The History of Bonita

Following on from yesterdays WW story on Bonita , link below – today we document the life of the launch – that was built in 1923 by E.R. Lane in Picton. It takes us up to 2016. Its a wonderful read and how lucky are her current and future owners to have such a detailed history. We thank Beth Gordon, daughter of the original owner, for researching and writing the story – special thanks to current owner Richard Neighbour for sharing it with us. I will let Beth tell the story – enjoy

The following is a partial history of this launch compiled by myself, Beth Gordon. Thanks to H Kidd, M Hatton, G Ruffell, J Bunt, J Shallcrass, E Guard, C Guard, A McManaway & R Brownlee. Further corrections, additions and comments are most welcome.

Ernest Richard Lane learnt the trade in his father’s yard: T M Lane & Sons, Mechanics Bay. He “went to America to further his knowledge of boat building and also attended a Naval College in San Francisco to learn the architectural and designing side of the business” [Picton Builders, The Seaport News 01 April 2011]. He came to Picton in 1907 and purchased Carl Brunsill’s business at the Spit.

Ernie Lane’s boat building shed and slipway was located at the eastern aspect of Picton Harbour south of Shelley Beach. Access was by the early footbridge across the Victoria Lagoon from Waikawa Road. The Bonita was built in 1923 and fitted with a 12 hp Kelvin Marine Engine (benzine fuelled). “Bonita is a feminine name as well as a word meaning ‘pretty, nice’ in Spanish & Portuguese … also ships and submarines of the US Navy were named USS Bonita – submarine 1926 -1937.” [Wikipedia website, June 2011]

The earliest possible owner was Charles Forbes who died in 1927 aged eighty-eight. But there is a possibility it was Mrs Renwick who bought the launch for her nephew.

In 1927, the Bonita was sold through A A McNabb, Barrister and Solicitor, Blenheim as receipted on 6th October 1927. Joseph William Bunt paid £305.0.0 for her. The receipt states “… price of launch Bonita as she lies at Picton … & waiting in Mr Lane’s shed”.

An H M Customs document gives the principal dimensions of the Bonita as:

• Length 36 ft                • Length of keel 32 ft     • Breadth   8 ft 6 ins  

• Gross tonnage 3.7       • Net tonnage 3.0

Owner & Skipper JW Bunt At aged twenty-three, Joseph William (Bill) Bunt was issued with the NZ Certificate of Competency as Engineer (Restricted Limits) on 11th June 1930. It reads “has been examined and found duly qualified to act as Engineer of a Ship propelled by Gas, Oil, Fluid, Electricity or other Mechanical Power than Steam plying within restricted limits”. This New Zealand River Service qualification allowed him to use the launch commercially. The Bonita was apparently at that time licensed to carry 40 passengers.

Early photographs: Bill Bunt, skipper – undated but likely to be pre-1940

The original double-ender launch had a low profile cabin (two fixed porthole windows on each side) with open foredeck which could be covered with canvas.

Fishing Party, Queen Charlotte Sounds -undated

The Picton Harbour was not always a calm mooring place as proven by the events during a severe storm in August 1938:

“LAUNCHES PILED ON FORESHORE … between 4 and 6 p.m. when several pleasure launches moored in the harbor were wrenched from their anchorages and in spite of valiant efforts by residents more than a dozen boats were soon being forced towards the beach … presented a sorry picture, with launches resting at grotesque angles practically all the way from the rowing sheds to the railway embankment … the launch Bonita, owned by Mr W. Bunt, Picton since refloated …” [Papers Past: The Press 11 August 1938; Website: Auckland Libraries Heritage Images, Auckland Weekly News 17 August 1983]

In the early years of ownership Bill used the launch for day fishing trips, charters, perhaps goods service and personal outings. In the summer of 1938-39 (following his marriage) he may have relied on the launch for income as he made 30 trips between December 23rd and February 26th to places such as: Double Bay, the Grove, Bay of Many Coves, Ship Cove, Tory Channel, Ely Bay, Torea, Whaling Station, Onahau Bay, Te Iro Bay. He kept notebooks in which he recorded the outgoing costs and money coming in eg: in 1947 a survey cost £1.10s, wharfage £3.0.0 and 24 gallons of petrol cost £3.12s. [Bill Bunt notebooks: family documents]

