Homecoming: Historic riverboat to sail once again on Whanganui River

Posted 29 August 2023 by Moana Ellis
The Waireka is lifted from Lake Ōhakuri. Photo/Supplied

The Waireka is lifted from Lake Ōhakuri. Photo: Supplied

The M.V. Waireka – one of Hatrick’s historic 12-strong fleet of Whanganui riverboats – was the last of her kind put to work on the hazardous upper reaches.

In her heyday in the early 1900s, she carried provisions to missionaries, settlers and Māori living in the isolated northern reaches and became the longest serving of the hardworking vessels that climbed the rapids to Taumarunui.

Now the heritage boat, last seen in Whanganui 25 years ago, will be restored and could join her sister vessels the Waimarie and Wairua on the Whanganui River again.

The old girl’s journey came full circle this month when she was carefully lifted from a reservoir near Ātiamuri in the Waikato River hydro system and brought back to Whanganui.

After falling into disrepair on Lake Ōhakuri, the old workhorse has been gifted “back to her tūrangawaewae” by four sisters who want her brought back to life as an icon of the river’s golden era of riverboats.

“She’s gone home – it feels good,” Ariana Paul said.

The sisters are the daughters of the late engineer Shane Jones, who took her to the Waikato in the 1990s to restore and then put to work on tourist excursions from Huka Falls.

Engineer Shane Jones. Photo/Supplied

Engineer Shane Jones. Photo: Supplied

“She was a big passion of Dad’s. It was never a commercial decision – it was a heart decision. He really wanted to breathe life back into her,” Paul said.

“Dad, his workmate Jessie and his boss Tom York – all engineers – along with Dad’s wife Ngaire and other whānau all put a lot of time, energy and aroha over the years into getting her to a pristine state. The interior, the joinery – she was beautiful.”

Jones passed away suddenly in the Chathams during the 2020 Covid lockdown, leaving his daughters with the boat he had painstakingly restored.

By this time, the Waireka had been out of action for about a decade.

“She had deteriorated over time – it broke my heart to see her in the state she was,” Paul says.

“There were eels living in her and every time it rained, she filled up.

“We thought about refurbishing her ourselves, but none of us have the skills and we could not let this part of Dad go to just anybody.”

The whānau has whakapapa to the Whanganui River’s upper reaches through Ngāti Maniapoto and Tūwharetoa. Jones’s younger brother Kenny was one of the kaiwhakairo of the carvings at the ancient river kāinga and marae of Tieke.

Volunteer project lead Steve McClune, Ariana Paul and Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust chair Marion Johnston on head for the slip from the recovery site. Photo/Supplied

Volunteer project lead Steve McClune, Ariana Paul and Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust chair Marion Johnston on head for the slip from the recovery site. Photo: Supplied

Paul was sitting in the sun at her husband’s marae in Rata when a call came out of the blue. It was Steve McClune, a steam engineer for the Waimarie, which the Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust had dredged up, restored and re-launched in 2000.

He had heard the Waireka was still afloat, and had been scouting for several years for word of the vintage battler.

When he finally connected with Paul, he raised the idea of bringing her home.

It was a solution that felt right to the sisters. After speaking with Trust chairperson Marion Johnston, they knew their father’s boat would return to the right hands.

“They were just as passionate as Dad about these beautiful heritage boats,” Paul said.

“As a whānau, we decided we would gift the Waireka back. It became one of the best decisions my sisters Vikki, Taryn, Marita and I could make as a whānau.”

On 13 August, the sisters farewelled the Waireka from Ōhakuri dam.

“We were so grateful to see her taken back to her tūrangawaewae. We felt it was the right thing to do for Dad. She was going home.

“It was emotional but it felt like closure, and we can still be part of her future. The riverboat Trust feels like our whānau now, and we know the story of the Waireka’s journey will always include our father and Ngaire and the Waikato awa.”

The two-day exercise to lift, secure and transport the Waireka was carried out by a team of 10 engineers, mechanics and other Trust volunteers. She is now on blocks at Pūtiki for initial restoration.

“We’re not sure what this will entail until she’s cleaned up and the hull and timber superstructure can be inspected by a maritime surveyor. We’re hoping she’ll be ready to carry passengers again before the next sailing season,” Johnston said.

The Waireka’s journey home was funded by generous local businesses, Johnston said.

“The next step is to assess the job, get quotes and apply for grant funding. It will then be up to the Waimarie Operating Trust as to how she will be used.”

Including the Ōngarue (on display in the Riverboat Museum), there are now four of the original 1900s riverboats in Whanganui.

Economic development agency Whanganui & Partners says it is thrilled to see a piece of Whanganui history return to its rightful place on the river.

Paul Chaplow, Strategic Lead – Visitor Industries, said the vessel’s return makes Whanganui a contender for the riverboat capital of Aotearoa.

“It is heart-warming to see the generosity of the family gifting the Waireka back to Whanganui and we are so proud of the energy and enthusiasm of the Waimarie team in undertaking efforts to get this special vessel back on the awa.

“We look forward to seeing the opportunities this vessel brings. We know the Waimarie and the Wairua are hugely popular with visitors and our local community, and so we fully expect the Waireka to soon have a busy schedule of its own.”