The Wreck of the Gairloch, New Zealand

‘Near hidden reefs we appear in the gloom, luring mariners to their doom…’

Although New Zealand is a relatively small country, what it lacks in area it certainly makes up for in coastline. Aotearoa has an impressive 15,000km of coast, much of which is wild and rugged. The early European mariners visiting the islands were provided with ample opportunity to crash their ships into innumerable unchartered hazards. The changeable and unforgiving nature of the weather just added to the horrors faced by these seafarers and their helpless (and often hapless) passengers. It is estimated that over 2,300 vessels lie wrecked in the waters of Aotearoa.

Personally I cannot think of a more terrifying ordeal than being shipwrecked. Mind you, even if you didn’t get wrecked, just enduring an ocean passage in the old days would have been a terrifying ordeal in itself. Constant fear of drowning, shithouse food, disease, and the lustful advances of drunken sailors would make sea travel a nightmare. But the thought of smashing into something immovable at night, during a gale, whilst towering, icy waves crash over the lurching ship fills me with horror. Imagine being swept into a frigid sea as timber and sailcloth were felled, torn and wrenched around you, only to be thrown against a rocky coastline wearing just your longjohns. If the initial impact didn’t kill you, and by some miracle you didn’t drown, you would probably die from exposure clinging to a sharp, oyster covered rock.

On the night of January 3rd, 1903, the steamer Gairloch was having a nervous time of it. The vessel was sailing off the coast near New Plymouth, on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. With no moon, and in torrential rain, the Gairloch almost collided with her sister ship, the Ngaphui. Not long after that near tragedy was averted, and with the crew likely still in a heightened state, the Gairloch was wrecked on Oakura Reef. Thankfully there was no loss of life, and the crew was able to row back to New Plymouth to safety, warmth, and probably 25 rums each.

The wreck of the Gairloch
The stranded Gairloch aground on Oakura Reef, 1903
Wreck of the ship Gairloch, Oakura Reef. Ref: 1/1-023369-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22845802

The bow of the Gairloch is still visible today; a short low-tide walk down the beach west of Oakura will reveal the remains of the steamer.

The wreck of the Gairloch
Wreck of the Gairloch, graphite on paper, copyright Jim Clayton Art

Only about 150 of the vessels wrecked off New Zealand’s 15,000km coastline have been located. The skeleton of the Gairloch is slowly being consumed by the insatiable sea, and one day she will join Aotearoa’s lost ships and vanish without a trace.

For more on the Gairloch click here

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4 responses to “The Wreck of the Gairloch, New Zealand”

  1. Mal Avatar

    The link worked. Great drawing of the ship and the water!

    1. Jim Clayton Avatar
      Jim Clayton

      Thanks Mal! It was good to get the pencils out again after so long

  2. Yule-Leigh Avatar

    Keep the pencils out , this is amazing.

    1. Jim Clayton Avatar
      Jim Clayton

      Thanks Yule-Leigh!

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