One memorable 1948 fishing trip to Tory Channel was written up in the local newspaper and republished fifty years later:

“NEARLY CAPSIZED – mishap in the Sounds. With their anchored launch caught in a fierce williwaw and water pouring over the gunwale of the capsizing vessel, a Blenheim fishing party narrowly escaped disaster about four miles below Dieffenbach, in Queen Charlotte Sound yesterday afternoon at the height of the big nor’westerly gale. The gust which was estimated at well over 70 mph, was fortunately of only a few seconds duration, and it passed before the launch,   Bonita, could turn turtle. But those few moments when it was poised on its side, with six of its occupants thrown on the floor of its cockpit with water cascading over them and its owner, Mr W Bunt, blown overboard and clinging desperately to the anchor chain, were nightmare ones for all concerned.” [Marlborough Express 2nd January 1998]

George Moore, Bill’s nephew was on board on this occasion and confirms the situation.

At some stage the wheelhouse was added and canvas extended to fit over galvanized pipe framing of the foredeck. The canvas rolled back to provide forward seating in good weather. Access was from aft through the wheelhouse door and past the engine. This seating under the canvas canopy doubled as sleeping quarters.

Bunt children on Sounds trip – undated c1950   

“In later years Dad had a wheelhouse added, on top of which was stored the life raft. He moored the launch on the harbour between the Foreshore and the Railway Station probably now close to the Edwin Fox dock. The clinker dinghy was tied up above the high tideline on the lagoon near the old road bridge. My memories are of walking through the tidal mudbanks where the dinghy was tied up. At low tide we had to drag the dingy down to water’s edge before it could be rowed under the Waitohi Bridge out to the moored Bonita. I learned to row here and remember the sound of the water lapping as we rowed under the bridge, especially at high water. When Dad was rowing, I was the bailer using a discarded tin can. Usually the dinghy was left on the mooring when the Bonita was out. But, sometimes for special outings in the Sounds, it was towed along. Passengers and goods were loaded and later after a tiring day, unloaded at the small launch jetty near the main wharf.” [Beth Gordon, 2011]

For the annual surveys, repaints and repairs Bill may have used different slipways in Picton. Certainly in the latter years he had the Bonita up on Jack Morgan’s slipway situated near to the wharf on the Freezing Works side of the harbour. 

Bonita – Morgan’s slip c1952

“In 1952 I remember spending time at Morgan’s slipway when the Bonita was up for maintenance and painting. I recall spending time playing around under the boat and around the boatyard while Dad was working on it. The smells of paint, rusting metals, sea and whatever tidal changes bring to shore, still linger. I remember the green oilcan used to oil the engine – a treasure I still have.

I also remember helping Dad repair the ribs on the dinghy when he ha it in the backyard at home. He steamed the replacement ribs to bend them and I was encouraged to hold the dolly while he hammered the copper rivets in place. A most responsible job I thought then.                                                                                                       .

I also have fond memories of some of our family my times in the Queen Charlotte Sounds with the launch and sometimes the dinghy too: Governor’s Bay (beach picnics using the ladder placed over the bow to disembark), Double Cove, Torea Bay (fishing and swimming over the side), Tory Channel (fishing), Te Iro Bay (visiting Reg & Joan Jackson to pick cherries), Double Bay (beach picnics and collecting cape gooseberries). And I remember using the galvanised bucket when caught short. This bucket had a rope attached and was used for all sorts of liquid activity, mainly for washing fish and cleaning the deck down.

Some of these were long days out and once I was given the job of steering the boat while Dad cleaned up. We were inside of Mabel Island and obviously I was meant to steer for a very short time. I managed to run her on to the rocky shore just north of the freezing works. I was terrified until Dad inspected the damage to the bow – only a paint scratch or two!” [Beth Gordon, 2011]

 Bill Bunt sold the Bonita after thirty years, date (?mid 1950s) for an unknown price.

