The Wahine disaster

The Cook Strait is a notoriously wild and stormy stretch of water that channels the frequent and freezing southerly winds that blast straight up from Antarctica, which at times can make travel treacherous between New Zealand’s north and south islands.

Passenger ferries these days transit between the safety of Wellington in the north and the small South Island town of Picton, which snuggles securely inside the Marlborough Sounds. In the 1960s there was also a vessel that travelled another route – between the harbour capital and the port town of Lyttelton, half way down the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, adjacent to Christchurch. She was a Union Steam Ship Company’s Turbo Electric Vessel, weighing around 9,000 gross tonnes. She was good looking and well-appointed, carried passengers, vehicles and cargo and was the world’s largest roll-on, roll-off ferry of her time. Her name was Wahine.

The TEV Wahine was a good-looking and well-appointed ship on the Lyttelton to Wellington route. Photograph signed by her first Captain, Captain E Meatyard. Photo: Victor Young Photography, Wellington.

On 9 April 1968 she left Lyttelton on her last fateful voyage. She carried 610 passengers, 124 crew, and well over 100 vehicles. She was 20 minutes late in leaving, but confidently expected to reach the ferry terminal in Wellington by 7 am the following morning. At first the journey was smooth, with a following wind and sea, and the lost time was quickly made up. The crossing of Cook Strait, however, was an uncomfortable one, with rough seas and winds of 50 knots, gusting to 70 knots. Then, at approximately 6.10 am, as the Wahine was entering the narrow passage to the harbour – known as the Wellington Heads – she was suddenly overtaken by a most unusual and ferocious weather phenomenon. It was the collision of two separate storm systems, and they were meeting right in the narrow confines of the Heads, trapping the unfortunate Wahine in between. Such an occurrence has not been recorded in New Zealand either before or since.

The first storm, tropical cyclone Giselle, had developed days before far to the north of the country in the Coral Sea. It was expected to dissipate in the colder New Zealand climate, but instead regenerated as a temperate latitude cyclone. It was also expected to pass to the east of New Zealand but changed course during the night of 9-10 April, accelerated and intensified, and covered 500 kilometres in only eight hours. The second storm, which was described as a deep depression, swept up from Antarctica and caused the winds and rough seas that the Wahine had experienced during her crossing of Cook Strait. When the hot tropical cyclone crashed into the icy depression, they exploded into such fury that the Wahine was instantly blinded and buffeted. Almost immediately her radar was wrecked and her wind-speed indicator was destroyed. Onshore, the winds were recorded as gusting to an incredible 131 knots (243 km per hour).

Visibility was reduced to zero. Captain Robertson, the ship’s master, reduced the ship to half speed of 10 knots, but then the vessel veered suddenly to port and would not respond to starboard helm. The captain ordered full ahead on both engines to try to regain steerage but shortly afterwards the ship lurched heavily to starboard. Everyone on the bridge except the helmsman was thrown to the deck. Some years later I had the opportunity to talk with the helmsman and he told me, ‘I gripped the wheel so tightly that my hands and wrists were strained and sore for weeks after.’  Captain Robertson was hurled the full width of the bridge and injured his ribs in the fall.

It was now 6.15 am and the captain, shocked and injured from his fall, had no way of telling where the ship was heading in the narrow confines of the Heads. He tried to bring the ship around in an effort to regain the comparative safety of the open sea, but with no success. What he and his officers didn’t realise in their blinded state was that the Wahine had left the channel leading into the harbour and travelled a considerable distance to the west. She was now in a most dangerous position inside the Barrett Reef, where no vessel of her size should ever be. At 6.41 am, as the captain tried to regain a northerly course, the starboard quarter (right rear) of the ship collided with the Pinnacle Rock, the southernmost rock of the reef. The effect was devastating. Not only was the hull damaged, the starboard propeller and part of its shaft were also knocked off, causing the starboard engine to shut down. Shortly after this the port engine also failed, leaving the vessel without power and at the mercy of the extraordinarily violent storm.

Although the ship’s officers did not know their correct position, there was one person on shore who did. He was Stuart Young, a Breaker Bay resident, who had woken early because of the storm. When he looked outside he could see the Wahine in trouble through breaks in the rain and wind-blown sea-spray. He phoned the police immediately, at around 6.30 am. By the time the police car arrived however, just 15 minutes later, the storm had intensified and sheets of blinding rain obscured any sign of the Wahine.

The captain sent out a mayday message that was received by Wellington radio at 6.42 am. ‘Am going ashore, think near the heads,’ was his first alert. Then, at 6.50 am, ‘Our position is Barrett Reef and we are aground.’ Once he realised that his ship had run onto the reef the captain ordered both anchors dropped, but it took the chief officer and the bosun 20 minutes to fight their way through the storm to do so. The ship had been dragging over the reef all that time, and fatal damage was done to her hull. She began to flood and, from that moment on, she was doomed.

