What do you know about that, now? The rock, the Rona and the parrot

The dark night of Monday 26 June 1922 was Auckland’s night to remember. However, our local hazard was not a drifting iceberg, but Flat Rock near Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s steamer Rona had arrived from Fiji with 7000 tons of sugar and 600 tons of molasses and was heading towards the Rangitoto channel preparing to offload at Chelsea Sugar Refinery.

The crew of the Rona had sailed this route many times before. The lookout reported they were approaching Flat Rock beacon, but the ship always passed close to it. However, this time the mate at the wheel was trying to avoid an oncoming trawler and steered too close to the shoal running out south-westwards from the rock. The ship ran aground on Flat Rock approximately 30 feet from the Flat Rock beacon. You can see how close the bow of the ship was to the beacon in the following dramatic photos published by the Auckland Weekly News.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Flat Rock beacon dead ahead, 6 July 1922. 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-36-1.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Rona’s bow near Flat Rock beacon, 6 July 1922.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-36-2.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Rona alongside Flat Rock beacon, 6 July 1922.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-37-1.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Broadside view of Rona before refloating from Flat Rock, 6 July 1922. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-40-1.

Apart from Captain Wallis and mate, Chief Officer Grantley, one of the first crew members on the Rona to react to the accident was Polly the parrot. Polly had been enjoying a nap at the time and was rudely jolted awake when the ship hit Flat Rock (according to the Herald her cage was nearly overturned.) The parrot let out a low whistle, then reportedly immediately said, ‘What do you know about that, now?’

The story about Polly the parrot was reported in many papers throughout New Zealand. According to the Otago Witness, ‘The bird was very chirpy [next day], and when not shrieking with laughter gleefully exchanged stock gags with all and sundry.’ The Herald reported Polly was currently the most cheerful member of the Rona’s crew, while the Christchurch Star managed to find out more information on this well-travelled bird, which could supposedly also speak Spanish!

Image: Article from the Star (Christchurch), Issue 16775, 3 July 1922, Page 7.
Retrieved from Papers Past, 13 October 2022.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. What do you know about that? 6 July 1922.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-38-3.

The Rona’s bow was buckled and her forehold was flooded. However, the ship miraculously remained wedged in place on Flat Rock without sinking. The crew and salvage men realized that if the engines were kept going to hold the ship in place, she could be lightened and stabilized, and most of the cargo could be saved. So later that night the tugboat Young Bungaree, carrying 30 watersiders, towed two sugar lighters out to the Rona, and the men began unloading the ship’s No. 2 hold.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Watersiders unloading sugar sacks from the stranded Rona,
6 July 1922. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-36-3.

When the lighters were fully loaded, they were towed away and replaced next morning by the old harbour storage hulk Rothesay Bay, which was manoeuvred into position along the port side of the Rona by the tug Te Awhina.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Tug Te Awhina manoeuvring the hulk Rothesay Bay, 6 July 1922. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19220706-36-5.

During the next day the Northern Company’s oil vessels Tuhoe and Paroto, the ketch Will Watch and the vessel Putiki also shuttled back and forth to Chelsea carrying sugar sacks from the Rona.

Between them, these vessels moved 1600 tons of sugar sacks from the Rona’s No. 2 hold, which the salvage men calculated should be enough to lighten the ship while stabilizing its bulkheads so she could slowly make her way to Chelsea.

By Thursday 29 June it seemed the Rona was light and seaworthy enough to make its own way to port, so while using her own engines in reverse, the ship was pulled off Flat Rock by the tugs Te Awhina and Lyttelton. But there was more drama when the Rona wallowed in a swell, then rose and thumped down onto an uncharted rock north-east of Flat Rock. However, her bottom plates held, and the Rona rolled into deep water and then floated calmly upright. Escorted by the tugs the ship slowly made her way to Chelsea, where she discharged her remaining 5400 tons of sugar. However, all 600 tons of molasses in the Rona’s tanks had, perforce, been jettisoned during her ordeal.

After unloading, the Rona went into the Calliope dry dock at Devonport to have her damaged bow and keel plates removed and replaced. Damage assessors discovered that after the Rona had run aground on Flat Rock (and then crashed onto the uncharted rock) her bow and 60 feet of her keel would need to be repaired. The repair work was done by Senior Foundry Limited and Stevenson, Cook Engineering Co. Limited. The Bill Laxon Maritime Library has a copy of their promotional photograph album showing the extensive repair work done on the Rona (and on the museum’s website photo gallery there are photos of the Rona on other voyages.) The following photos of the dry dock repairs are from the promotional album. Here is a photo showing the damage to the Rona’s bow when she ran aground on Flat Rock.

Image: Senior Foundry Ltd/Stevenson, Cook Engineering Ltd. Damaged bow in dry dock. 1922.
New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa, [12160].

The next photo shows the damaged stem and keel plates being replaced. Most of this damage had been caused after the Rona floated free but then crashed up and down several times on the uncharted rock north-east of Flat Rock.

Image: Senior Foundry Ltd/Stevenson, Cook Engineering Ltd. Keel plate removal in dry dock. 1922. New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa, [12160].

During the repair work, the buckled plates from the Rona’s lower bow had to be completely removed and replaced. This can be seen in the following photo from the repair album, which shows the layout of the ship’s internal compartments. When the Rona was aground on Flat Rock the No. 1 forehold was flooded with 2000 tons of seawater.

Image: Senior Foundry Ltd/Stevenson, Cook Engineering Ltd. Open bow compartments during repair. 1922. New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa, [12160].

The last photo was taken on Saturday 21 October 1922, when the work had been completed and the Rona was floated out of the Calliope dry dock. From there she sailed across Auckland harbour to refit at the Western Wharf. After a week’s refit, she sailed from there bound for Fiji. The Herald claimed that the repair work on the Rona was the largest so far ever undertaken in New Zealand, and that ‘she was as strong a vessel as before the accident.’

Image: Senior Foundry Ltd/Stevenson, Cook Engineering Ltd. Rona being refloated out of dry dock. 1922. New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa, [12160].

Author: Christopher Paxton, Heritage Engagement


  1. Get piece. I assume the Rona bouy between the bridge and the refinery honours this vessel?

  2. Does anyone know how long the Rona remained in service? I vaguely recall a ship of that name en route to the Chelsea Refinery in the later part of the 1940s.

    1. The SS Rona was built in 1918 by Sir Raylton Dixon & Co at Middlesbrough, England. The ship was commandeered by the Royal Navy for 12 months (as HM Transport Y 2205) before arriving in Sydney for Colonial Sugar Refining Co in 1919 – it was the largest cargo ship on the Australian coast at the time received. The Rona sailed between Australia, Fiji and New Zealand. The ship was sold in 1956 and scrapped in 1959. She was replaced by the MV (Motor vessel) Rona, which was built for CSR in 1957 and continued in service with the company until 1972. I guess the MV Rona would have sailed on the same routes. - Christopher Paxton


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