The next owner was Ernie Pye of Ngakuta Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound. He used her in conjunction with his holiday baches to take holidaymakers out on fishing trips.

“Ernie and Florence Pye … had a large launch which he used to take people out fishing for five shillings a day …” Audrey Palmer, Ashburton recalls early years of the 1950s. [Kennedy T. Ngakuta Bay – Marlborough Sounds 1832 – 2000. T F Kenney 2000]

Edward Guard at age twenty-one, bought the Bonita for £1200 in 1959. He stripped her out to the hull and put in a new deck. The topside was rebuilt: cabin, wheelhouse, bulwarks and a mast added. The cabin was then separate from the engine. Belting was attached to the bulwarks and ballast also added to keep the launch lower to the waterline for stability. This work was done by Leslie Francis (Billy) Guard at Pukatea Bay, Admiralty Bay in cousin Jack Guard’s old shed.

The alterations were done so Edward and his brother John Guard could use Bonita for net and line fishing and cray fishing, based from Port Underwood, Kakapo Bay and/or Picton. Her license number was PN48.

Bonita – post 1960, photo: E Guard
Edward in clinker dinghy, photo: E Guard

The Bonita was sold in 1967 to Stan Howie and relocated to Kaikoura where she was used for commercial fishing – # PN 6221.

Stan Howie … purchased his own boat, the Bonita, from Port Underwood, which he fished on for about 3 years. About 1968 Stan and his mate were fishing and were caught in the Clarence area by a severe southerly wind when on the Bonita … forced them to head home. It took them 7½ hours to get back to Kaikoura.” [Garbes Pam & Norma, 2004. Kaikoura Fishermen, Kaikoura District Museum & Archives, NZ]

 Stan Howie sold to Jim Shallcrass who took delivery of her on 31st August 1970.

“Jim sailed her to Picton on the 1st September 1970 – a 12 hour trip. On the 28th September the same year while out fishing an oil line on the motor broke. Was towed to Picton, the motor was seized. While she was on the slip for repairs at Jorgesons boatyard at Waikawa Jim had them change the cabin structure to give more aft deck space. She was back in the water 11th December 1970. Jim fished her from Picton, in Cook Strait crayfishing and gropering.” [Shallcrass email, 2011]

“Another mishap was while she was on a mooring in Resolution Bay, August 1971 during a southeasterly gale. In the night she dragged her anchor. In the morning when checked at first light she was found bouncing on the beach. Jim managed to get on board and get the motor going to drive her off, but found there was no steering. Instead he hung a tyre over the side and managed to get her alongside another boat and barge in the corner of the Bay. It was damaged too.The Bonita had lost her rudder so Jim called up and got a tow to Picton. It was so rough they weren’t very happy to come and get him. Jim had to keep pumping her out. While she was on the slip for repairs she was refastened, new engine beds, new keel bolts and a collision bulkhead was put in.” [Shallcrass email, 2011]

When Ed Guard viewed the photo in “Kaikoura Fishermen” he said the front of the wheelhouse alteration (changed to slope backwards) was done by Shallcrass after purchase from Howie. [Edward Guard, Blenheim 2016]

Bonita was next sold in March 1975 to a Nelson scallop fisherman. Richard Chadwick was the new owner and he and Chris Guard took her by sea from Picton to Nelson. Chris had a Ford diesel motor put in and she was then used for scalloping, for a very short while. On one trip home coming into the Port of Nelson near the bar/gap, the load shifted and she capsized. Bonita was towed to port, righted and then kept working until Chris sold her to buy a larger boat which was more suited for scalloping.

The next owner was a young scallop fisherman – Murray Ross Probert. Apparently he fished on the West Coast with Bonita for a few trips, but changed to fish out of Nelson. His father (Tom Probert) sometimes went out with him.

“I gave him a bit of a hand and did a bit of work on her. She had a 4 cylinder Ford diesel motor at that time.” [Tom Probert, 2011]

Murray had the Bonita in the Croisilles area in late November 1977 when she sank.

