1931 - 1942

The Opawa was built for the New Zealand Shipping Company, London, at a cost of 325,000. She was a refrigerated cargo liner with the capacity to transport of 400 tons of chilled beef. The refrigerating equipment was supplied by J. & E. Hall, Ltd., Dartford. It consisted of two quadruple, compressor, vertical enclosed type C02 machines, each directly coupled to an electric motor of 165 b.h.p. There were four C02 condensers, four evaporators, two centrifugal water pumps, and one reciprocating brine pump. The insulated cargo capacity amounted to about 405,000 cubic feet, while, in addition, there were provision chambers with a capacity of about 2,800 cubic feet. All the insulated spaces were cooled by means of brine pipes and equipped for the carriage of meat and butter. Air circulation provided for the carriage of fruit.

Opawa: suburb of Christchurch, 'smoky river' in Maori.

Period publicity material from Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd describes the Opawa as: There is no better example of the Firm's latest Diesel engine output than the twin-screw motor ship Opawa, engined by twin 9-cylinder Stephen-Sulzer engines constructed in the Firm's works in 1930-31. The power developed is 9,400 B.H.P. at 120 r.p.m. giving a sea speed of 15.25 knots. The principal dimensions of the engines are cylinder bore 680 mm., piston stroke 1,200 mm. As this vessel is designed for refrigerated cargo, the list of auxiliaries is particularly large. There are three Diesel-driven electric generators, each of 300 kw., and, in addition, a 100 kw. turbo generator, taking steam from waste heat boilers at sea, and from an oil-fired boiler in port.

After completion of sea trials the Opawa began her maiden voyage about June 3rd from Glasgow and Liverpool to New Zealand ports.

On June 23rd a request for assistance was broadcast by radio by the the Ellerman-Bucknall steamer City of Kimberley (6,204 tons), advising the ship's propellor had been lost and the ship was not under control and drifting. The ship's position was about 1,300 miles from Auckland, close to the Cook Islands. The City of Kimberley had departed Philadelphia on April 26th & New York on May 23rd destined for New Zealand & Australian ports and scheduled to reach Auckland, her first port of discharge on June 30th. The Opawa crossing the Pacific Ocean from Glasgow to New Zealand, responded and was able to commence towing the stricken vessel. The tow commenced about 3pm on June 23rd in good weather, making about eight knots, and expected to arrive at Auckland in about a week's time. On July 2nd both vessels arrived safely in Auckland.

After arrival in Auckland the Opawa continued on with its regular business, whilst the City of Kimberley awaited significant repairs and arrangements for the unloading & transhipping of her cargo. When the propeller dropped off, it took with it a portion of the tailshaft, whilst the crankshaft was badly twisted. The vessel was placed in the stream at Auckland until the new components arrived from England. The damaged tailshaft and crankshaft were dismantled from the engine and lifted on to the steamer's deck by the Harbour Board's floating crane. They would remain on board and be taken back to England by the steamer. The new propeller, tailshaft and crankshaft were on the Port Gisborne, due at Wellington from London on August 24, and at Auckland about a week later. A new stern tube was transported by the Remuera, due at Auckland from London on September 6th.

By the third week of September the repairs to the City of Kimberley had been completed and only awaited testing. In preparation for the vessel's departure from Auckland, steam was raised in the boilers on September 19th and the final adjustments were made to the machinery. At 9 a.m. on September 20th the engines were set going for the first time since the vessel lost her propeller. To make certain that there had been no defect in coupling up the new crankshaft, tailshaft and propeller, the engines were kept revolving ahead and astern alternately for about three hours.

To prevent the vessel breaking away from the wharf while the engine tests were being carried out she was secured by additional mooring lines. So faithfully had the repair work been carried out that the continuous revolving of the engines failed to indicate any fault in the machinery. Everything else on board being also in order, the steamer cast off from the wharf at noon and moved out into the stream. She was under her own power for the first time in 14 weeks. Roughly estimated, the salvaging of the vessel, the loss of earning power due to her long delay in port, and the repairs, cost about 40,000.

