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