Otira – oil launch pioneer

Sep 21, 2017 Boating history ,General Interest

The Logan Bros yard on the Railway Viaduct jutted out into Auckland’s Mechanics Bay in the early 1900s, and it was from there that they launched a two-skin diagonal-built 20ft (6.1m) ‘oil launch’ called Otira in late December 1902, writes Harold Kidd.

We are fortunate that Henry Winkelmann photographed Otira just after launching, his image facing east from the yard towards what is now Paritai Drive, across the moorings of fishing boats and trading scows.

Otira at Charteris Bay after 1934, Jim Drewitt's son Bink at the bow

Otira at Charteris Bay after 1934, Jim Drewitt’s son Bink at the bow

She was built for “a Mr. Matthews of Lyttelton”, but he was probably from Redcliffs, a few kilometres up the coast. Why he named her Otira is guesswork, but he may have been connected with the village of Otira in Westland or the NZ Government Railways which had just extended the former Midland Railway Company’s line from Jackson in Westland through to Otira. We know she wasn’t named after the Otira tunnel which finally connected the rails from Canterbury to the West Coast as that major engineering feat was still 20 years in the future.

Otira was one of the first small oil launches in the South Island. The first was probably the Logan Bros Sprite, built for Moresby of Thames in 1897. She is shown on page 15 of my and Robin Elliott’s book Vintage New Zealand Launches (David Ling, 2004) where we described her as “Moresby’s oil launch” as we hadn’t joined the dots to establish her name. When G.J. Black of Akaroa had her shipped south in February 1899, Sprite would prove the utility of such little craft in the Canterbury coastal setting and also establish the reputation of Logan Bros as launch builders in the region.

Like Sprite, Otira was fitted with a Union engine. The Union was built by the Union Gas Engine Co of San Francisco and at the time was considered the standard of the marine engine industry: well-built, well-finished in glossy black with gold trim, with reliable, characteristics that achieved the approval of the quality-driven Logans.

As an aside, in early 1902, the local agents for the rival Michigan-built Sintz marine engine had got into strife in a rather public way, as their twin-engined, reversing propeller ferry Tuariki – built for the passenger trade on the harbour at Lyttelton – was constantly breaking down.

Not much is now known of Otira’s early history except that she spent her time at Redcliffs and was one of the first launches involved in the Christchurch Sailing Club. It changed its name to become the Christchurch Sailing and Power Boat Club in early 1907, proof of how highly regarded the future of launches was on the estuary.

Indeed, the club became a hotbed of advanced powerboat design, producing W.H.H. Downer’s crack 21ft (6.4m) Restricted Class hydroplane Disturber in late 1914. She was powered by a 215 cubic inch, three-cylinder two-stroke Erd, and would race C.J. Collings’ 260 cubic inch, four-cylinder four-stroke Redwing Model F-powered Fleetwing in a dramatic series on the Waitemata in April 1915.

Otira at Charteris Bay showing later modifications to her dodger

Otira at Charteris Bay showing later modifications to her dodger

There is a series of images that trace Otira’s time as an open launch of the type that was popular for a while on New Zealand’s estuaries, rivers and lakes for picnicking and sight-seeing. These were usually little more than a big open dinghy with a simple engine, usually an American two-stroke one-lunger, living in a box amidships.

But like most early launches, Otira was modified to provide more shelter for the occupants and safer handling in rough water. Living on the Estuary, Otira had to negotiate the often dangerous Sumner Bar to get out into open water to go down the coast to Lyttelton, Port Levy and Pigeon Bay, up the coast to Kaiapoi, over the bar at the mouth of the Waimakariri River.

In the 1920s we know Otira was based at Kaiapoi, initially as a pleasure boat, but sometimes as a pilot boat for the small port. She grew a square cuddy over the engine and the front part of the cockpit, and later she gained a pretty, well-designed vertical tongue-and-groove D-front cabin top and a dodger.

It was in this configuration that James ‘Jim’ Percy Drewitt bought her and shifted her to moorings at Charteris Bay on Lyttelton Harbour. Jim was a poultry farmer in Mt. Pleasant and a keen photographer, taking many fine images of Otira. He also made minor changes to the dodger over the years.

After Jim’s death in 1948, his son Maurice took over, pensioning off the original Union and replacing it with a Morris Vedette petrol engine, basically a marinised side-valve Morris 8 car engine.

When Colin Manson bought Otira around 1960, the cabin top had become tired and he replaced it with a simple square-fronted unit with a raked dodger and exchanged the Vedette for a Stuart H2MR two-cylinder two-stroke diesel, engine number 111. A later owner was David James who sold the little launch to Paul Pritchett of Charteris Bay in 2002.

Paul is a highly experienced yachtsman and a key member of the Charteris Bay Yacht Club, the club that put the Optimist dinghy on the map in this country. Paul kept Otira on her moorings at Church Bay for three years, and then decided to take the plunge and restore her to her original configuration in 2005.

The rebuild was thorough. Paul stripped Otira back to her original timbers, and in the process revealed her Logan Bros builder’s plate on the aft coaming which had been covered over for many years. He also made two circular frames to roll the boat over while he was working on her.

The Stuart engine is now a collector’s item in itself so Paul decided to get it restored. Only 403 of this type of Stuart were built in the 1950s and the New Zealand agents, Charles Palmer, imported eight. Nowadays, only two exist in running order worldwide.

The H2MR is, shall we say politely, an idiosyncratic engine which may account for its short production run and present rarity. It is heavy at 500lb and quite bulky, with a false rocker cover over the top of the fuel pump and other peripherals which gives it almost the length of a four cylinder. Nonetheless, it fascinated Paul so much that he commissioned a complete rebuild from engineer Stan Wilson of Lyttelton. Stan used parts from engine number 283, originally fitted as an auxiliary to the ex-Auckland B Class keeler Tainui, and scrounged bearings, bushes and other parts from British cars and trucks of the period.

Once Otira was restored and in the water, Paul decided that she should go to a good home where she would be seen and used by as many people as possible. He decided to present the little ship, together with her substantial custom-made road trailer, to the Tino Rawa Trust run by Tony Stevenson in Auckland. This fine gesture has brought Otira back to her birthplace and guaranteed her another 100 or so years of bringing pleasure to the increasing number of Kiwis intrigued by our maritime heritage.

This article was published in the  August 2012 issue of Boating NZ.