Union Steam Ship Co – T.S.S. Tamahine 1925 to 1963

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Introducing the T.S.S. Tamahine:

‘The’ T.S.S. Tamahine was without a doubt a brave little steamer, which was especially built for the “Union Steam Ship Co” (USSCo) to operate between the North Island of New Zealand and the South Island, or from the countries Capital city Wellington to the port town of Picton at the head of the spectacular Marlborough-Sounds. This relative small ship of just 1,989 GRT (Gross Registered Tons).

She had two funnels and two mast’s and was certainly a well balanced and a smart looking although a small passenger ship. Her name is obviously a Maori name; and in English it means “Daughter of Wahine”.

Her livery was the typical Union Steam Ship Co colour scheme as she had the traditional green hull, with red boot topping, and a thin bright yellow ribbon located high up the hull surrounding the ship. Her superstructure was all white, with her two funnels being red and black topped, with masts and derricks being buff, and she had three holds, two of these were reserved for cars. She was designed to carry 637 one class passengers.

A fine colour photograph of T.S.S. Tamahine departing Wellington

Construction to Maiden Voyage:

The Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand ordered the “Tamahine” to be built by “Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd”, at their Wallsend-on-Tyne yards, in the UK late in 1924.

She was launched on July 8, 1925, and completed in October 1925 and she undertook her speed trials and she achieved a top speed of 17.3 knots.

She headed for New Zealand and it was recorded that she had a very good run arriving in Wellington on December 16, 1925.

Having arrived in Wellington there was a great deal of fuss around this delightful small ship as she was as most called her “A real looker.” Meaning she was a fine looking ship! And crowds would turn up every day whilst  she was in pot and she open to be visited, and a ticked box was dockside and having obtained a ticket, people would then line up and wait for their numbers to be called to board.

Crowds line up to get a ticket and then get on board for a look

The T.S.S. Tamahine’s main duty was to keep the North and South Islands of New Zealand linked, and she did that for almost 37 years. She was especially built specifically for this service. Although she was not the only vessel of course, but of the pre roll-on, roll-off ferries and for the Marlborough people in particular, she was the number one and the most critical link!

T.S.S. Tamahine departed for her maiden voyage on December 21, 1925 and she was fully booked with enthusiastic passengers all looking forward to their trip, many had booked a return trip and had booked a cabin and pre booked seats in the Dining Room for certain meals, etc.

T.S.S. Tamahine is seen departing Wellington bound for Picton (in Marlborough Region) on the South Island

When other passengers were travelling one way with either a car, or were continuing on by bus or a train. There were also connecting services available by coach to the town of Nelson, which was not that far away.

The “Tamahine” is seen arriving at Picton

Provided by Jason Hunter (Blenheim)


A train would meet the “Tamahine”, as well as busses, and passengers on a

round voyage can take a short walk to town and go shopping and have lunch ashore


T.S.S. Tamahine is seen sailing trough the Sound’s back towards Cook Strait and Wellington

Having returned to Wellington, her log showed that she managed her run between Wellington and Picton in 3 hours from wharf to wharf and much the same on her return to Wellington.

T.S.S. Tamahine heads back through the Marlborough Sounds and Cook Strait to Wellington

Provided by Jason Hunter (Blenheim)

The “Tamahine” lovingly known as the “Tam” faithfully kept the North and South Islands of New Zealand well linked for many years. Although she was built specifically for this service, but she was not the only ship of course, but a ship long before the roll-on, roll-off ferries, and for Marlborough people in particular, she was the number one and the critical link!


Above & below: Three fine photographs of Tamahine berthed at Picton’s Waitohi Wharf



The “Tam” had always been something of an "identity" with her lifelong slight list which was coupled with affection and a respect that had been earned over the decades. For the “Tam” was known for that she would almost always sail, even though at times the Cook Strait, the water dividing the two big Islands of New Zealand. The strait connects the Tasman Sea on the northwest with the South Pacific Ocean on the southeast. It is 22 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, and is considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world and it would frequently throw up some of the most vicious of storms. Amazingly, regardless the conditions the amazing “Tamahine” would almost always, close to 99% of the time sail. If the journey south was very rough, she would enter the Sounds via the Northern entrance rather than ‘Tory Channel’. Yes it did add an hour or so to the voyage, but that was a small price to pay for the assurance of safety! Thus the “Tam” very rarely missed a sailing because of bad weather, she would sail on no matter what, unless it was a vicious cyclone and then it was simply too dangerous to sail!