The Opawa had suffered no ill effects from the lengthy tow and went about her coastal work, being noted at Auckland on July 29th having arrived from Lyttleton. On August 20th the Opawa departed Wellington for London, being routed via Cape Horn instead of the usual route through the Panama Canal. This voyage is of considerable interest, because she is the first motor-ship to be despatched from New Zealand to England via Cape Horn. Since the First World War that route has only been taken by coal-burning steamers, which have to make a call at Montevideo or Teneriffe with fruit from New Zealand, and they are able to obtain supplies of coal fuel at their discharging ports. About seven or eight steamers are despatched from New Zealand every year with fruit for South American ports. The Opawa's only port of call will be Dakar, because her cargo of New Zealand produce is all for discharge at London, Avonmouth, Liverpool and Glasgow. The fuel of motor-ships and oil-burning steamers from New Zealand to England is always replenished at Panama or at the West Indian ports of Curacao of Curaca Bay. Now that arrangements have been made for Dakar to be an oil-fuelling station for New Zealand vessels it is possible that more motor-ships will be despatched to England via the Cape Horn route. They will thus avoid the heavy expenses incurred by vessels using the Panama Canal, where the dues are stated to be very heavy. The Opawa arrived at London on September 22nd.

January 7th: arrived Auckland from London.
March 17th: at Dakar from New Zealand, at London March 24th.
April 16th: at Glasgow.
June 1st: departed Auckland for Liverpool.
July 29th: arrived Avonmouth.
October 5th: arrived Auckland from Liverpool.
October 13th: departed Wellington for Lyttleton.
December 14th: at London.

March 2nd: arrived Auckland from Liverpool.
April 6th: departed Wellington, and Dunedin (Apr 14th) arrived London May 17th.
August 16th: arrived Auckland from London.
November 16th: at Glasgow.

February 1st: at Colon
February 19th: arrived New Plymouth from Falmouth.
April 17th 1934: arrived London, Avonmouth (Apr 20th), Liverpool (Apr 25th), Glasgow (May 4th).
July 21st: arrived Auckland from Liverpool.
September 7th: departed Auckland for London, arrived Gravesend (Oct 14th), Liverpool (Oct 22nd).
December 12th: at Cristobal, arrived Auckland December 30th.

March 19th: at Balboa from New Zealand, at London April 7th.
June 15th: departed Liverpool, expected Fremantle July 18th, Sydney (Aug 1st), Brisbane (Aug 5th - this was the Opawa's first visit to Brisbane), then to Townsville.

August 2nd: A local newspaper reported on the first visit of Opawa to Melbourne: Motor Vessel's First Trip to Melbourne - Although now four years old and well known in Australasian overseas trade, the New Zealand Shipping Company's motor liner Opawa, which berthed in Victoria Dock (Melbourne) recently, is paying her first visit to the ports (says the Melbourne "Star"). Carrying a "mixed Liverpool" cargo, the liner made a non-stop passage of 11,000 miles from Liverpool to Fremantle, which her commander (Captain H. G. B. Field) described as being without incident except for the storm which swept over the coast of Western Australia about a fortnight ago. The storm, he said, was actually behind the ship when she was at sea, but lying in the roads at Fremantle it was necessary to put out two anchors. The Opawa, a sister ship of the liner Orari, which has visited Melbourne several times, has been continuously on the New Zealand run until this voyage. She is a modern motor-powered freighter of 10,107 tons, built in 1931 by Alexander Stephen and Sons Ltd., Glasgow. Captain Field, who is one of the best known in the British merchant service, is making his first voyage in the ship. He was last here in the liner Huntingdon, which, now commanded by Captain Reilly, passed the Opawa at Fremantle.

August 6th: Brisbane, 1,500 crates of rabbits loaded for London, arrived Townsville August 9th to discharge general cargo and load 500 tons of sugar and 200 tons of frozen beef for the United Kingdom.

September 6th: Another newspaper report about the Opawa: Opawa at Port Alma. One of three 10,000 tons cargo steamers built in 1930 and 1931 by Alexander Stephen and Sons of Glasgow for the New Zealand Shipping Company, the Opawa, which is loading chilled and frozen beef at Port Alma, is the only vessel on the Australasian run that has been using the old route of sail, South via the Cape of Good Hope and home via Cape Horn.

