From humble beginnings in 1960 to today, the vehicle and passenger ferry service from Auckland to islands in the Hauraki Gulf is celebrating sixty years of service in November.
It all started when the Subritzky family bought an old barge off Arthur Day who owned Oneroa Motors on Waiheke Island in the late 1950s. In the beginning there was only a fortnightly service transporting a dozen drums of petrol, a few sacks of coal and two or three cars. Subritzky Shipping was formally incorporated on 1 November 1960. This date was also coinciding with the birthday of the Subritzky family patriarch: Bert Subritzky.
The Milk Run
The vehicle ferry service really gained momentum in the 1970s when Subritzky Shipping secured the milk contract to Waiheke Island. Mona Subritzky, Bert’s wife, agreed to build a milk store in Ostend. The company purchased an old milk truck and the arrangement was agreed for the ferry service to run seven days a week. This contract did two things: the company was required to provide a daily ferry service to Waiheke Island which, in turn, enabled island residents and Aucklanders regular vehicle access to and from the island particularly over the weekend – a service that had never been provided before.
Bert and Noma complemented each other when it came to the running of the business: Bert came from a long family line of master seafarers while Mona was a shrewd businesswoman who never drank and ran the office side of the business.
The nautical operations were left to Bert and, while he was shrewd, he was also easy-going and often let passengers travel for free if they didn’t have any money for the fare. This would often result in a free ride.
The names, however, went into Mona's notebook and come pay day she would be arrive at the local pub to collect any debts before the money could be spent elsewhere.
The vehicle operation had very simple beginnings: a dumb barge Kiri Kiri was manoeuvred around using a variety of small tugs. Vehicles were driven onto the barge using planks of timber as the only access ramp. The ferry operation did not include a valid passenger license. Vehicles were parked overnight on the family lawn at Millen Avenue in Pakuranga. Members of the family would drive the vehicles down to the nearby landing next to the Old Panmure Bridge to be loaded onto the barge. The owners of the vehicles would have to travel separately to Waiheke Island in the Baroona.
There were people in the local board who became irate at Subritzky Shipping using this land to load their barge until the family pointed out that this area had been gazetted as a coastal landing site from as early as 1840.
Eventually a compromise was reached and the Subritzky family were given permission by the Minister of Marine, Jack Scott, to develop The Landing at the present-day site at Half Moon Bay. This coincided with the Subritzky family being involved in the demolition of the Old Panmure Bridge: the concrete piles and fill from this demolition project was repurposed and used to reclaim The Landing.
Originally Subritzky Shipping secured a one-hundred year lease for The Landing but due the building of Half Moon Bay Marina and the passing of the Auckland Harbour Board (Half Moon Bay) Vesting and Empowering Act 1968, Bert Subritzky was asked by Harry Julian, President of the Auckland Harbour Board, to return the lease back to the council to enable construction of the marina to go ahead – something he agreed to do based on a hand shake without the knowledge or consent of the rest of the family.
One of the more obvious factors in the evolution of Subritzky Shipping and their Hauraki Gulf ferry services has been a gathering of an eclectic collection of vessels to service the needs of the various islands.
As the trade built up in the early 1960s, it became evident that a self-propelled vessel would be the next step in the company’s expansion. The 80-foot-long Port Kennedy became the workhorse although she was fitted with a single 5-ton outboard motor which needed to be stripped down and cleaned every two weeks.
In 1983 the motorised barge H A Subritzky, named after the patriarch Herbert (Bert), was built. H A, as it was known, carried 180 passengers, 28 cars or nine trucks. Three years later, a third motorised barge was added to the Subritzky fleet: M N Subritzky named after the matriarch Mona Nellie Subritzky. The M N carried 300 passengers and 25 cars.
Subritzky Shipping had also purchased another motorised barge, Tasman, which offered a greater load capacity to Great Barrier Island. The B K Subritzky, named after Bert’s son Basil, was designed and built to carry metal from the Stevenson’s quarry at Kaiaua on the Firth of Thames and ease roading congestion in Auckland.
The SeaLink Fleet
There are currently nine vessels in the SeaLink fleet: five car ferries and four Pine Harbour clippers.
SeaLink’s stalwart motorised barge, Seamaster, has had an interesting history. The original hull started as a simple, towed barge called Wakakiri which was built in 1956. In 1986 the barge was motorised and rebuilt at The Landing by Basil Subritzky and named, as mentioned above, the M N Subritzky. She included a passenger capacity of three hundred.
M N Subritzky was not very appealing for passengers and the hull of the vessel was rebuilt, again, in 2004: the entire hull forward of the accommodation block was widened and streamlined and a new ramp was fitted. Mufflers were also installed to reduce engine noise. In August 2007 she was renamed Seamaster.