An unusual postcard of the “Tam” sailing on a squally weather day, which does nothing to her

She just sails on without any problems as she was an amazingly fine sailing ship, list and all!


Another squally day at sea for the “Tam”, but this was a relatively good day

What About that List?

The “Tam” is seen departing Wellington and her obvious slight list can be seen as she heads out

I was very obvious that she had a permanent list to port, which was due to the USSCo decided that riding with water ballast was not the best, thus 40 tons of concrete was poured into its tanks, however during the pouring, believe it or not, trusty old windy and wet, Wellington suddenly blew up its famous northerly gale and it had the ship listing, yes you knew it, to PORT and yes the concrete set not quite the what they intended. It may have been better to do in dry-dock.

T.S.S. Tamahine the Cruise Ship:

When I say cruise ship, do not get the wrong idea, for she was certainly not the luxury cruise ship you booked on, and you had you luxury cabin booked and you are off visiting ports galore and you will be back in a week, or two. No such luck, but she would operate a full day cruise to the beautiful Marlborough Sounds and the other magnificent Sounds and stops would be made and excursions would be available to head ashore, etc. The ship certainly offered a holiday feel on board with music and various activities and a running commentary as the ship sailed into the sounds.

These weekend full day cruises became so popular, they needed to be booked long in advance and you would have to book very early, especially if you wanted occupy a cabin for your comfort.

The ever listing “Tam” departing Wellington on a weekend day cruise to Marlborough Sound


Special stops are made and passengers can board a lifeboat and undertake a short tour

There is a range of activities that makes the cruise an exciting event!


At the end of an exciting day passengers just do not want to leave as they enjoyed

a really great day on the “Tam” and seen so many fine things on their cruise!



Now we have learned a great deal about the dear old “Tam”, let us now take a closer look at the ship herself:

Sadly there are not many photographs of her lounges available, but I will provide whatever I have been able to locate through some of my Kiwi friends and I thank them very much.

Regarding the Ships Layout:

There were just four passenger decks on the dear old “Tam”, but for some reason they were given the most ridiculous names, such as; Boat (A) Deck (this on is fine!), next is Bridge (B) Deck, going down comes Upper (C) Deck, and finally Lower (D) Deck. The Only Deck that was correctly named was Boat Deck.

Thus these four decks really should have been named as follows, but I will also include the other two non passengers’ decks.

Far Forward Deck not named - should be named Bridge Deck.

Boat (A) Deck - correctly named.

Bridge (B) Deck - should have been named Promenade Deck.

Upper (C) Deck - should have been named A Deck.

Lower (D) Deck - should have been named B Deck.

Crew Deck - Should have been named C Deck.

However with “The Ships Layout” below, I will use the official names as per the plan (as seen directly below) for simplicity sake.

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The Ships Layout:

Boat (A) Deck the officer’s quarters are located on this deck, which were very spacious, whilst the deck space was long and extremely wide. This deck could be reached via the ships two main stairwells, one forward and the other amidships.

The exterior deck was fitted with stanchions for the erection of awnings to ensure that the covers would be there when needed for her passengers who preferred the elevated position of this promenade for viewing the spectacular sights of the Marlborough-Sounds the “Tamahine” sailed through! Many Wellington local’s tended to occasionally book a daytime return voyage and enjoy the spectacular scenery of the “Marlborough Sounds”, but it also includes the beautiful “Queen Charlotte”, “Kenepuru”, “Pelorus”, and “Mahau Sounds”.

Beside the spectacular views, it is also to enjoy the cruise and savour her three fine lounges located on Bridge (B) Deck, and have a delicious meal in the Dining Room aft one deck down, strangely called Upper (C) Deck. And then they would also spend several hours in Picton and enjoy some shopping time there. Thus it is a great day out! Then there was one more deck with accommodations and that was Lower (D) Deck located forward. Here there were just two large dormitories all with lower beds the port side had 23 beds and the starboard side 24 beds, they could be either male of female, depending the demand.

The truth is; the decks should have really been named as follows and remember I was a cruise ship owner!

The Bridge’: Topside far forward is the ships Bridge, but sadly no image has been found, but I do have a fine photo sent to me by Jason Hunter from Blenheim (NZ) of a view aft of the Bridge.