To make matters worse, the anchors wouldn’t hold on the sandy flat sea bottom. For the next three hours the Wahine was forced northwards by the ferocity of the weather, swinging very close to the rocks at Point Dorset before her anchors began to catch. She finally stopped dragging adjacent to Steeple Rock, not far from the more sheltered waters of Seatoun Beach and Worser Bay.

Inside the ship, a number of large vehicles had been tipped over. One truck had spilled tons of coke – not cola, but a type of fuel made from coal – while another had spilled thousands of eggs in cardboard cartons. When these two cargoes met and mixed, the wet cardboard, egg yolks and coke dust produced a substance similar to wet concrete. It blocked the scuppers, or drains, which would normally discharge any water that entered the vehicle deck. The water coming in through the hull quickly exceeded the amount that could be discharged, causing the ship to sink deeper and to list heavily.

Because of the ferocity of the storm it was very dangerous for any rescue vessels to put out to the Wahine’s aid, yet it was also impossible to contemplate abandoning the sinking wreck. She was swinging wildly on her anchors and by 11 am she was close inshore and in danger of running aground as she sank ever lower in the water. The captain and officers still didn’t realise the entire gravity of the situation, however. Nor did officials onshore. Everyone thought that if a tug could get a line on board they could tow the ship to a safe haven and simply discharge the passengers a few hours late. The passengers, meanwhile, had been gathered into the public rooms, issued with life jackets and told to put them on, but not told anything further about the quickly escalating emergency. This was probably done to avoid panic, but the actual effect was to leave people with the impression that everything was OK and they were just delayed by the weather.

The tug Tapuhi had left the wharf before 7 am with the intention of assisting the Wahine to berth in the strong winds. When an emergency was declared she returned to remove her heavy rope bow-fender and to collect some towing gear. The veteran tug then headed courageously out into the mountainous seas and hurricane-force winds with nil visibility but found it impossible to do anything useful with the prevailing conditions. After she was lifted up twice by the wind and sea and turned completely around, the tug sought shelter in Worser Bay until the weather moderated slightly. She went out again at 11.15 am, and by sheer good seamanship got close enough to pass a rope to the stern of the Wahine. It was decided to try and tow the Wahine backwards with her anchors still down and dragging. To take them up would leave both vessels at the mercy of the weather, which would almost certainly push them across the harbour onto the rocks at Eastbourne.

At 11.50 am, as the towline was being pulled towards the Wahine on the end of the rope, a particularly huge wave hit the tug and threw her some distance north. The 10-centimetre-thick rope snapped like cotton. Preparations were made to attempt a second tow, but events took an unexpected turn as the tide changed. Because of the extreme weather conditions, the tide had peaked two hours earlier than normal and the outgoing tide pushed the Wahine around. Previously she had lain with her bows to the wind, but with the outflow of the tide she swung around broadside to the weather. Balanced by the storm on the port side and the outgoing tide on the other, she was also, by 1.20 pm, listing quite noticeably to starboard.

Side-on to the storm, the hull and superstructure of the ship caused a comparatively calm and sheltered ‘lee’ on the starboard side. If they were going to abandon, now was their opportunity. At 1.25 pm, Captain Robertson gave the dreaded order to abandon ship. He sent a message to Wellington radio requesting all trawlers and vessels that could withstand the ferocity of the storm to come to their aid. The tug Tapuhi was told to stand by to save lives.

The actual abandoning of the ship did not go well. It was badly coordinated and chaotic, although this was hardly surprising given the sudden and unexpected nature of the emergency. Many of the passengers never even heard the instructions broadcasted over the ship’s loudspeaker system.

Kathryn Dallas, a 19-year-old university student, didn’t remember hearing anything within the ship; instead, she was told that they had to abandon by a crew member who had heard it on his transistor radio during a newsflash from an onshore commercial radio station. Later, she found herself in the water with a group of others, floating away from the Wahine in the outgoing tide. The tug Tapuhi approached the group of people Kathryn was with, but as the plunging vessel seemed in danger of crushing the survivors, a crewman threw down a lifebelt and the vessel backed away. Kathryn and two men each hooked an arm into the lifebelt and continued drifting out towards the open sea. Finally, with great difficulty, the three were dragged aboard the private launch Nereides but one of the men who had been so gallantly rescued died from the effects of his ordeal.

Many of the passengers who did hear the call to muster on the starboard side had no idea which side that was. Some impetuous people, panicked by the situation, took the instructions literally and jumped straight into the sea. It was fortunate that the tug Tapuhi and the pilot vessel Tiakina were in just the right position to recover many of them.

The port-side boats and rafts could not be got out because, by the time it was decided to abandon, the increasing list prevented it. Photo: Evening Post, Wellington.

