Built in Auckland more than 80 years ago, the 43-foot Ratahi has enjoyed a colourful life as a ferry, fishing charter boat and freighter – mainly around Tauranga. Still going strong, she now runs charter cruises around the Manukau Harbour – but the tide makes things tricky. Story by Selma de Beer and Lawrence Schäffler.

Ratahi’s presence on the Manukau is thanks to the vision of her new owner – Trevor Pennington.

He knows the harbour intimately and believes more people need to experience its beauty, charms and history. Taking them on harbour cruises and fishing trips is an obvious solution.

In the mindset of the general population, Pennington concedes, the Manukau plays second or even third fiddle to the Waitemata and Kaipara harbours – despite it being the country’s second largest harbour (after the Kaipara).

He insists this reputation is unfair. “Few people bother to explore the Manukau – partly because of its fearsome bar, but mainly because of poor access. The boat ramps dotted around the harbour shoreline (there are 13) are all adversely affected by tides – the infrastructure’s inadequate and it’s difficult to launch and retrieve boats.”


Ratahi, he hopes, will help to change this – but only if a proposed plan to build a permanent deep-water jetty at Clarks Beach gets the green light. She’s currently based at the town jetty in Waiuku and the inlet leading from the harbour to the town is severely silted.

So much so that Ratahi lies in the mud at her berth for much of the time. Even though she’s a shallow-draught vessel (900mm), Pennington can only access the Manukau at high tide. Shaping a charter operation around the tides is not exactly ideal for promoting a fledgling business. A deep-water jetty at Clarks Beach would fix that.

First though, some background.


She was built (kauri planks and ribs) in 1938 by shipwrights JJ O’Rorke and his brother at Westmere for Tauranga’s EG (Jerry) Williams. Boating New Zealand’s maritime historian Harold Kidd says it was an adventurous launching ceremony. “She was built in O’Rorke’s backyard at 10 Winsomere Crescent, skidded over a neighbouring property and launched over a little cliff into Motions Creek. As a child I watched the entire operation with my father, who was helping.”

An entrepreneurial chap, Williams is often described as Tauranga’s first charter fishing skipper. Fitted with a 36hp diesel, Ratahi was purpose-built for this task and licensed to carry 125 passengers. When not fishing he used her as a freighter, collecting and delivering agricultural goods around the islands off Tauranga, as well as running harbour cruises.


Fifty years later she was bought by Whakatane’s Blue Ocean fishing charters and refurbished for operating from that city. In 1994 she returned to Tauranga, again for fishing trips. It seems this charming vessel also developed a charmed reputation for successful fishing – she was endearingly known as ‘The Fish Whisperer’.

Two years ago Pennington found her advertised on Trade Me and – with her shallow draught – decided she’d be perfect for his Manukau dream.


He explored trucking her from Tauranga to Waiuku but it was too expensive. Instead, he steamed her to her new home, around the top of the North Island, her tired 671 Detroit diesel coaxing her through Cape Reinga’s towering seas.

Ratahi’s upgrade included swapping the Detroit for a second-hand straight-six Nissan EF6 which Pennington first rebuilt, with Auckland’s Moon Engines later mating it to a PRM gearbox. The transplant, he says, was relatively straightforward because he used the existing keel-cooling system.


The coolant runs through a network of pipes fixed outside the hull – a simple heat exchanger. Even though the two engines share the same horsepower (230), the Nissan’s much lighter: Ratahi now floats about 60mm higher and is also far more responsive. She cruises at 7 knots but if in a hurry can be coaxed to 9 knots.

She’s in survey to carry 49 passengers plus crew, and since her refurbishment has been running cruises and fishing charters around the Manukau. Most of the visitors are from Hamilton and Auckland, says Pennington, but the cruises have also proved popular with Aussie tourists.

Cruises take in the full length of the idyllic Awhitu Peninsula, a visit to the Manukau Heads, seeing the plunging cliff faces of the spectacular Huia coastline. There’s a stop at the elegant Waitangi Falls and guests get up close and personal with the orca pods that often feed and play in the area. Pennington provides a running commentary about the fauna and flora and historic landmarks.

Covid, of course, blunted the fledgling business.


Though Ratahi is a vibrant addition to the Waiuku waterfront, the silted inlet is too restrictive for a charter operation. To get around this Pennington sometimes anchors the boat in deep water close to the nearby Te Toro jetty, ferrying guests by dinghy. “But it’s not ideal and it’s unsuitable for any disabled guests. It’s a small jetty, part of Counties Sports Fishing Club. We’re too heavy to go alongside.”

A possible solution is the proposed establishment of a permanent deep-water berth at Clarks Beach. This initiative – launched by the Clarks Beach Public Wharf Society – has been submitted to Auckland Council.

It would see the creation of a 24-hour all-weather floating pontoon jetty – a relatively simple extension to the existing rock groyne adjacent to the Clarks Beach Yacht Club. The facility would make an immense difference not only to the viability of Ratahi, but also to residents, visitors and the region as a whole.

Established by residents of Clarks Beach and Waiau Pa communities, the Clarks Beach Public Wharf Society proposal is supported by the Manukau Harbour Restoration Society (MHRS) – an organisation dedicated to the long-term improvement of the harbour’s water quality.

“The Manukau,” says MHRS chairman Jim Jackson, “has suffered severe environmental damage over the last century, especially from sedimentation but also large volumes of wastewater that have damaged both the harbour’s seabed and its marine life. The harbour also lacks core infrastructure such as navigation markers, maintenance slipways, facilities for fuel and water replenishment and safe all-tide berthing facilities.

“The Kaipara (the country’s largest harbour) will receive $100m over a 10-year period to address a range of environmental issues, especially sedimentation. Unfortunately, local and central government continue to ignore our second largest harbour.”


With a water surface area of 394km2, a tidal variation of up to 4m and a relatively narrow mouth (with a bar) at the Manukau Heads, a fast-moving tide can make entering/leaving the harbour a tricky affair. The country’s most tragic shipwreck occurred on the bar in 1863 when HMS Orpheus ran aground with a loss of 189 lives.

But the harbour’s history dates back to the country’s first inhabitants. A quick check with Wikipedia reveals that the harbour was “an important historical waterway for Māori. It had several portages to the Pacific Ocean and to the Waikato River, and various villages and pā (hill forts) clustered around it.

“Cornwallis, beside the Puponga Peninsula, was the first site for the future city of Auckland. But because of fraudulent land sales and rugged conditions, the settlement was abandoned in the 1840s.

“Vast amounts of kauri were removed from the surrounding hills and shipped from a wharf on Paratutai to either the other end of the harbour at Onehunga for use in house building in the new city of Auckland, or along the coast to other New Zealand settlements. The last mills were abandoned in the early 1920s.

“But the difficult entry into the harbour – which limited ships to about 1,000 tons – together with the extension of the railway to Onehunga in 1873, made naval traffic on the harbour less important again.

“Construction of a canal between the Manukau and the Waitemata was considered in the early 1900s, with the Auckland and Manukau Canal Act 1908 passed to allow authorities to take privately-owned land for this purpose.

“But no serious work (or land take) was undertaken. The Act was reported as technically still being in force as of 2008, but was repealed on 1 November 2010. An 0.82km canal reserve, 40m wide, remains in place.”