A view aft of the Bridge and her list to port is rather obvious

Boat (A) Deck’: The officer’s quarters are located on Boat (A) Deck, which were very spacious, whilst the deck space was huge long and extremely wide. This deck could be reached via the two main stairwells, one forward and the other amidships.

the exterior deck was fitted with stanchions for the erection of awnings to ensure that the covers would be there when needed for her passengers who preferred the elevated position of this promenade for viewing the spectacular sights of the Marlborough-Sounds the “Tamahine” sailed through! Many Wellington local’s tended to occasionally book a daytime return voyage and enjoy the spectacular scenery of the “Marlborough Sounds”, but it also includes the beautiful “Queen Charlotte”, “Kenepuru”, “Pelorus”, and “Mahau Sounds”.

Cruise passengers are seen up on Boat Deck enjoying a great day out

They are currently mid Cook Strait

Bridge (B) Deck’: Far forward is the “Smoke Room” which is beautifully designed with the finest of timbers, such as mahogany cladding along the walls as well as elegant furnishings which are also of the finest of timbers and lounge chairs, beautifully upholstered. There are windows on three sides with sofa style seating along the three sides. A Steward service bar is located aft on the starboard side, whilst a ‘Gents’ if aft on the port side. Two doors aft take you out to the Lobby and the forward Stairwell. The stairs takes you up to Boat Deck and the two passenger decks below.

On both sides of the ship there was a passageway and on each side there were two 2 berth cabins, followed by a Gents WC and a Bathroom on the starboard side and the Ladies one on the portside.

At the end of the passageways, doors led into the Lounge.

The “General Lounge” was simply beautiful and very elegant and again featured that beautiful timberwork along the walls and elegant round columns in the centre of the venue. The ceiling had a large square stained glass light feature, which made this venue truly look spectacular! The furnishings were kept on a relaxing side as the seating had been decided on a more traditional style with wicker chairs, with a centre double sided upholstered sofa, as well as sofa’s along the walls, as it gave more room for guests to be seated. Both round and square tables were of oak, but were mostly covered with a small table cloth as it was a popular location for morning tea and a hot bullion, etc.

The General Lounge

On each side aft of the Lounge there were again two hallways and each side had three 2 berth de-Luxe cabins, these cabins all had a sofa as well as additional fittings. The last of the trio on each side lined up at the amidships Lobby and Stairwell, which went up to Boat Deck, and one deck down to the Dining Room.

Heading aft again on the portside hallway first there was one only 4 berth de-Luxe cabin that also had a sofa, followed by the Pursers Office, and a Shop. Whilst on the Starboard side there was the Purser’s office, but for his personal use only, as well as other facilities. Towards the end of this hallway was a ‘Ladies’ facility, and the next venue will make us understand why.

Each hallway had a door at the end and it entered the “Ladies Lounge”, a small venue, but again delightfully elegant decorated, with some fine timbers, but this time some more lighter tones and some brighter colours here and there.

We will now take the amidships stairs down to the officially named ‘Upper (C) Deck’ which should really be A Deck.

Upper (C) Deck’: As we arrive on this deck I will head aft on the port side where there are five 4 berth cabins, whilst on the starboard side there are only two 4 berth cabins.

Directly aft of these is the ships Dining Room which had a lighter colour scheme, but furnishings all being in oak and the venue was superbly laid out, pending the type of food being served at the time. The venue had seating for 59 guests per sitting.

The rest of the facilities were located forward, but that meant we have to go up one deck and head for the forward stairs and go up one deck, and come down again to ‘A Deck’ forward where there are four 4 berth cabins on each side of the ship thus eight cabins in all, but also three 2 berth cabins, being the only inside (no porthole) cabins on the entire ship. Public facilities were all close by for both genders.

Lower (D) Deck’: Remaining forward there were two dormitories, both having lower sofa style beds along the walls as well as in the middle of the venues, accommodating 23 on the portside and 24 on the starboard side.

Thus she had four passenger decks, with an additional crew deck below, as well as machine and storage and cargo spaces.

Well that has given you the basics of an unusual small ship, but to Kiwi’s - New Zealander’s, she was a very special small ship and she was very dear to everyone, including myself at that time. Yes I in New Zealand from 1958 to 1963 and whilst there, I worked for the ‘Royal Dutch Mails’, The ‘Netherland Line’, ‘Royal Rotterdam Lloyd’ & ‘Holland America Line’, etc, until the ‘Union Steam Ship company’ in Wellington Head Office offered me a managerial job. Thereafter I was offered a most senior position in Australia, where I eventually became a director and finally cruise company director & part owner.

A car being loaded on board at Wellington and was placed in the forward hold

The “Tamahine” faithfully kept the North and South Islands of New Zealand linked for close to 37 years. Of course she wasn’t the only ship, as there were those that preceded her, and then there were also the USSCo’s ships that operated the overnight services from Wellington to Lyttelton (port for the South Island’s Capital city of ‘Christchurch’) located somewhat further down on the east coast of the South Island, and for Marlborough people in particular, she was the critical link.

