AB Donald Ltd Schooner Tiare Taporo

A.B. Donald Ltd's last trading Schooner
'Tiare Taporo' (flower of the lime)

Even with the coming of steam and auxiliary power, schooners continued to be popular with Island Merchants and Traders right up to the early 1900's. None of the old timers survive today but, out of Papeete, there still sails a schooner that immediately attracts one's attention. She is the "Tiare Taporo" which was designed and built by Charles Bailey Jnr. in 1913 for the islands trading firm of Messrs. A.B. Donald Ltd. Her first Master, Capt. J. Winchester was originally a 50% shareholder until his shares were bought at a later time by A.B. Donald Esq.

The name itself is Tahitian and means “lime blossom” (in Cook Islands’ Maori it would be Tiare Tiporo) and was also the name of a previous and much beloved ship that was very famous in these parts.  She was also one of the very last to trade under sail in the Cook Islands and the South Pacific.

She had a varied and fascinating life:

 The original “Tiare Taporo” was built for A B Donald Ltd in 1913 by master shipwright, Charles Bailey, Jr., of Auckland, who was considered one of the foremost shipbuilders in New Zealand. She was built of the very best Kauri, her frames were natural bent Pohutukawa and her deck beams and main hatch coaming were Iron. She also had a beautiful Kauri bowsprit with her main, fore and topmasts of Oregon pine. As an auxiliary schooner, her machinery, which was aft, consisted of a 4-cylinder oil engine built by the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Company, of Oakland, California which gave a speed of 7 knots. Her dimensions were: length (overall) 107 ft., beam 23 ft 4 in. and draft 9.8 ft and she had a gross tonnage of 173 tons.

There is a neat story about how she came to be given her beautiful name: When Alexander Donald Esq. started his business in Tahiti (Etablissements Donald) some years earlier, the Royal Navy obtained its lime juice from St. Vincent and St. Lucia in the British West Indies. Both these islands were struck by one of those hurricanes that blows islands off the map. The lime crop was destroyed and Donald obtained the contract for supplying the Navy with lime juice. As a result of the great quantities of limes he bought, he became known among Tahitians as the 'Lime Man'—in Tahitian `Taporo Tane'.

Now the Tahitians have a way of naming their vessels with the prefix 'flower/blossom', in Tahitian `Tiare' and it is said that during her building in 1913, Donald was having great difficulty trying to find a suitable name for his new schooner, but one day he had it. He stormed into his office in Auckland and shouted, 'The new boat will be called Tiare Taporo.' It has been said that Donald's sudden inspiration was brought on sharply after he had been indulging in a couple of rum punches, flavoured of course by Tahitian limes...

The "Tiare Taporo" got her name over the Donald's dining table, when a discussion arose over what their new vessel was to be called. It was jocularly suggested that as the firm received revenue from the trade in lime juice, the schooner should be named after the lime! From that suggestion came the lovely Tahitian words "Tiare Taporo" - the flower of the lime - as fine a name that could be bestowed upon any ship.

 “Tiare Taporo” was fitted out with a trade room, a master's and mates’ cabins and a main cabin seating eight at the table, with two bunks on each side. The main cabin was light and airy with a large skylight running nearly the entire length of it. Her first Master was Capt. Joe Winchester, an Englishman who had arrived in Tahiti as a young man, married there and became a French citizen. Under Capt Winchester, “Tiare Taporo” made a record run from Auckland to Tahiti in 11 days and 7 hours.

Originally flagged in Suva “Tiare Taporo” soon began flying the French ensign, as she initially traded in French Oceania between the Society, Tuamotu and the Marquesa islands. For more than 32 years she was a familiar sight to people of the Cooks and French Polynesia, bringing vital supplies and collecting all types of Island produce. During the 1930s and 40s she was the only link with the outside world for the people of Aitutaki, Mangaia, Manuae, Palmerston, Pukapuka and Rakahanga.

Her early days of course included the period of the First World War and during the war “Tiare Taporo” appeared as a footnote in one of the most famous Pacific stories of that conflict:

On December 21st 1916 a 245 foot, 1571 ton, steel hulled barque, armed with two 105-mm naval cannons and an array of machine guns, set sail from Germany bound for the waters of the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This famous ship was “Seeadler” (“Sea Eagle) under the command of the renowned Count Felix von Luckner with a crew known as “The Kaiser’s Pirates”. Known himself as the Sea Devil, von Luckner became a hero and a legend on both sides of the war for his ability to wage war without inflicting casualties: During the 225 days she was at sea, “Seeadler” captured 15 ships without the loss of a single life on either side. On August 2, 1917 though, while anchored at Mopelia Island in the Society Group, “Seeadler” washed onto the reef. Von Luckner claimed she was struck by a Tsunami, while his American POWs say she simply drifted ashore while the Count and his Pirates were ashore enjoying a picnic. Whatever it was she was lost and von Luckner, with a crew of five, set sail in an 18-foot cutter for the Fiji Islands, calling at Atiu, Aitutaki and Rarotonga on the way.

On arrival at Wakaya Island, the six German sailors were captured and interned as prisoners of war. Back at Mopelia Island the remaining 58 German “Pirates” from Seeadler captured the French schooner “Lutece” when she arrived at the island on September 5th. Renamed “Fortuna”, under command of Lieutenant Alfred Kling, she sailed to Easter Island leaving her POWs and the crew of the Lutece behind on Mopelia to fend for themselves. It was time then for “Tiare Taporo” to come to the rescue and on 6th October she arrived at Mopelia to find 41 marooned sailors, all of whom she rescued and carried back to Tahiti.

