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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

1866 Cook Strait Cable

The first attempt to lay a cable across the Cook Strait, which separates the north and south islands of New Zealand, was made in 1866, but the cable parted during laying. A second attempt that year was successful.

Dougal Watson sends this contemporary report on the failure of the first expedition:

This report is paper #15 in Appendix E: Telegraph Department; Part 2. Further papers relative to submarine telegraph across Cook’s Strait (In continuation of Papers presented 19th October, 1865), which is part of the Appendices to the 1866 Journal of the Legislative Council and House of Representatives of New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand.

Letter reporting attempt to lay COOK STRAIT TELEGRAPH CABLE.

Wellington, 30th July, 1866.

The Hon. the Postmaster-General, Wellington.


We have the honor to report that every preparation being made, and the weather promising well, the “Weymouth” left Wellington Harbour in tow of the s.s. “Taranaki.” about 10 p.m., on Friday, the 27th instant, towing the “Wild Duck” cargo-boat, attended by the p.s. “Sturt.”

We came to anchor in Lyall’s Bay about 11.30 in five fathoms of water, and commenced coiling the shore end of the cable into the “Wild Duck” and the “Sturt.”

Shortly after 3 a.m. on the 28th, the “Sturt” with the “Wild Duck” lashed alongside steamed towards the Beach paying out the shore end of the cable.

By 3.50 a.m. the end was landed and connection made with the instruments in the cable-house at 4.5 a.m.

On the boats coming off we proceeded to weigh anchor and make other preparations for the start, and at about 5.10 a.m., the “Taranaki” commenced steaming dead slow with the “Weymouth” in tow, everything working satisfactorily, the ships steering well, and very little slack being paid out. About 6.30 a.m. after fully three and a half miles of cable were paid out, being still in slack water, the speed was slightly increased.

As we got into the tide the number of revolutions of the paying-out drum gradually rose from twenty-three and a half, and signals were made to slow the engines of the “Taranaki,” but in spite of this the revolutions increased to thirty-four (equal to paying out at a rate of fully six nautical miles per hour.) when a few minutes before 7.20 a.m., the cable fouled in the tier, and at 7.20 a.m. the strain had become so great that it parted from forty to fifty fathoms outside the ship, Seal Rock bearing from the “Taranaki” N. by E. and Tourakira E.

A buoy was immediately slipped from the “Weymouth” to mark the spot, and the machinery being broken by the foul cable overriding the drum and so jamming the cogs as to rupture the gear, it was found impossible to pick up the overhanging part of the cable, which was in consequence cut away, and the expedition returned to harbour  to repair damages.

On passing close to the buoy, bearings were again taken from the “Taranaki,” Seal Rock bearing N. ¼ E., and Tourakira E.

Causes of Accident.

As the tides round Sinclair’s Head were considered the main danger – as tending to drag out too much slack of the cable, it had been decided, after consultation,, that it was advisable to reach that point about the period of slack water which on Saturday morning ought to have occurred about 8 a.m., and the starting time was arranged to suit this on the closest calculation of the probable rate of paving out which could be made.

Owing however to the remarkable fineness of the weather, the smoothness with which everything worked, and the attention and dexterity of the detachment of seamen from H.M.’s s.s. “Esk,” who were stationed in the cable tier, we overran our calculated speed and arrived at the difficult part just forty minutes too soon.

Owing to this, we were carried along by the flood tide at a much more rapid rate than was safe, in spite of the fact that the “Taranaki” was going quite slow, and were deceived by the smoothness of the water and the absence of the usual rip, and led  to imagine our rate of speed to be much less than it really was.

It seems probable that the flood tide ran longer on Saturday (from local causes) than it should have done, or at least that it carried its strength to the very last: at all events it was so strong at the time of the accident that, combined with the way on the vessel, it rendered it impossible to bring up in time to prevent a breakage.

The proximate cause of this accident was the folding of the cable in the tier, owing to the rate of paying out being faster than the men could attend to.

