A new home for lighter No. 2

Norfolk Island owes a debt of gratitude to a fleet of locally built wooden lighters used to unload cargo ships for over 165 years from the arrival of the Pitcairn Islanders on Norfolk Island.  Retired in 2022, these boats will forever be a reminder of an important Norf’k tradition and the skill and labour of our men in undertaking the essential activity of ‘werken shep’.

Lighter No. 02  has recently come to The Pitcairn Settlers Story, with a specially built viewing platform. No. 2 was built by John Christian-Bailey and completed in 2003. It was used in continuous service until the entire fleet of locally built lighters was replaced in 2022. John had been commissioned a few years earlier to build his first lighter, continuing a long and important tradition of skilled local boat builders replacing older lighters as they finished their useful life. The last lighter to be built on the Island was completed by John in 2016.

As Norfolk Island lacks a deep water port, when cargo ships arrive they anchor about one kilometre offshore where the cargo is unloaded into a lighter which is then towed to the pier by motorised launch. Lighters are open boats about 10 metres in length and built of Norfolk pine with a hardwood keel, stem and stern. Around 4,000 copper nails are used, together with locally made stainless steel bolts. On Norfolk, the lighters design evolved from whale and longboats used in the open seas on Pitcairn Island. Over the years they were adapted to be able to carry increasingly large amounts of cargo by being widened and deepened.

When a cargo ship arrives the team of lighterage workers immediately put all other work commitments aside to attend to unloading the boat. Lighterage operations can be hazardous as waters at the piers can be 1 metre or less at low tide and 1–2 metre swells also occur. Expert boat handling knowledge and seamanship is required, skills that have traditionally been taught by Norf’k elders to the younger men.

To ‘werk shep’ is hard work requiring long hours over an intense usually 2-4 days depending on the tonnage to be unloaded and sea conditions.  Cargo is lowered over the edge of the ship and transported in the lighters on pallets or in nets. At the pier the lighters are unloaded using a mobile crane. For larger items such as busses and trucks, two lighters were strapped together using hardwood poles to provide stability. Livestock, timber, steel and other heavy items were also expertly carried to shore on these wooden lighters.

Using Norfolk Island built lighters, on a good day an average of 600 tonnes could be unloaded.

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