The Wrecks Of The Zephyr And The Commodore, Taranaki, New Zealand

Hunting up shipwrecks is fun to do, especially on New Zealand beaches where access is open and respect for the wreck expected.

Following a brief note in our guidebook and not-very-helpful road signage, we located the wreck of the Zephyr on the North Island of NZ in Taranaki, the 10th largest populated town in NZ, named for the nearby volcanic Mount Taranaki. With the air somewhat misty and unsettled from a recent rain, I carefully stepped over rounded stones to capture images of the remains.


The Wreck of the Zephyr


Puddled water against the blue sky frames the Zephyr ruins. On the 11th of September 1864, this top-sail schooner, built of blue gums thirteen years earlier in Hobart Town, was set to unload a cargo of timber. The ship-hands moved some of the timber by raft the day before, but with three loads left, the endeavor was incomplete due to the high waters along shore. The next day, Sunday, a sudden squall from the north interrupted plans for continuing to send the timber ashore.


 After the squall, according to the captain’s statement, “the sea fell dead calm.”

The calm was not reassuring; rather it was indication of danger. As evening neared, the captain’s barometer readings dropped and a new heavy swell entered from the northwest. The captain ordered that the anchors be dropped, but when an even heavier squall blew in, the schooner began to drag the anchors just 15 minutes after they’d been set. By 8:30pm the fate of the Zephyr was irreversible.


From the captain’s report: There being not the slightest chance of saving the vessel, she being firmly embedded in the rocks, and every probability of her breaking up next tide, I felt it my duty to abandon her in order to save the lives of the crew. Accordingly ordered them into the boat, and afterwards followed myself.”



Although the Zephyr had maintained insurance for more than a year, it had expired three days before the grounding. On Monday, the vessel completely broke up. The pieces–including chains, cable, and rigging–sold for a total of £69 9s, 6d. The recoverable timber sold for £22 10s.


In another, less calamatous wreck on the same beach, we experienced our own grounding on the shore of Taranaki: The Wreck of the Commodore.


Our rented vessel: The Commodore, the Australian version of General Motor's 241-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 sedan with a four-speed automatic.


The Commodore was no more meant to be beached on the Taranaki than the Zephyr, but there we sat. The lack of signage and the free access led us to believe that we could drive along this beach as we had in other ports on the same voyage. Wrong. The Commodore, with about a 2-inch clearance and its teeny tires, does not respond the same as the 4-wheel-drive trucks we rented for outback driving Down Under or even my little Jeep to get around North Dakota. As you can see I avoided the puddle, but I sunk the car into a quicksand pit of sandy gloop.

No matter how much we scooped out the wet sand, sweeping it away with our travel guide books, we could not budge the car. Instead it sank up to the axle. That’s when we learned about sand fleas. They didn’t bother us as we scouted around the ruins, but once we were high-centered and desperate, they delighted in pestering and biting. Hard.

With no choices left and no assistance nearby, we walked out to the main road and hiked to a not-so-nearby house for help. The story ends well for us, with a chap giving us a ride in his 4WD and then dragging loose the Commodore. We’re not so sure the story ended well for him–he wasn’t where he was supposed to be when his wife squeezed us into her pickup truck and went looking for him on our behalf. But there’s not room here for the story of a third wreck . . .



The captain’s statement may be found here:

“The Wreck of the Schooner Zephyr,” Taranaki Herald, 17 September 1864, found at where it is repeated in the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 22 Mahuru 1864, p. 2


3 Responses

  1. Jo

    Finally got to read this…..exciting….those are some very moving pictures and quotes from the Captain.
    …top notch stuff!
    It may take awhile for me to get to your articles, but I eventually get to them and enjoy them.

  2. Suzzanne Kelley

    That wasn’t supposed to be a series of commas! It was an icon, but I guess it won’t work here.

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