Map of the northern part of the South Island with Picton and Lyttelton and Christchurch clearly shown

Being staff member of the USSCo whilst I was on board one day, the engineer who I had just delivered some paper too, asked if I would like to come down in the engine room which I did, as I had been in so many engine rooms of other of our ships, and I was always fascinated with the “Tam”.

There was that something special about a steam ship engine room. All that well kept and the glistening engines, the brass gleam of pressure gauges, even the smell of oil and the warmth from the boilers, and that all added to the environment of the engine room.

Two images remain fixed. On the bulkhead was a vertical brass arrow, pivoted at its upper end. The brass backing plate bore the evidence of how far the ship rolled. For 20 or 30 degrees the wear marks were well in evidence. I enjoyed the massive enthusiasm of the engineer as well as his crew, for they treated the engine room as their friend, something to be loved, and to be cared for. And these were tough blokes, yet soft in some ways when it came to their work here in this great big room in a small ship!

But when I think of it, I am well aware of the many voyages they endured when they suffered really wild weather for the Cook Strait can be one of the worst any where on earth, and when it goes wild, believe me, I have been there it is HUGE!

T.S.S. Tamahine is seen departing Wellington on November 14, 1938

This photo was taken from the deck of the USSCo’s magnificent

13,482 GRT luxury Trans-Pacific Liner the T.S.S Awatea


The “Tam” seen at Picton and listing as usual

World War Two:

Although the “Tam” continued her regular services to and from Picton, but as the war continued with thousands of troops needing to be transported both Australian and new Zealand ships were requisitioned to become troop ships. One of these was the superbly designed 9,152 GRT, T.E.V. Rangatira” of 1931 and she had been converted as a troop ship.

The magnificent much larger version of the “Tam”, but the far more luxurious, T.E.V. Rangatira

Thus the USSCo decided to place the T.S.S. Tamahine on the Wellington to Lyttelton overnight service in 1941, and she operated on that service whenever she was called on every now and then.

Departing Wellington for her overnight voyage to Lyttelton (Christchurch)

But what did keep her continually busy were the thousands of troops that were stationed in the Marlborough District, and the “Tam” was used to supply them with all their needs. In addition she would have to transport soldiers between the two Islands as the airport was in Wellington if they were flown anywhere. Also all their supplies were transported o them on the South Island via the T.S.S. Tamahine.

Post war she continued to keep very busy as always, for she was known as “the brave little steamer with a long service”. For she was known that she would sail, no matter the conditions, war, or no war the “Tam” was one of the moist remarkable and trustworthy small ships that was ever built!

Another departure of the “Tam” the stern in view is the Trans Tasman Liner the T.S.S. Monowai

The Union Steam Ship Company received new ships in the 1940’s, such as the Wellington to Lyttelton (Christchurch) Inter-Island Ferry, the 6,911 GRT, T.E.V. Hinemoa, which arrived at Wellington on January 26, 1947.

The delightful “Hinemoa” spent a bit of a wild night on board her sailing to Lyttelton

But the cabin was very comfortable and the food on board was great!

I returned on the newer ship the T.E.V. Maori of 1952, my trip south was in 1960


A brochure cover featuring the USSCo’s four Inter-Island ships,

The ‘Tamahine’, ‘Rangatira’, ‘Hinemoa’ and their newest ship the ‘Maori’

As we entered into the 1960’s slowly time was running out for the dear old “Tam” and the “Union Steam Ship Company” knew well that her better days were well behind her and they decided that sooner or later it was time to place her on the market. Also, ‘New Zealand Railways’ had their new new roll-on, roll-off ferry almost completed, being their brand new G.M.V. Aramoana.

August 11, 1962:

This day was very remarkable for the “Tam” as she departed on her 16,000th return crossing of the Cook Strait - Wellington/Picton/Wellington, which was also her very last ever official voyage. However, she was not alone that day, for the ship that was her replacement, being the brand new “New Zealand Railways” roll on, roll off passenger ferry the G.M.V. Aramoana also departed on her maiden voyage on this day to Picton.

A very poor photo of the “Tam’s” final departure from Wellington on August 11, 1962


The T.S.S. Tamahine and the new G.M.V. Aramoana are seen together at Piction


The G.M.V. Aramoana is seen docked at her new roll on and off berth

at Picton and cars can be seen driving on board

At Wellington, the “Tam” was laid up and placed on the market, although she did operate an occasional day cruise to the Sounds now and then.

