How the wreckage of New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster has been reborn

The remains of one of the worst tragedies to hit the Tauranga region has been given another lease on life – and a joyful one at that. A lifeboat from the sunken Rena container ship has been transformed into a children’s playground as part of a revamp of the historic Papamoa Beach Tavern. 

In October 2011, a Mediterranean Shipping Company-chartered container ship called Rena ran aground of the clearly marked Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty while heading into Tauranga Harbour.

The shipwreck horrified locals and was called “New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster” by Environment Minister Nick Smith.

Most of the 360 tonnes of oil that spilled out was cleared within months by a huge organised effort, but the social and environmental impacts of the wreck have dragged on for years.

Fast forward five years to local business owner Paul Ryan taking over the lease of the historic Papamoa Beach Tavern in 2016, which was being used as a sports bar.

He brought on board creative director Larry Green (or Laurie Steer if you’re a local) to deck the place out.

Green is a bit of a local legend known for his artistic flair. He was previously responsible for the fit-out of Ryan’s Mount Maunganui Astrolabe bar.

He says his inspiration for the Tavern’s fit-out was its roots as an old-school beach bar.

“It’s a historic bit of architecture in a rapidly-growing beach community and it was here before there were any buildings around it - it used to be surrounded by paddocks - since 1983 – that’s old in Kiwi terms. I liked the idea of bringing it back and turn up the beach side of it,” Green says.

He got to work sourcing some beach-themed props, and one of his first thoughts was what happened to a Rena lifeboat that had washed up in the area.

He remembered it had been parked up outside the Papamoa Plaza for a while, he says, and after a bit of detective work to hunt it down he found it had been moved to a farm nearby.

“You can imagine the fist pumping going on when I discovered there’s an eight metre lifeboat down the road,” Green says.

The lifeboat came intact with all of its supplies still stocked in it for 100 days at sea, such as sashays of water, oars on the walls and lifejackets.

It was almost a bit creepy, he says. “I don’t think you’d want to be in there for 100 days.”

He immediately visualised turning it into an epic playground for kids by building a wharf and slide into the side of it.

Green also thought it was a way to take the leftovers of an incredibly negative memory and give it a new lease on life.

“I really liked the idea of taking possibly what the worst thing that happened to Papamoa and turning it into best thing that happened to Papamoa,” Green says.

The lifeboat provided a few logistical challenges – for one, it weighs four-and-a-half tonnes, so it had to be lifted in via crane and have a tree cut down to fit it in.

But once it was in, he was able to transform it into a child’s dream make-believe boat.

It also recently had disco lights installed, Green says, which is for the adults when the sun goes down.

Other pieces of history scattered around the Tavern include a six-metre fibreglass swordfish from a movie set that Green bought off Trade Me mounted on the roof.

“The world’s full of noise and giant signs that say ‘pub’ or ‘bar’, so I said chuck up a swordfish,” he says.

A 130-year-old Kauri boat from Warkworth was split by the hull and adorns the front of the bar, while a one-person submarine that used to belong to original landholder hangs from the ceiling. 



Green says the local reaction to the restored Tavern has been “embarrassingly, overwhelmingly positive.”

“The community here was so ready for it to be brought back to life, so ready for it to be valuable again.

“The Papamoa Tavern is pumping is because it’s been a collaboration between me and the building - it’s a living design. I haven’t brought in something new, it’s a real thing with its own story and this is just a new chapter – it’s a positive change.”

For the year ahead, there are plans in the works to build a local craft brewery within the Tavern, with the beer inspired by the area.

“We’ve got lots of silly ideas, like a PPA (Papamoa Pale Ale) instead of an APA (American Pale Ale),” he says.

For now, kids and adults alike are flocking to the Tavern in droves to explore its weird and wonderful features.