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Ara Kawau – the story of ZEALANDIA’s electric boat
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

Ara Kawau – the story of ZEALANDIA’s electric boat

Ara Kawau, ZEALANDIA’s electric boat, is a familiar sight, plying the waters of the Lower Lake. But did you know that our boat has an interesting back-story as well?

Ara Kawau is a Duffy electric boat, invented when Marshall “Duffy” Duffield placed the motor from a second-hand golf cart into the hull of a beat-up motorboat in Newport Beach, California, more than 45 years ago.

These days, Duffy electric boats can be seen on lakes and inland waterways all over the USA. The factory that makes them is located on the edge of the Mojave Desert, a most unlikely place for a boat building factory. It was from there in October 2002 that two Duffy 21 Classic Cruisers were packaged up to be shipped to Auckland.

The customer was a company called Water Taxis AC2002 and the boats were designated as ‘Water Taxis’ for the Americas Cup, which took place in Auckland in 2003, although being equipped with tables, a fridge and a drinks cupboard, rumour has it that they were also used for evening ‘booze cruises’ around the marina.

As history records, the Americas Cup was lost and with it went a whole industry, including the requirement for electric water taxis. Water Taxis AC2002 ceased operations and disposal of the boats was eventually placed in the hands of a brokerage company.

In the meantime, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (now ZEALANDIA) was on the lookout for a boat. The Sanctuary had envisaged offering boat trips on the Lower Lake to ’enhance visitor experience’ for some time, but in the early years  ‘must haves’ came before ‘nice to haves’. In early 2004, the idea came to the top of the pile, a sponsor was found, and Keith Calder, the then Valley Manager, initiated the search for a suitable solution.

A consultant, Roger Marshall from Waikanae, was engaged to evaluate the alternatives and after identifying the inherent noise and potential pollution issues with diesel or petrol-powered craft, recommended an electric boat. Duffy duly provided a quote for a new 21ft Cruiser.

In the meantime, Roger had contacted the boat brokers in Auckland who were handling the disposal of the Americas Cup boats and, having enjoyed a test drive, reported that the Duffy cruiser seemed to be appropriate for the Sanctuary’s needs. Even better, the ex-water taxi cost around half the price of a new boat.

Throughout the winter of 2004, all the necessary negotiations were carried out for the boat with the sponsor, the New Zealand Community Trust, along with the purchase and installation of the pontoons and all the necessary permissions and approvals. At the end of 2004, the boat was put on a truck and shipped to Wellington.

Next on the agenda was what name to give the boat. A competition was held and Allison Buchan’s suggestion of Ara Kawau – the path or course of the shag - was chosen.

The official launch of the Ara Kawau was held at 3pm on Wednesday 26 January 2005. No bottles were broken for obvious reasons but I am told a small libation was poured over the bow. And so began the regular boat service up and down the lake.

To start with, the boat was moored at the Heritage lawn pontoon as this was the only place with a power supply for overnight charging. Later, power was put into the Wetlands pontoon which allowed the boat to be moored  in a much more sheltered situation. The exposure from the boat’s original mooring place meant that the canvas roof canopy had a very hard life and over the years, two replacements had to be ordered from Duffy. Eventually in 2014, a local company, Canopy Design, made a roof in PVC which appears to be much more durable.

Regular usage of the boat has primarily been at weekends and the battery capacity allows the boat to operate for the whole weekend before needing a recharge. This typically involves between 20 and 30 lengths of the lake. On the very first gold coin open weekend, the boat actually managed 44 lengths of the lake in one day, with skippers taking shifts.

In the early days, the boat ran to a timetable and charged a small fare. This meant the boat was often waiting for its scheduled time at the ‘wrong’ end of the lake from where people were waiting and the charge seemed to discourage visitors from taking the trip. In 2014, we decided to scrap the timetable, and the boat now runs ‘on demand’. The fare was also dropped in favour of a donation and since then, use of the boat has boomed.

The original Duffy boat documentation under the heading of ‘battery life’ states that ‘with careful use the batteries will last up to six years’. However it wasn’t until thirteen years after the boat left the factory that we started experiencing  problems with the batteries holding charge, along with a number of other maintenance issues.

The decision was made to undertake a complete overhaul of the boat which included replacing the batteries and repainting it.

In May 2016, the boat was lifted back into the water with a newly painted white hull (easier to maintain than the previous dark red) and a new set of batteries.

Back in 2004, a Wellington City Council official wrote ‘My first thought is that this will be a centre of attraction to all especially for kids’ and it is fair to say that time has proved him correct. A sunny Sunday in summer can see 150 to 200 people enjoying the boat during the day. We have no figures for total boat usage but with members, visitors and tour groups, we can estimate that over the years somewhere in the region of 10,000 people have enjoyed a cruise on Ara Kawau.

Article by Chris Gee
Main image by Brendon Doran

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