The ‘good old ‘lister’, the “Tamahine” having made so many crossings, had carried well over 2 million passengers, both to and from the South Island, as well as many more on her weekend day cruises. In addition she transported countless thousands of cars in her two holds as well as a huge quantity of cargo, which was not bad for such a relatively small ship that operated a 3 hour voyage each way, to and from the North to South Island of New Zealand, usually 6 days per week, but never on Christmas Day, and on some weekends when she would operate her very popular day cruises to the Sounds.

The “Tamahine” is seen docked at the Inter-Island ferry wharf at Wellington

with the T.E.V. Maori the Wellington to Lyttelton liner on the other side


The 8,303 GRT, T.E.V. Maori of 1952

And as I mentioned I sailed on her as well from Lyttelton back

to Wellington in 1960 and it was a smooth ride this time

The “Tam” Goes Asian:

Then late in 1962 an Asian business man arrived in Wellington who apparently had some troubles with the customs at the airport, all being due to him having a large suitcase packed full of New Zealand currency. He explained he was “here to buy a ship from the Union Company and I have been in contact with the Mr. … and his chauffer should be waiting for me outside in the hall, etc. The long and the short of it, they did let him go and the “Tam” was sold to this gentleman, being one of the Directors of the “Hong Kong Shipping Co (Panama) Ltd”, of Nathan Road Hong Kong.

She was soon renamed “Kowloon Star” and reregistered in Panama, and the newspaper announced that “our beloved Tamahine will leave our shores for good on January 5, and she will head Hong Kong where she will start a new life.”

Obviously countless locals turned up dock side for one final look at their much loved “Tam” before she would leave Wellington forever on Saturday January 5, 1963. But when the moment arrived as she was about to depart, the crowd commenced to sing “Now is the hour” the famous Maori farewell song, it was such a moving event! She slowly made her way from her berth and then headed down Wellington’s beautiful harbour, which she had done hundred’s of times before, and she headed for Hong Kong, yet flying from her stern was the Panamanian flag.

T.S.S. Kowloon Star is seen departing Wellington on January 5, 1963

Note the Panamanian flag flying from her stern

When she arrived at Hong Kong, she commenced a whole new life. Although very little information of her duties are available. All we know for a fact is that in 1969 she was sold to be broken up by ‘Leung Yau breakers’ of Hong Kong in April 1969 and breaking up commenced later that month.

The “Kowloon Star” - This may be a photograph when she was in her

final days and most likely the  time she was going to be broken up



Specifications & Details of the T.S.S. Tamahine:

Registered Owners:              The Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand.

Managers & Operators:         The Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand.

Builder:                              Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, at Wallsend-on-Tyne, UK.

Country:                             United Kingdom.

Yard N:                             1198.

Registered at:                      Wellington, NZ.

Official N:                          151506.

Classification society:            Lloyd’s Register.

Launched:                           July 8, 1925.

Trials:                                 October 1945.

Maiden Voyage:                   December 21, 1925  - Wellington to Picton.

Tonnage:                            1,989 GRT (Gross Registered Tons), 803 NRT(Net Registered Tonnage).

1948:                                 1.968 GRT, 767 NRT.

1956:                                 1,964 GRT, 762 NRT.

Length:                              80.13 m - 262.9 ft.

Breadth:                             12.25 m - 40.2 ft.

Draught:                             3.98 m – 13.07 ft.

Engines:                             2 triple-expansion steam engines 2,500 HP.

Power:                                440 NHP.

Engine builders:                   Ship builders.

Propellers:                           Twin screw.

Speed:                               15 knots service speed, maximum 17.3 knots.

Passenger capacity:              86 berths in de-Luxe & standard cabins, 47 beds located in the two Lower (D) Deck venues, also seating in all the public venues; total of 637 one class passengers.

Schedule:                            Wellington to Picton service and weekend excursions (cruises). And occasional Wellington to Lyttelton during WW2.

Sold:                                  ‘Hong Kong Shipping Co (Panama) Ltd’ - November 1962.

Sold:                                  ‘Leung Yau breakers yard’ - April 1969.



Remembering the Memorable ~ the Tam”…
T.S.S. Tamahine of 1925 to 1963

T.S.S. Tamahine is seen nearing the Marlborough Sounds 

Provided by Jason Hunter (Blenheim)



“Blue Water Liners sailing to the distant shores.
I watched them come, I watched them go and I watched them die.


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