“BONITA, fishing vessel: On November 29th 1977 a search was mounted for the Bonita when she failed to keep a pre-arranged meeting with other fishing vessels. The body of skipper Mr M R Probert, was found floating in the sea off Okuri Point, west of French Pass, but there was no trace    of the vessel, which was last seen at 7pm the previous day between Okuri Point and Croisilles Harbour. The Bonita is presumed to have been lost during storms overnight. A double ended        vessel, 11 metres long, she was based in Nelson.’ [Ingran C W N, 1984. New Zealand Shipwrecks 1795 -1982, 6th Edition, page 453. AH & AW Reed, NZ]

There followed a marine court of inquiry which apparently resulted in differences in fact and assumption.

“As Murray had not reported in I did a search the next day. I found Murray’s body about six kms   away from where later the boat was located. There was a Court of Inquiry which did not get all the facts correct. It was a clear calm day when there was a technical problem with the water hose. The launch was seaworthy but not suitable for lifting. The inquiry should have asked whether the Bonita was fit for purpose. She was not suitable for lifting.” [Chris Guard, 2011] 

Some five months later, Allan (Cat) McManaway was trawling and by chance hooked the boat which was sitting in 23 fathoms. He got the help of Chris and John Guard to salvage her and they towed her back to Nelson. Apparently, once the boat was drained of water, some of the electrical system and the engine still worked. Allan checked with the Marine Insurance firm and was told insurance had been paid out. This meant that technically the wreck belonged to him, the finder. She had sat in “rotten row” near Nalder and Biddles yard for quite a period of time. He sold Bonita to be salvaged.

About 1980 Les Ruffell bought the wreck for a small sum, took her to a shed in Blenheim and completely rebuilt her above the hull. Apparently, the matai deck had been eaten out and was completely gone. The Bonita then went to Havelock and Les used her commercially to service Pelorus Sound mussel farms. He commuted between his home in Mary’s Bay, Homewood and Havelock. Under Les’ ownership the Bonita was used and shared with John Pickering and Robbie Brownlee.

“John and Robbie did a deal with Les Ruffell, who had the Bonita and bought his own mussel  farm, license 86, in Old Homewood Bay. He provided the food and whisky, and the three did their own farm work and used contract harvesters.” [Dawber, Carol 2004. Lines in the Water, River Press, NZ]

About ten years later Bonita was bought by Les’ son, Gary Ruffell, Canvastown for private use. Bonita is now again moored in Ngakuta Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound. She is run by a 78 hp diesel motor and is most reliable. On viewing a recent photo Ed Guard said that ballast has been removed as the launch is sitting higher in the water. [Edward Guard, Blenheim 2016]

Bonita – Ngakuta Bay 2014 photo: Margaret Hatton




9 thoughts on “The History of Bonita

  1. Can remember putting new engine in at havelock for less ruffel and hooking things up cheers


  2. Beautiful boat ,with a great history , good to have another E Lane boat in the Waitemata


  3. Amazing history and such interesting reading, so lucky to have this record over such a long time. She looks fantastic now you must be so proud of her, well done


  4. I will let the new owner identify themselves if they so wish, but rest assured she is going to be in the hands of a very capable person. They are very excited to be the new custodian and both my wife and I are extremely pleased and relieved she has found a very good home.
    Richard &Helen


  5. What a great story .keep up the good work. I enjoy the history of these old wooden boats.


  6. I remember the re-fastening at Jorgensen’s only too well :-)).
    I’d gone there to arrange slipping my own boat, and as I passed Bonita Jim asked me to help tip her onto her other bilge – he was doing something with bottom paint. As I pushed up on the cradle arm, he pulled on the rope above me. As Bonita rocked onto the other side cradle arm there was an anguished yell from inside. I dropped my hands from the cradle arm at the same time Jim let go the rope. The arm dropped on my head and I was cross-eyed for a bit.
    The yell from inside came from the bloke who was perched on the keelson putting copper rooves (washers) over the new nails, preparatory to clenching up. He fell backwards onto the nails and the big box of rooves capsized into the bilge.
    “There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there are two Us in clusterf**k!”


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