Subsequently in the latter part of the War, the Donalds withdrew “Tiare Taporo” from Tahiti and had her running to San Francisco from the Cook Islands with copra, returning to Auckland with petrol and she was put under the British flag at that time.

In 1918 the "Tiare Taporo" went up to San Francisco and loaded case oil for Auckland where she arrived on 8th. January 1919, 58 days out. After an overhaul at Auckland, during which the main mast was shifted six feet further aft, the schooner cleared port on 16th. February, to take over the Cook Islands services of Messrs. A.B. Donald. Being clear of trading in French territorial waters, the port of registry was changed from Papeete to Auckland. The "Tiare Taporo" had already become well known during her voyages out of the French port,but now much of the colour of the South Seas was to be woven into her career with Viggo Rasmussen as her master.

Born in Denmark, Viggo went to sea at an early age and arrived in Tahiti in 1896. He spent 10 years in French Oceania at various callings and came to know the islands and their people through his numerous trading schooner voyages and his pearling ventures in the Tuamotus. As with so many others who drifted down to that corner of the Pacific, Viggo found the life very much to his liking, and in Tahiti romance with a Mitiaro girl ended in matrimony. Taking his wife back to Mitiaro in the Cook Group, he set up as a trader there. But the call of the sea proved to be too strong for him and away he sailed in the schooner "Vaite". Trading in the Cook Islands, home was never far away, and the experience gained was invaluable to Viggo when he was appointed Master of the "Tiare Taporo" which replaced the "Vaite" because that vessel had been having difficulty in handling all of the work that was offering.

Known to Polynesians and Europeans alike as "Papa" Viggo, Rasmussen and his schooner became popular with all those whose business meant travel among the islands, and Viggo maintained his contact with Tahiti with occasional calls to Papeete for refitting, generally during the hurricane season.

In 1922, after picking up 104 tons of copra in the Northern Cook Group, the "Tiare Taporo" left Penrhyn for Auckland on 28th. January. Fine weather prevailed until 20th. February when an easterly gale was encountered. Auckland was made on the 22nd. and, after discharge a lengthy overhaul was undertaken so that it was not until 29th. April that port was cleared for Rarotonga and Papeete under Captain Ruth, Viggo Rasmussen not going back with the schooner.

Outside the Hauraki Gulf another easterly blew up, and when a leak developed 160 miles out, it was decided to turn back for Auckland rather than run the risk of damaging the cargo which consisted mainly of provisions. Auckland was made on 2nd. May where the leak, which had been located above the waterline, was repaired and the Waitemata was finally cleared for Rarotonga on 7th. May.

No doubt all on board were glad to be clear of the stormy New Zealand waters. Perhaps Viggo knew a thing or two when he remained ashore. He later rejoined the "Tiare Taporo" in the Islands and remained with her until 1936 when the veteran master left her and the sea to become Resident Agent on Penrhyn Island until 1945, when ill health took him to Rarotonga. Feeling that his end was near, he sailed in his old schooner to spend his last days with his family on Penrhyn. There, in 1947, he passed away, within sound of the mighty Pacific rollers that had been so familiar to him with their incessant pounding on the reefs.

From 1919 she was permanently stationed in the Cook Islands, doing an annual trip to Tahiti for repairs and overhaul. “Tiare Taporo” remained based in the Cooks for the next 30 years earning herself a treasured place in the memories of the many people she carried and supplied. In 1949 she was again transferred to Tahiti, put back under the French flag and went back to her old run out of Papeete to the Marquesas and the Tuamotus.

In 1949 the "Tiare Taporo" under Andy Thompson, was again in Auckland for overhaul, arriving from Rarotonga and later returning to the Cook Group until she herself was replaced by the M.V. "Charlotte Donald". She then took a labour gang to the phosphate island of Makatea and from there sailed for Papeete where she was handed over to the Etablissements Donald-Tahiti.

Capt. Andy Thompson, then in the "Charlotte Donald", seeing the "Tiare Taporo" in Papeete after a voyage to the Marquesas for copra, wrote: "The Tiare looked well, all dolled and painted up. They always keep the vessels at Papeete in tip-top order. I don't believe you'll see such nicely kept ships in any place in the world as you do in Papeete, Tahiti."

Andy Thompson was a great seaman. He had the enviable record of never losing a ship or a man overboard during a time when none of the electronic navigation aids we take for granted today existed. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and came to the South Pacific via Alaska as a young man. There is a surviving letter from Andy in which he describes meeting A.B. Donald Esq. in Tahiti in 1908. He described ABD as "an up and coming fellow"!

The loss by fire of the ketch "Artemise" in February 1953 at Raroia in the Tuamotus left the "Tiare Taporo" as the only remaining Auckland built 'fore and aft' sailing in French Oceania. In 1960, however she was once again in the Cook Group with Andy Thompson at the helm.

As elsewhere, Tahitian craft now rely on diesels so that today there is little to remind us of the days when a great fleet of glistening white schooners tied up under the Flamboyant trees on Papeete's waterfront.

Even after surviving a large on deck copra fire in the early 60s and many hurricanes in the 10s of thousands of miles she sailed, ultimately, after being sold to new owners, “Tiare Taporo” was wrecked after being driven onto a reef during Hurricane Florence at Aneityum in Vanuatu in 1968 bringing down the curtain on both her remarkable 55-year career and that era of trading schooners in the Pacific.