For four and a half years the vessel has been trading non-stop between England and New Zealand, and in that period she has passed nine times through Bass Strait within sight of Point Lonsdale light, but not once has her nose been turned inside Port Phillip Heads, Melbourne. Each voyage made has meant encircling the globe, and the travelling for a time for the full trip has averaged 70 days.

Her master, Captain Henry G. Field, who is in command of the vessel for the first time, comes from a long line of sailormen, and when after calling at New Zealand on the trip home he takes his ship round Cape Horn, he will be but following in the wake of his father, Captain Henry Field, who was in command of the 700 tone barque, Aldebaran and of his grandfather, Captain Henry Field, who was among the first skippers to bring a ship to Australia.

It is recalled that on her maiden voyage to New Zealand in 1931 the Opawa took in tow the disabled steamer City of Kimberley, and, notwithstanding heavy weather, brought the ship 1,335 miles to New Zealand. The operation of securing the tow was exceedingly difficult on account of the heavy swell, and finally 540 feet of wire hawser were attached to 750 feet of the steamer's anchor cable. Line-carrying rockets had to be fired. In spite of the strain involved by the long tow the machinery worked throughout with no hitch whatsoever (The Central Queensland Herald).

September 9th: at Brisbane, arrived Sydney (Sept 15th) to load wool, refrigerated & general cargoes, departed September 21st via southern ports for United Kingdom. At Suez October 27th. Arrived Hull November 5th, London (Nov 10th), Liverpool (Nov 25th).

February 13th: due Fremantle from Liverpool, at Melbourne (Feb 23rd), Brisbane (Mar 6th).
March 15th: at Brisbane from Port Alma, Newcastle (Mar 31st), Melbourne (Apr 3rd) for London.
May 15th: arrived Hull from Australia, at London May 19th.
August 29th: depart Liverpool for Australia.
October 11th: at Sydney from Liverpool, then Brisbane (Oct 16th), Gladstone & Townsville (Oct 19th/20th to discharge general cargo and load frozen beef & general cargo, then sail for Bowen), then to load for return, Brisbane (Oct 31st), due Sydney (Nov 4th) and Cape Town (Nov 30th) for London.

February 28th: arrived Cristobal from London, Suva (Mar 16th) & arrived Dunedin (Mar 24th).
June 2nd: at Balboa, at London June 18th.
July 25th: departed Liverpool with general cargo, via Cape Town for Australia.
August 26th: arrived Fremantle from Liverpool, arrived Melbourne (Sept 7th), Newcastle (Sept 13th), then ports to Brisbane (Sept 20th). The cargo from the United kingdom included six Clydesdales and a grey Percheron.
October 2nd: depart Brisbane for Sydney and Dunkirk, Hull, Newcastle, Antwerp, London, Cardiff & Liverpool.
November 28th: at Hull, at Shields (Dec 2nd), at London (Dec 5th), Liverpool (Dec 19th).

January 18th/22nd: latter departed Liverpool for Australia, arrived Fremantle February 24th, Adelaide (Mar 1st), Melbourne (Mar 3rd), Sydney (Mar 7th), Newcastle (Mar 10th) & Brisbane.
March 26th: departed Brisbane for Newcastle, Sydney (Mar 28th), Melbourne (Apr 1st), Fremantle (Apr 10th). Arrived London May 18th.
June 26th: at Liverpool.
September 21st: departed Bowen for Port Alma after loading 2,250 wet wides & 200 tons of frozen beef, departed Port Alum Sept 24th.
October 1st: departed Brisbane, cargo included 11,018 boxes of butter, 2,547 cartons of cheese, 112 casks of tallow (56 tons), 625 cartons of jam, 28,509 ingots of lead from Mt Isa mines (1,001 tons), 1,000 cartons of eggs, 450 cartons of canned pineapples, 200 loose wet hides, 13 casks of calfskins, 1,500 cartoons of canned meats and a great variety of chilled meats including beef, veal, lamb and pork.
October 5th: at Sydney for London.
October 11th: at Portland to load 6,000 frozen lamb carcasses, 200 pork carcasses, 50 tons of sundries and 2,500 rabbits. Scheduled week of October 17th to load at Albany 4,857 frozen lamb carcasses and 622 crates of frozen rabbits.
October 22nd: departed Fremantle for Hull via Cape Town, arrived Hull November 25th, at London November 30th.