The cable is stowed in flakes or spiral coils, and is paid out from this inside of the tank outwards.

When one flake is off, the line runs back to the inside nearly in a radius, and then repeats its travel on a new flake from the centre to the outside.

With this explanation, it can be at once understood that the cable almost delivers itself, and only requires a slight help from time to time, (especially at the fore and aft parts of the oval tank, where there is a risk of the outer coating of the coils adhering.)

When a coil or flake has  been paid off the greatest caution is required to insure a fair start for the next, and it was here that the accident occurred, as is indisputably proved by an inspection of the present state of the cable in the tank.

When a flake had been paid out nearly to the last coil, an inexperienced man lifted the wrong coil, which was the one below and immediately connected with the radiating line passing out under the next flake. In a moment the cable passed under this coil, fouled it, dragged it up through the hawse pipe, thus putting a heavy strain on the radiating line, which came away, bringing the next flake en masse, causing an inextricable jamb.

One of Mr. Donovan’s experienced hands noticed this mistake, and was hastening to rectify it, but unfortunately slipped and fell, and before he could recover himself the mischief was done.


It has been suggested that the accident would not have occurred had the towing steamer been  lashed alongside the “Weymouth.”

This we very much doubt, as the vessels would have had just as much way or momentum whether they were together or separate, and it is extremely doubtful whether even a steamer could have been stopped in time. But even were this the case, it would be impossible so to tow in Cook’s Straits, as the vessels roll even in the finest weather.

Another suggestion has been that the steamer behind the paying-out ship should be as heavy as the towing ship, so as to be able to pull against her at once.

This idea seems founded on a fallacy, for even were this “brake steamer” turning against the towing steamer the whole time, she must still be going with her at the same rate, and she must neutralize her own way or momentum before being able to check the other vessels. Consequently, the lighter the checking ship is the more speedily will she act, provided she be of sufficient power.

We are however of opinion that it would be well to have a more powerful brake steamer than the “Sturt,” which latter vessel would be of better service if free, as  she could make fast to either the towing or the checking steamer if required, – could carry messages – assist to land the other shore-end, – and be available for any  unforeseen contingencies.

If the “Southland” can be borrowed for the time from the Provincial Government of Southland, we know of no other vessel in this Colony which so well fulfils the necessary requirements, by combining considerable power and a comparatively small weight.

There do not seem to be any other changes required on the part of the Government: but we have decided that arrangements shall be made on board the “Weymouth” for immediately cutting away from the towing steamer as a precautionary measure should an emergency arise, and we have determined so to time our starting as to pay out the cable over the difficult part of the course against an ebb tide.

We have had under consideration a suggestion for an arrangement by which the cable might be instantaneously severed at the afterpart of the ship in the event of an accident; but the difficulties involved in the instantaneous severing of a moving body of such a strength seemed so formidable that we have been compelled to abandon it.

After a close examination of the gear, we think that such changes in the arrangements of the parts could be made as would (even in the event of  a similar accident recurring) suffice to save the machinery by keeping the over-riding part of the cable clear of the cogs.

Time required for Repairs.

We are glad to be able to report that the Wellington workshops are fully equal to the necessary repairs, and, so for as a judgement can be arrived at before the parts are taken asunder, we think that everything may again be in working order within a fortnight from this date, by which time the cable still also be tested, restored, and arranged  in readiness for another attempt; and we are confident, that notwithstanding this present most vexatious failure, the operation will be eventually successful, and the Cook Strait Telegraph Cable become a complete success.

We have, &c.,
        E. DONOVAN, Electrician and Engineer,
                for W. T. Henley, Esq., Contractor.
        ALFRED SHEATH, Telegraphic Engineer.
        JAMES M. BALFOUR, Memb, Inst. C.E., Marine Engineer.
        WM. NORRIS, Commander ship “Weymouth.”
        H. B. FRANCIS, Master s.s. “Taranaki.”

Copyright © 2008 FTL Design

Last revised: 14 November, 2009

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