On New Year’s Day, 1902, the entire population of Christchurch seemed to have travelled by train to Lyttelton, on the other side of Castle Rock. More than 10,000 Cantabrians thronged the harbour’s shore as they celebrated the tiny settlement’s annual regatta with swimming competitions, yacht races and merry-go-rounds.
Those attractions, however, were sideshows to the main event: one of the strangest annual celebrations in New Zealand history. Amidst the harbour’s sailboats and steamers sat Ocean Bird, a schooner that had capsized in 1872. All on board were lost. But the boat was repaired—made ready for today. “She looked a poor, forsaken object as she lay there patiently awaiting annihilation,” a reporter for The Press wrote of the abandoned hulk. “But there was little pity wasted on the poor old derelict and the hour of her destruction was awaited with impatience.”
At 2:30pm, a naval cutter drew alongside the ship. From the shore, observers watched a handful of sailors busy themselves belowdecks, then escape back to the safety of the cutter. The derelict boat began to burn. Sheets of fire consumed the deck and licked at a string of coloured flags that ran down from the mast. Masses of smoke erupted from the hull, billowing into the sky in such quantities that it partly blotted out the far-off hills of Banks Peninsula.
For half an hour, the ship blazed in a fiery celebration at the regatta’s heart. Gradually, the sailing and swimming stopped, the crowds grew tense, and people jostled along the harbour’s edge for the best view. A young woman approached a small set of fortifications at the mouth of the port. At 3pm precisely, she pressed a button that had been jerry-rigged inside. Almost immediately, Ocean Bird disappeared, obscured by a vast spire of smoke and spray sent up by a mine positioned directly underneath the ship. Thunder roared across the water and crashed over the enthralled crowd, who matched the explosion with round after round of cheers.
These “submarine explosions” were a common feature of New Zealand regattas in the early 20th century: old newspapers are dotted with mentions of them taking place in Auckland and Dunedin. But the pyrotechnics at Lyttelton were by far the best known and most regular, with newspaper records indicating that blackened geysers began erupting from the city harbour from 1892 and continued until at least 1945.
The danger of this tradition became obvious in 1908, when three mines were wired to blow. Due to an unknown fault, only two went off in the initial detonation; the third only exploded when a ship came alongside to retrieve it. In some miracle, nobody was hurt. The greater danger came later, when sparks drifted onto a collection of fireworks on another boat and the whole lot exploded. “Rockets hurtled through the air in all directions, squibs and crackers played up in an unprecedented fashion,” wrote another Press reporter. Some of those aboard were thrown across the deck. Others jumped off the ship entirely to escape.
Eventually, the annual submarine explosions faded from memory. Perhaps the expense of buying an abandoned ship each time proved too significant, or perhaps the government stopped giving its blessing to the display.
People, of course, simply found other things to blow up. And despite the fires, injuries and stress caused by backyard fireworks every year, we’re evidently not looking at a ban anytime soon.
Somewhere within many of us, it seems, is an incendiary attraction that can hardly be explained. As the Press reporter wrote in 1902, when “The poor old Ocean Bird was literally blown to matchwood”, its destruction “gratified in full measure the element of destructiveness which lurks in human nature”.