January 9th: arrived Liverpool.
February 1st: at Cristobal, arrived Auckland February 21st.
May 5th: at Balboa, at Halifax (May 11th), at London (May 24th).
July 22nd: departed Liverpool for Australia, due Fremantle August 24th, due Adelaide (Aug 31st), Melbourne (Sept 3rd), Sydney, Newcastle (Sept 8th) & Brisbane (due Sept 15th.)

Departed Freetown on December 3rd in convoy SL.11F, arrived Liverpool December 15th.

Departed Liverpool on February 17th in convoys OB.93 & OG.19F and arrived Gibraltar February 25th (then to Jamaica - Panama canal - Australia - Capetown - Avonmouth?).

On July 6th the Opawa was requisitioned by the Admiralty as troop transport but returned to the owner after serving four months as cargo transport.

Departed Methil July 30th in convoy OA.192.

At some point equipped with 4inch gun at stern, an anti-aircraft gun(s) and degausing equipment.

On January 14th, the Opawa was damaged by near misses during an air raid on Avonmouth.

Departed Liverpool on February 7th in convoy WS.6A to Freetown (Mar 1st/Mar 8th), Capetown (Mar 22nd/Mar 27th) and Suez (Apr 20th).

Departed Halifax on August 29th in convoy HX.147 to Liverpool (Sep 12th), Belfast Lough (Sep 13th), Avonmouth (Sep 16th).

Departed Milford Haven on October 13th in convoy ON.26.

On January 6th 1942 with a complement of 71 under the command of Captain Wilfred G Evans the Opawa commenced her last voyage, having loaded 4,000 tons of copper and 2,000 tons of sugar at Australian ports (also reported as 3,000 tons of lead), and loaded refrigerated cargo, lamb, butter also 1,533 bales of wool at New Zealand ports, sailing from Lyttleton via the Panama Canal for Halifax and the United Kingdom.

Shortly after midday on February 6th 1942 the unescorted Opawa was hit amidships by one torpedo from U-106 under command of Hermann Rasch about 400 miles north-northeast of Bermuda and 430 miles from Halifax (position 38 21 N, 61 13 W). The explosion seriously damaged the engine room causing a complete loss of power and jammed the steering gear and killed two engineers. The ship had been chased since 08.32 hours and stopped after the torpedo hit.

The four lifeboats were deployed, an attempt was made to return to the ship to retrieve navigational instruments, warm clothing and send a distress message. However shortly after 2pm the U-boat surfaced and started to shell the Opawa, expending 93 rounds. The ship caught fire, rolled to port and went down by the bow just before 3pm.

For the crew in the four lifeboats the conditions were not good, but a course was set for Bermuda. The heavy seas and swell led to the parting of the lifeboats. Gale force winds were encountered, with seas thirty feet high, the lifeboats required continuous pumping out. On the evening of February 11th one lifeboat attracted the attention of the Dutch steam Hercules, which picked up the fifteen survivors and delivered them to New York on February 14th.

The Tower Hill Memorial records 53 deaths, other sources reference 54 with 2 gunners.

Sister ship: Otaio & Orari (similar details & dimensions)


Built: Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd, Linthouse, Glasgow, Yard No.532
Laid down: 1930?
Launched: January 20th 1931
Completed: April 25th 1931
Tons: 10,107 gross, 6,068 net, 12,815 dwt
Length: 470 feet
Breadth: 67 feet
Draught: 40 feet
Propulsion: 2 x 9S68 nine cylinder Stephen/Sulzer diesel engines of 4,500bhp each at 110rpm.
Screws: 2
Speed: 15 knots
Passengers: ??
O/N 162907
Crew: ??

Sulzer List of Motorships (publication circa 1933)
Uboat.net website
Mercantile Marine Website

SEARCHING OPAWA TROVE NEXT PAGE 14 1930s search. ??National Library of Australia : Trove website of archived Australian Newspapers (trove.nla.gov.au)


Page added March 28th 2016

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