About Us‎ > ‎Boats‎ > ‎Swiftsure II‎ > ‎

History of Swiftsure (Swift Shur)

History of the Swiftsure.

                                 This article was written by Mrs. Violet Godwin (nee Jackson), the youngest daughter of James Jackson [Junior], in 1948.


Te-Awa-iti is the over century old whaling station of Arapawa Island. Lying on the north side of Tory Channel, you pass it on your right hand side on the way to Picton. The Jacksons, Nortons, Guards, Loves and Keenans were the great men of Te-Awa-iti with New Zealand adventure records going back to the early years of the last century.  The King of them all in that bay of old Tar-White (the universal whalemens rendering of Te-Awa-iti), with it’s beach strewn with the bones of whales, was Captain James Jackson. Born in the year 1800 in Putney England, he came out to Australia first in the year 1828 as mate of the ship Elizabeth and then into New Zealand waters in command of the Brig Bee. A Herculean sailor of countless adventures, such as circumnavigating the South Island in an open sealing boat, his name is preserved on the maps - Cape Jackson and Jackson Bay. He was the father of the late James Jackson, Brooklyn Estate, Tory Channel, who was famed also for whaling activities in the days gone by. James Jackson was born in 1845 at Jackson’s Bay, Tory Channel, and he conducted his whaling in the boat Swiftsure, now lying in state in the Canterbury Museum. The old boat has a history going back nearly a century .

There was in the days of long ago a boat builder famed by the name of Liandet of Hobart, Tasmania. He turned out some splendid boats - two of them so well remembered in whaling history. The Alabama was owned by Mr. Tom Jackson of early Kaikoura whaling days, and the brother of James Jackson, Tory Channel. The other boat was the Swiftsure. These two boats were first used in 1863 - 1864 for taking gold diggers up to Wakamarina in the big rush days. The Swiftsure in her days of whaling captured about sixty right whales and three hundred humpbacks and earned in money about £60,000. She is now stored beside the big whale skeleton ** in the Canterbury Museum and it can be noticed that her loggerhead is very worn by the continual friction of the rope.

Some very rough times were experienced in the old Swiftsure by her crews. In 1869 Mr. Jackson spent a terrible night out in Cooks Strait. After killing a big humpback in the Strait he had got well down near the Cape in his killing of the whale and a butt end of a Southeaster was coming up, and there was no landing place there, he decided to keep plugging along towing the big whale behind the Swiftsure in the long heave running with a gale to come. The whale was drifted by the current close in shore and though the sea was getting very rough the sleek of the whale made the sea near the boat fairly smooth. It oiled the water with the oil from the lance wounds in the whale. It was a moonlight night and the scud was flying across the moon at a terrible rate. The current as it happened was taking the whale and the Swiftsure between Geordies Rock and the land to the South of the entrance to Tory Channel. The big comers on astern and breaking on the reef - the wind was at gale force - but they got to a place where they could land.  The whale came ashore and was anchored until next day. As the Swiftsure was beached each man was told to jump and take his oar with him. The oars were then used as skids to haul the Swiftsure to safety. It was an awful night for the boats crew - it blew and rained like “hell let loose” and the crew were shivering with cold in their wet clothes. In the morning they climbed the precipitous cliff above them and got to Tory Channel where they secured an anchor and carried it back to the spot and made the whale secure. It was found impossible to get the whale off the rocks where it had been washed with the seas so it had to be cut up and tried out where it laid. That oil was well earned.

In the bow of the old Swiftsure embedded in the wood are two or more Taniwha shark’s teeth. A humpback whale had been killed in Tory Channel, off Te-Awa-iti and the flukes cut off. The blood evidently attracted the Taniwha shark. An iron was hoved into him and the shark quickly turned and caught the boat forward, turning on his back and opening his mouth. At the bite he was fully four feet across. He caught the bow of the boat between his teeth and shook it. A crunching sound was heard by the crew who thought they were in for trouble, but it was his teeth breaking that they heard. He had bitten into the Swiftsure’s timbers so deeply that he left some of his teeth in them.  He measured twenty four when killed. His teeth were filed down in the bow of the Swiftsure and are there today.The harpooner of whales had to be a skillful man at his job and it took many a kill to develop the skill men like James Jackson and James Norton displayed in this wonderful big game slaying.

To see the Swiftsure going into action, chasing and fast to a whale was a sight well remembered by those fortunate enough to see her. Mr. Jackson at the steer oar - one of his sons usually at the bow as harpooner - the crew in their different coloured shirts, mostly white, seemed to be worn by the whaling crews in those days which showed up in contrast to the vivid blue colour of the Swiftsure. The Headman (Mr. Jackson) urging his crew with encouraging words of  “swig boys, swig, up with her lads”. Ahead would be spouting a huge right whale throwing up the Prince of Wales feather spout. As the boat neared the whale within striking distance with the iron, the harpooner would be standing with iron poised ready to plunge it into the most vulnerable spot showing of the whale. With a mighty heave, the iron would be plunged deep into the whale. Oars would be peaked and the rope in the tub which was attached to the iron paired out through the chocs. The whale, as soon as it felt the impact and the pain of the iron in it’s body would dive quickly under water and away at a terrific rate of speed. The Swiftsure would be literally flying through the water with the speed the whale was towing her.  When enough rope had been run out to lessen undue strain upon the fastened iron, the crew would start hauling on the rope as the whale came up to breath. The boat would then be near enough for Mr. Jackson, who had quickly gone to the bow after the fastening of the iron to the whale, and the harpooner to the stern to take command of the steeroar, to get a lance into the whale. The lance of course, was not toggled and is thrown into the whale at a vital spot, mostly, if possible, under the fin near the heart and lungs. It is then hauled out again for the next throw. The Lanceman has to be of great skill as it is on him that depends the capture and kill of the whale. Very soon after a good lance or two a thin streak of blood would begin to show in the whale’s spout, and as the lancing progress continued, it would be thrown up as thick as coal tar,
which showed that each lance thrown was finding its right mark.

The Swiftsure was a grand boat to work fast to a whale, being very light on the water in movement and very easily manoevered. Continually at the kill could be heard, by those near enough to hear, Mr. Jackson calling “Lay on!” or “Lay off!” according to what position he wanted the boat in.

If the whale being killed was a bull whale, it’s roars in it’s death agonies was terrific. At the conclusion of the kill the crew gave one mighty cheer, the whale then being made fast to the Swiftsure and towed to the Te-Awa-iti whaling works where it was cut up and the blubber, or fat, was tried out in large iron pots especially made for the work.

Excitement ran high at the whaling station after the kill of a large right whale - the bone in those days being of great value - and many a hug and kiss did the bow of the Swiftsure get for her share of the kill by the women folk of the crew. At last the day came when the good old boat was shelved for the more modern method of whaling by launch. Mr. Jackson then decided to present her to the Canterbury Museum Authorities, who were desirous of having her in their care.

One morning there arrived in Jackson’s Bay a small steamer to collect the Swiftsure. She was got ready on the skids and Mr. Jackson, then an aged man, walked with faltering steps towards the old boat to say his farewell to the succour of his family of early days. He placed his arms across her bow and laid his head upon them. There was just the Heaving of his great shoulders and as he raised his head, tears could be seen in his eyes, and so he parted with the “pride of his youth, the joy of his life”. He never saw her again as his health failed him and he was unable to make the journey to Christchurch to see her there.