SS Taioma sunk

Team Taioma

by Angie Belcher

What had a bright red funnel, 20 portholes, 128 wheels, and travelled at five kilometres an hour along the Tauranga expressway in the middle of the night?

Answer: The Tug Taioma.

Transporting the 310 ton tug from the old Tauranga Historic Village back to the sea was just one of the last hurdles to overcome before Bay of Plenty divers got the long awaited, and much overdue wreck dive they wanted.

The logistics of this mammoth operation were no joke for Tauranga engineer Steve Weidmann. Ask him what the greatest difficulty of the entire project was and he’s likely to run off a list a nautical mile long, then tell you it’s a draw between the following: the battle with local Hapu, gaining Resource Consent, cleaning and restoring 150 artefacts for auction to help pay project costs, removing approximately 50 tons of weight for transport, building six small auxiliary roads to get it from the Tauranga Historic Village to the slipway, closing off and monitoring five kilometres of road in central Tauranga on a Saturday night, removing two huge overhead pedestrian bridges, getting the vessel onto the slipway or towing the tug out to Motiti Island for sinking!

Society members removed all hazardous objects and material including oil residue, which was still in some of the vessel’s small tanks, as well as removing all the wiring and cable trays. They also cut the back off the boiler to enable divers to swim down the funnel directly into the boiler room. Bars were welded into position in an effort to protect marine life and to restrict entry into the tanks and boiler.

The sheer spectacle of watching the tug travel along the expressway, lit by a plethora of lights in the black of night, is something that thousands of Taurangaites are unlikely to forget for a long time.

Fund-raising co-ordinator Wayne Reyner ensured the tug received maximum promotion during the week prior to the sinking. An auction of painstakingly restored artefacts was held at the prestigious Mills Reef Winery. High profile businessmen, corporates and a few of us ‘ordinary plebes’ were entertained by Peter Lester, one of the Americas Cup commentators, dined on a gastronomical extravaganza then plied with copious bottles of locally produced wines before the auction began. This all helped the sometimes frantic and generous bidding which followed. One local businessman, who spent in excess of $13,000, was known to have woken up the next morning in a groggy state, phoned an associate and asked ‘how much did I spend?’

The evening was a brilliant fundraising venture, which raised $60,000 and primed everyone up for the move two days later. One and a half days were spent carefully manoeuvering the huge 128 wheel trailer, owned by Tranzcarr-Machinery Movers, underneath the Taioma. After inching its way out of the village the tug rested for the night before being moved down an access road to its first public road crossing.

At 10pm on Saturday 11 March a large team of volunteers gathered for a final ‘move’ briefing in a business car park. Team leaders were issued with walkie-talkies kindly lent from Civil Defence and a wad of paperwork containing maps, instructions, call signs etc. Nothing was left to chance. The teams departed to various points and waited for the instructions to begin closing the roads. This began once the cranes had travelled along the expressway to begin dismantling two huge concrete overhead bridges under which the ship had to pass. And so ‘Operation Taioma’ began. Team four, of which I had the dubious honour to be part of, sat not-so-quietly by a major intersection. Waiting, waiting, 10 pm, 11pm, midnight passed. We were grateful to be near a service station that sold hot coffee and had toilets. Then, 1am, 2am and finally we caught sight of the tug sailing down the street towards the slipway.

You could almost hear the gasp of the watching crowd as it paused in the middle of the intersection before negotiating around a set of traffic lights only to find an overhead light was protruding into its path. But this boat had a tide to catch and nothing was going to stop Steve Weidmann and his team of transporters. Within minutes a ladder was put up the side of the boat. Weidmann leapt onto the top deck and showered the night sky with sparks as his grinder cut off a section of railing on top of the wheelhouse. The Taioma inched forward with the streetlight passing through the gaps.

