The Union Steam Ship Company  collier "Konui" goes Trans-Tasman

In July 1968 I had been ordered by my employers the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd. to join the T.S.M.V. Konui at Mt Maunganui in New Zealand. (T.S.M.V. means Twin Screw Motor Vessel) The Konui and her sisters were known as "AC" class colliers. The KonuiI was my third ship with the Union Company in the 4 months since joining that famous line in March 1968. Most of the time she carried coal from the West Coast of the South Island to the cement works at Portland near Whangarei in the North Island. But once a year she would do a Tasman Sea voyage to Australia, on this trip our first port was to be Hobart. My first sight of her alongside at the "Mount" loading paper products, newsprint and pulp was impressive. But it was not a favourable impression I gained. The Konui of 2485 registered tonnage looked as if she had never been a new ship, a floating museum of the sea, looked like she was constructed of antique spare parts from the store of a 19th century shipyard. There was dark wooden paneling throughout the accommodation, which contributed to the general gloom of the ship. On arriving onboard for the first time I dropped my suitcase on the deck in the dingy R/Os cabin, throughly disappointed, and plotted to get off her as quickly as possible, and onto some more modern ship.

One day I might write more about the two months I spent on the Konui some of which was funny, some of it frightening.

Back ground to the Kaitawa sinking

What follows is some background information that is useful when considering the sinking of the Konui's sister ship Kaitawa twenty two months earlier on the 23rd of May 1966.


The Konui discharging newsprint into lighters, at Hobart August 1968

(Photograph by Roger Wincer)

The radio room

I was shocked when I saw the radio room. I was so convinced that the ancient radio equipment would not pass a radio survey that I checked off every piece of equipment and spare part with the current radio regulations. I had some vague idea that I could get moved off her by pointing out her radio deficiencies. I was disappointed to discover that it was old, it was out dated, but it worked and met every requirement of the current shipping radio rules. Gradually I came to terms with the fact that I needed to get some time in on the colliers before I could move onto something better.

The radio room was off the port side of the chart room immediately aft of the wheel house. (This could be relevant to what I believed happened to the Kaitawa) The radio room contained the most ancient and outdated radio equipment I have ever used onboard any ship.

The main transmitter was by Amalgamated Wireless Australia (A.W.A.) a combined Medium frequency W/T (Morse) and R/T (radiotelephone) transmitter. The transmitter design allowed for radiotelephone to be transmitted on 500 kHz, the W/T distress and calling frequency. This may have been a design flaw, but it may also have been thought a useful facility to have in a Distress situation. Though I have never seen such a feature before or since.

The transmitter was quite powerful and performed well. It was powered by a large motor generator contained in a small room off the Radio room to aft. The transmitter had a unique feature that allowed the operator to increase the valve heater voltage by means of a front panel control. Which meant that the transmitter power could be controlled in this way.

The main receivers were also by A.W.A. and were what are often described as "biscuit box" types with semicircular frequency dials on the front surface of the receivers. One was dedicated to the LF, and MF bands and the other to the HF bands. They were crude by the standards of 1968 but they worked.

The Emergency receiver also by A.W.A. was the only commercial "regenerative" type receiver I have ever seen. Designed to have minimum parts and consume minimal battery power.

Unfortunately I can not remember anything about the other radio equipment. Though I always carried a camera, for some reason I don't believe I photographed the Konui’s interior. However I do have this picture kindly provided by Iain Hill of the Konui's sister ship Kawatiri which appears to be very similar.


(Photograph by Iain Hill)

In this photograph the equipment identified are:

1. Main transmitter manufactured by A.W.A. 2. Emergency transmitter also by A.W.A.

3. Aerial switching box. 4. Automatic Keying Device by REDIFON  5. Emergency receiver 6. M.F. receiver

7. H.F. receiver  8. Clock  9.  External speaker for receivers  10. Supply switch and fuse box

11. Morse keys for the main and emergency transmitters 12. Headphones  13. Scribble pad and pencil

14. Operators chair (Capable of being bolted to the deck) 15. Ships radio call sign "ZMKX"   16. Radio log book

 Bridge equipment

 The bridge equipment was in the same league as the radio equipment, a magnetic compass, no radar, echo sounder, VHF radio or auto pilot. The sole concession to 20th century technology on the bridge was a rotating loop radio direction finder. The Konui was the only ship I have ever sailed aboard to have a wooden bridge front.


Konui at Hobart August 1968 (photograph by Roger Wincer)

The engines

The Konui was known to be under-powered, the engineers referred to the two engines as "the sewing machines". At one point on our trip across the Tasman sea to Hobart in a Southwesterly gale with a heavy swell we were actually going astern at 2 knots while the engines developing their full 1450 bhp (1057 KW) were going flat out ahead. Later when the winds eased below gale force we managed to go ahead at 4 knots. In the best conditions she was limited to about 10 knots ahead and 9 knots was about what could be expected of her normally.


She was a "pig" to steer and I have seen helmsmen struggling to keep her on a straight course in dead flat water with little wind. Returning from Australia in a big following swell and gales force winds, in mid Tasman Sea we were forced to "hove to" many times and it is a credit to the navigators and helmsmen that we did not broach. During that time which lasted for several days, the Master was allowing only trusted helmsmen on the wheel. These men were working very hard to keep her from broaching.

The hatch covers

Sometime she would come too far off course and the “green” seas would crash onto the fore hatches and cause the hatch covers to leak. Water in quantity was getting into the holds and was a serious concern. On arrival in Wellington much of the cargo of Australian dried fruit had been damaged by salt water.

Awareness of Kaitawa sinking

That trip from Melbourne to Wellington was one to remember and I know there were many onboard thinking we would not make it safely to port. There was much drowning of fear in alcohol for several days during that trip and nervous conversation about that fate of the Kaitawa and the reasons for her foundering. The atmosphere onboard was not a good one.

Back to normal

After discharge at Wellington we went back to the coal run from Westport to Portland. Sailing from Westport with a full load of coal was interesting as it involved crossing the Buller River bar. It was considered fairly normal to hit the bar on the way out with a full load, and we certainly did, apparently causing no damage.


September 1968 loading Westport coal into the fore hatches onboard Konui bound for the cement works at Portland (Whangarei)

(photograph by Roger Wincer)

That is my experience of the "AC" class colliers which may have given me some insight into what happened to the Kaitawa on the night she foundered on Pandora bank 23rd May 1966.

Now return to the KAITAWA page