, the like of which ordinary passengers surely never experience.

Hauling up gas cylinders for North Cape light. The West Coast is seen on the right, and the East Coast on the left.

Hauling up gas cylinders for North Cape light. The West Coast is seen on the right, and the East Coast on the left.

A surveyor's level was borrowed for an experiment, and the scale set so that when the Matai rolled to 45 degrees—half way between vertical and horizontal—the bulb would show “level.” But the little ship rolled the bulb completely out of sight, and it was set nearer to the horizontal, at 30 degrees, before we managed to measure the exact degree of the roll.

Walking without holding on to something substantial was quite impossible, and we spent a social evening in the cabin of “Sparks” stowed comfortably on the floor, from which we could not fall off. The calm voice of the radio announcer and the other indications of normal life ashore sounded strange amid the roar of the storm and the lurching of the ship.

“Blackie” of the “Matai.”

“Blackie,” the ship's cat, having double the leg supply of humans, managed better in getting about, but became annoyed over sliding around when it curled up for sleep, and eventually found a snug spot between the steps of a small ladder, stowed on the floor in the engine-room. “Blackie” during an adventurous life, must have exhausted all his nine lives, for he is, alas, only a memory, though a vivid one. Adopting the Matai as his home for many years, he sometimes sought change of scene, or possibly a change of rat diet, by walking across from the Matai's Wellington berth to the southern express steamer for a trip to Lyttelton. After a few days there “Blackie” would walk into the fo'castle of another express

(Continued on page 41 ).

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