NZ Post sheds light on maritime history

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 45, December 2013

New Zealand coastlines and some of the country’s most iconic lighthouses are featured in a special presentation pack of stamps published by NZ Post.
New Zealand Post Lighthouse stamps
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Castle Point lighthouse at night.

MNZ owns and maintains 23 lighthouses and 75 light beacons located outside harbour limits. The stamps in “NZ Coastlines”, issued by NZ Post in September, highlight five classic lighthouses and are accompanied by a brief commentary.

The ship-to-shore communications provided by lighthouses and maritime radio have a pivotal role in ensuring vessels can travel safely around New Zealand’s long and labyrinthine coastline – estimated to be more than 15,000 kilometres long. The stamp issue was timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of New Zealand’s maritime radio service being fully developed in 2013 and the centenary this year of the Castle Point Lighthouse in Wairarapa – one of the lighthouses in the stamp pack.

Castle Point
A shot of Castle Point lighthouse and surrounding homestead.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Other lighthouses featured in the stamp series are Nugget Point’s stone lighthouse, dating from 1870 near the southeast corner of the South Island; East Cape, relocated from East Island to the mainland in 1922; Pencarrow Head in Wellington, the country’s oldest lighthouse and the only one to be operated by a woman; and Cape Campbell off Blenheim, marking the southern approach to Cook Strait.

The New Zealand Collection

MNZ also features in this year’s “New Zealand Collection”, a deluxe hardcover book that showcases a selection of the stamps produced by NZ Post over the past year. The stamps are presented alongside stunning photography and articles by New Zealand writers, business leaders and other dignitaries.

In this year’s edition, titled Take a Closer Look, MNZ Chairman David Ledson discusses the role of the sea and MNZ – from its earliest incarnation as the agency responsible for ensuring safety at sea – in shaping the development of modern New Zealand.

David Ledson describes the explosion of maritime activity in the brand new colony and some of the tragedies at sea that ensued...

Before the network of roads and railways was built on land, the sea was New Zealand’s ‘state highway’ network. People and goods were transported around our 15,134 kilometres of coastline by ship. The fledgling nation was also a major port of call for vessels plying international trade routes, and on whose safe arrival so much depended.

By 1866, almost 500 vessels had been registered in New Zealand. More than 1,000 ships arrived in our ports that year, and almost as many departed. The value of goods imported and exported was rapidly increasing.

There was, however, another side to the story. More than 1,000 ships were wrecked within the first 50 years of colonisation. The worst of these shipwrecks were the Orpheus on 7 February 1863, with 189 lives lost, the Tararua on 29–30 April 1881 with 131 deaths, and the Wairarapa, which ran into cliffs on Great Barrier Island on 29 October 1894, with the loss of 121 passengers and crew. The tragic lessons learned from these and other maritime disasters have helped to build the national marine system we have today.

...and he stresses how MNZ’s work remains as relevant and vital today as when its predecessor, the Marine Board, took up the role of keeping New Zealand waters safe, secure and clean more than a century and a half ago:

The use of the sea remains a vital part of the national economy and the lives of many New Zealanders. Approximately 99 percent of our imports and exports by volume are transported by sea, and every year almost 1,300 fishing vessels operate around our coast, five million passengers use ferries to go on holiday and to work, and one million people take to the water on recreational craft.

Today the lighthouses are fully automatic. A lighthouse engineer based in Wellington uses a computer link to check any faults in the operation of the main lighthouses and can troubleshoot most problems remotely. Standby units for the rotation gear, lamp and power supply are automatically activated if there is a failure.

A coastal VHF (very high frequency) and HF (high frequency) service provides full coverage around New Zealand’s coastline. Maritime New Zealand maintains a listening watch on all international distress frequencies via a network of 30 VHF sites, two medium frequency/HF sites, one International Maritime Satellite (Inmarsat) receiver and a round-the-clock Maritime Operations Centre, which supports the work of the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). Every year RCCNZ responds to about 700 incidents and since 2004 it has coordinated search and rescue operations that have saved more than 500 lives.

Technology has enabled a lighthouse and radio system that would probably be unrecognisable to its pioneers. However, they would recognise that, in the broader maritime safety system operated by Maritime New Zealand, the difference between failing and succeeding is not the quality of the technology but the quality of the people. Just as the importance of lights and radios to safety at sea has not altered in any significant way in the past 150 years, neither has the commitment of the people at Maritime New Zealand to delivering vital safety services diminished with the passage of time.

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