Last year Seamaster had two new fuel-efficient Doosan engines fitted (reported in Professional Skipper March/April 2020) with a third, centre Doosan engine fitted only last August.
Because Seamaster is a barge and not a catamaran she can load heavier trucks. Despite some parts of her hull being 34 years’ old – and a few areas dated back to the original 1950s hull – Seamaster operated everyday throughout the two recent COVID 19 lockdowns, providing Waiheke Island with an essential supply link to mainland Auckland. Having been recently reengined there is still a lot of life in the old M N.
The Subritzky fleet diversified with the building of Seaway II in 1996. The Australian-made ferry was delivered to New Zealand by being towed across the Tasman Sea using a tug. Seaway II was the first car-carrying catamaran to operate in the Hauraki Gulf and the hull design enabled travel time to Waiheke to be reduced by twenty minutes: the travel time between Half Moon Bay and Kennedy Point reduced to just fifty minutes.
Seaway II was purchased to accommodate the building boom on Waiheke Island which created a surge in passenger demand. When Seaway II first started, she was designed with a car ramp at each end of the vessel which enabled customers to easily drive on and then drive straight off at the other end.
In a later modification, an extended passenger cabin and café was added which partially obscured the skippers view when facing aft. The stern ramp was removed making Seaway II a bow loader only, similar to all the other vessels in the Subritzky fleet. It is still possible to see the structure that supported the stern ramp on the vessel.
Seaway II is often used to provide an occasional vehicle link to Rakino Island and she also runs charters to Islington Bay on Motutapu Island.
As the Waiheke Island population grew, Subritzky’s last vessel was built: Seacat. At 573 gross registered tons Seacat remains the largest passenger ferry to operate to and from Waiheke Island. There were several delays in the completion of Seacat which added cost overruns, however this did not cause Subritzky Shipping to become as financially compromised as has been reported elsewhere.
Known locally as Big Red, Seacat is the flagship of the SeaLink fleet. Travelling at 15 knots and capable of carrying four-hundred passengers, Seacat is the favourite travel option amongst the Waiheke locals with her large, comfortable lounge where people can admire the view through the expansive windows while enjoying food and drinks from the licenced café and bar.
A regular vehicle service to Great Barrier Island was developed with introduction of the stern-loading, triple hulled vessel: Sealink. This was replaced in 2004 with another stern loader: Island Navigator, a vessel chartered in from the South Australian tourism operator SeaLink Kangaroo Island. This vessel was briefly rebranded as the Eco Islander.
Island Navigator maintains a regular vital link to Great Barrier Island even though she is thirty-two years old.
The relationship that existed with SeaLink Kangaroo Island continued to develop and by the end of 2004 Kangaroo Island SeaLink made an offer to buy Subritzky Shipping which was accepted by the family. From late 2004 until 2011 Subritzky Shipping was owned by Kangaroo Island SeaLink. From December 2005 the company was renamed as the SeaLink Travel Group.
The company quietly reverted to New Zealand ownership in 2011 and is still trading as SeaLink Travel Group.
Returning to motorised barges once more, Seabridge was built in 2013. Her primary role is a freight carrier although she can accommodate two hundred and fifty passengers. Seabridge regularly delivers fuel to Great Barrier Island.
In 2014 the SeaLink Travel Group expanded into a commuter ferry service with the purchase of Pine Harbour Ferries. This added three high-speed passenger Clipper ferries to the fleet. This was closely followed with the purchase of Clipper V, bringing the total of Clippers to four; Clipper 1 had been sold to Belaire Ferries prior to Sealink purchasing the operation.
The Pine Harbour service continues to provide four high-speed passenger commuter ferries into downtown Auckland as part of Auckland Transport’s ferry network.
Clipper II and III are the smallest vessels in the SeaLink fleet. Measuring just 15 m in length, they carry forty-nine passengers to and from Pine Harbour to the Downtown Ferry Terminal.
Clipper IV and V are a couple of metres longer and can carry 99 and 96 passengers, respectively.
All four clippers travel at 29 knots and can get into the city in 35 minutes.
The Future for SeaLink
In the sixty years of operating, the vehicle ferry service operating in the Hauraki Gulf has been known as Tamaki Water Transport, Subritzky Shipping Line, SeaLink New Zealand and, lastly, SeaLink Travel Group.
SeaLink are investing in new tonnage. A sixth brand new car ferry, SeaLink’s tenth vessel, is currently under construction in Southern China. Due for delivery in May 2021, the yet-to-be named new motorised barge will add further capacity to the Hauraki Gulf ferry network.
The future looks bright for a further sixty years of operations in the SeaLink Travel Group.
This story first appeared in the Professional Skipper Magazine and is republished with permission.