The last section of the journey was the most difficult. Too heavy to pass over the railway bridge the boat had to back its way around a tricky bend, down into the railway yards where access roads had been formed to cross two major rail lines. Emerging through a car sales yard, it then negotiated around a very tight bend ready to be backed once more down to the slipway. By this stage it was six am and the tug had missed the tide. The tug was parked by the slipway while everyone retired for some much-needed sleep before reassembling six hours later to finish the job. By 3.00 pm the tug was on the slipway and the trailer was removed before the rising tide swamped the hydraulics. It took until 1.00 am the next morning to have the tug safely sitting on the launching cradles.

Throughout the following week final preparations were made for the Taioma’s sinking including extending the cradle on which the tug rested to ensure she would sit in an upright position on the seafloor. Saturday dawned – fine weather and variable winds to ten knots, but the tug wasn’t ready to move. As it slid down the slipway one of the cradles snagged and the tug once again missed the tide while modifications were made. The disappointed crowds returned home but turned out on the water in full force on Sunday. The flotilla of vessels ranging from jet-skis to commercial catamarans looked almost as spectacular as the crowds seen around the Americas Cup boats. Assisted by two tugs, one pulling and one to aid steering it took six hours to complete the 12 nautical mile journey to the designated site off the southeastern side of Motiti Island.

Steve Weidmann, assisted by Ross McOllie, opened the flanges of four strategically placed eight-inch valves allowing water to enter the tug evenly. A lone bugler played the Last Post as the last crew of the Taioma climbed into an inflatable and moved away from the tug.

Ever so slowly and gracefully the tug sank lower and lower in the water. It was a rather moving burial at sea. Then with a final gush, a flick of the stern and a last puff of black soot from the funnel, the waters wrapped around the Taioma. She sank upright and proud to the sandy bottom 27 metres below.

Within half an hour the tug had her first visitors. Members of the Taioma Reef Society checked the vessel, removed access plates, and unsnagged the line of one of the two buoys that now mark the site. The addition of the wreck to the already popular Bay of Plenty dive area is expected to inject thousands of dollars into the local economy. After living and breathing the Taioma for two years one wonders how Steve Weidmann, and the other Society stalwarts will cope with the spare time they’ll have now. ‘Not a problem’ Steve comments. ‘We’ll be diving.’

Overheard During Different Events:

‘I can’t wait to look through that telescope.’ Wife of the man who had just purchased the bright red fire-fighting water cannon.

‘Where is the long suffering wife of this crazy man?’ Joy Owens, wife of Sir Robert Owens who first purchased the tug and had it removed to the Tauranga Historic Village.

‘Was that a Tug Boat I just saw driving down the motorway?’- An inebriated local as he staggered down the street at 2am.

‘How much would the Taioma cost me now?’ Eight year old Kelsey Carter who fell in love with the tug and thought it would look good in her backyard.

Interesting snippets

Sir Robert Owens purchased the Taioma for $2. His daughter and wife purchased a porthole at the auction for $1950.

The ship’s wheel was purchased for $7700 and will be used as a coffee table.

The Members of the Taioma Reef Society would like to express their grateful thanks to all the individuals, organisations and companies without whom the vessel’s new life off Motiti Island would not have been possible. They are far too numerous to mention individually. Thank you and Happy Diving.

Rules to be observed on wreck or within 50 metres of the wreck:

1. No anchoring or mooring, except on the vessel’s two mooring buoys (max limit 25 tonnes).

2. One hour time limit on mooring buoy.

3. No fishing of any type.

4. Other statutory requirements to be adhered to (eg 5 knot speed limit, appropriate flagging etc).

5. No artefacts or marine life to be taken.

6. No destruction of mooring buoys or chain.

7. No litter or sewerage to be discharged into the sea.

8. No overside urination.

9. Divers entering the wreck should hold a suitable diving qualification.

Please respect that Motiti Island is private and that Taimaihi Island (the ‘Knoll’) and Matatapu Rocks (‘Black’ rocks) are sacred to local Iwi. Strictly no landing. The marine life around all Motiti Island has been depleted. The Society supports the local Iwi in their stance to enhance fish and shellfish stocks. Please respect this when choosing sites for seafood gathering. The Taioma Reef Society Inc has taken all precautions to provide diver safety and accordingly takes no responsibility for those diving the wreck.

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