Ernie Lane was born to be a boat builder. His father Thomas Major Lane was the dominant boat builder of New Zealand in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and at one stage he had the biggest boat building business in Australasia. His uncle, William Brown, was also a boat builder who, among others, built the rugged kauri scow A.S. Echo that made the daily Blenheim-Wellington freight run for half a century.
Thomas Lane established his boat-building business at Totara North, Whangaroa, in 1872. To maintain a constant supply of quality timber he started a saw-milling business with his brother-in-law, William Brown.
The reputation of T.M. Lane & Sons grew on the back of their durable schooners built for the Pacific Island trade. As word spread, clients came from throughout New Zealand and overseas. By the end of the 19th century Whangaroa had became a famed maritime location and its boating industry the darling of the sailing, boat building and fishing publications of the time.
In 1902 the Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Auckland Provincial District] reported: “Whangaroa has a population of about 170, all apparently comfortable and happy. There are two large sawmills, which employ a goodly number of men. Lane and Brown's shipyard, the largest in the colony, is at Whangaroa, and in March, 1901, the firm was building an auxiliary oil-engine schooner for the New Zealand Government.”
Change came with the new century. An increasing demand for motor launches was being hindered by access issues with Whangaroa and its distance from its main market, Auckland. T.M. Lane & Sons headed south, first to Whangarei and, in 1905, to Kings Drive in Auckland, moving again in 1916 to St Georges Bay. William Brown & Sons went to Dargaville, where the A.S. Echo was built in 1905.
Ernest Richard Lane was on the move too. In 1901, aged 21, he travelled to the United States to widen his knowledge of boat-building, including attending a naval college in San Francisco where he learned the architectural and design side of the business. When he returned in 1905 he joined up with a brother at an Auckland ship-builder and, later that year, married Martha Hull Booth, of Oamaru.
In 1908 the Auckland publication Progress: the Scientific New Zealander reported: “Today there are no less than 150 motor craft – fishing, ketches, scows and launches – plying within the confines of Waitemata and Hauraki Gulf. Of this fleet quite 50 per cent, with engines ranging from 2½ to 100hp, have been constructed at the King’s Drive yards of Messrs T.M. Lane & Sons.”
It seems that T.M. Lane & Sons also retained their source of timber from Whangaroa, for as late as 1916 it was reported an “Order in Council licenses T M Lane and Sons to occupy foreshore, Whangaroa Harbour, as site for sawmill and shed”.
In 1907 Ernie Lane struck out on his own account and arrived in Picton to set up as a boat-builder on Wellington St. His first boat was the Mavis, built for the proprietor of the Federal Hotel on London Quay, a Mr Storey. After completing a second boat he bought the boat-building business of Carl Brunsill across the bay on the The Spit at Shelly Beach, next to the Picton Rowing Club sheds.
His first job at The Spit was the refit of the Ronga (later renamed the Wairau), which had been bought by another local maritime icon, Joe Perano, of the Perano whaling family of Tory Channel.
Ernie Lane went on to build many boats over the next 40 years until ill-health forced his retirement in 1945. Unfortunately, much of the boatyard’s work and history was never documented for posterity, and the exact number of Lane boats is unknown – except that many survive to this day, some of them up to 100 years old and more.
What is known is that Ernie Lane built many craft small and large, including the Southern Maid (1929), auxiliary schooner Queen Charlotte, Sikey 1 and Sikey 2 (the latter known to be sailing in Sydney as late as 1949), Elaine, iconic Picton passenger and excursion boat M.V. Friendship, Ikatere and Takakino. Many of the fishing boats working the New Zealand coa were also Lane-built in Picton.
Ernie Lane’s love of boats wasn’t confined to motor launches: he was a lifetime speedboat enthusiast. As early as 1906, aged 26, he finished second in his father’s boat Slim Jim in the NZ Speedboat Championship in Auckland. He continued his interest into the 1930s when, after twice competing unsuccessfully in the national championships in Wanganui, he built Jelo in 1933 which he raced with Joe Perano. The pair went on to win the Masport Cup at Auckland the same year.
This led to Ernie becoming a foundation member of the Picton Speedboat Committee. Civic involvement in Picton also included two terms as a Picton Borough Councillor.
In 1945 he quite fulltime work because of failing health but stayed active by building wooden dinghies; he was working on one two days before he died on 5 November 1949. The boatyard moved into the ownership of another Picton boat-building family, the Morgans, until the Shelly Beach site closed decades later as the local industry shrank in the face of competition and reduced demand.
National Library of New Zealand
Auckland Library Sir George Grey Special Collection
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (NZETC)
NZ Boating magazine