Because of the increasing starboard list, the port lifeboats could not be got out. The first boat launched, the S1, was the forward boat on the starboard side, a motor launch with only half the capacity of the other boats. Because of the list, the passengers had to slide down the sloping deck and then clamber over nearly a metre gap to get into the S1. She was lowered into the sea with 40 people on board, picked up others who were already in the water and made for the tug, fully loaded. But a huge wave swamped her, stalled the motor and washed most of the people out. The tug managed to retrieve some of them but those who hung on to the half-submerged but still floating S1 were swept across to the rocks of the eastern shore near the little seaside village of Eastbourne. As they neared the beach, their position became perilous as they faced the difficult transition from the rough sea to the rocky shore.

Amongst the would-be rescuers onshore on the Eastbourne side were police, volunteer firemen and a 17-year-old schoolboy, Bruce Mitchell, who lived in Eastbourne. Bruce remembers well that the waves were surfing in from 300 to 400 metres out and breaking on the beach with tremendous force. As the S1 neared the shore, she capsized in the surf. The desperate passengers were now reliant on their own strength to get them ashore, and some who were old, weak or burdened by heavy clothes disappeared. Bruce remembers that one man, who seemed to be a strong swimmer, waved out to him. Bruce waved back and indicated the best place to land but the man was then picked up by a large wave and crashed against a rock and drowned. When the lifeboat eventually washed up, Bruce and a policeman found another man, naked and dead, trapped underneath. There were 223 survivors who came ashore near Eastbourne, but of the 51 people who lost their lives in the Wahine disaster that day, 42 of them died on that stretch of coastline.

Of the 51 people who lost their lives in the disaster, the majority of them died on the rock-strewn, surf-bound Eastbourne coast, where getting on shore proved fatal for 42 people. Photo: Evening Post, Wellington.

The other three lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship were launched one by one. None had their full compliment of passengers, but all managed to stay afloat and rescue some of those who had already jumped into the sea assisted by the Tiakina and a fishing boat. Two of the lifeboats came safely ashore at Seatoun while the third landed safely at Muritae beach in Eastbourne.

Two of the lifeboats landed on the comparatively safe Seatoun Beach. Photo: Evening Post.

Although only half of the Wahine’s lifeboats could be used, there were also 30 inflatable life rafts aboard, with a total capacity for 750 persons. With fewer people than that actually sailing, there was more than adequate provision for everyone; there was no reason at all for anyone to jump into the sea. The life rafts were supposed to be inflated on deck, loaded with up to 25 people, hauled up and over the rail and lowered into the sea on its own davit. But this proved extremely difficult to do in the hurricane force winds. The first life raft bounced around so much that it proved almost impossible for passengers on deck to get in. It was decided instead to lower the rafts into the sea then let people jump down or be lowered on ropes.

Meanwhile, down in the ship’s engine room, Third Engineer Theo King had missed the call to abandon ship because he was fighting a fire that had broken out in the auxiliary power supply. Even after putting out the blaze with a fire extinguisher and realising that there was trouble, he remained in the engine room until he found himself trapped by the unusual angle of the ship. He then climbed a ladder up inside the funnel to the chaos of the upper deck. He emerged to see life rafts being blown up into the air like toy balloons. One raft, he saw, was upside down in the water and he climbed down to try to right it. That proved impossible, but he was able to use it as a platform from which to assist passengers into other rafts.

The rafts were banging dangerously against the ship’s side, and to avoid injuries had to be pushed away and take their chances in the storm. Theo King and 16 others were aboard one of these, including the second mate, who had a broken leg, and a woman with a broken ankle. The raft was well laden and therefore affected more by the outgoing tide than by the wind. It took a course out to sea, washing around in massive waves. King cradled the woman with the broken ankle and reassured her that they would soon be rescued, even though he really believed they would soon be swamped. But they were lucky. A small private launch, expertly handled by its owner, Barney Daniels, reached the raft in time to save all who were on board. Daniels nearly lost the boat, and his life, in the process.

By this time there was a fleet of small vessels braving the storm. They were able to intercept many of the rafts and take the passengers onboard. The Wellington to Picton ferry Aramoana had also arrived on the scene and attempted to assist some of the rafts by throwing down ropes. But the ferry was too huge to be of assistance. Plunging up and down in the waves, she was in danger of crushing the vulnerable rafts and had to abandon the task. Those rafts that weren’t rescued were inevitably swept across the harbour to the rocks at Eastbourne.

There was a feeling amongst those still onboard or near the Wahine that she was about to capsize. Many of the survivors spoke of wanting to get away from the ship before it sank, so that they wouldn’t be sucked down with her. This is a fallacy shared by many. The few people who have remained aboard a sinking vessel have occasionally been sucked under momentarily, but they soon pop to the surface again. If they are wearing a life jacket then they are certain to come back up. In the case of the Wahine, the water was so shallow that there wasn’t any possibility of her actually sinking completely under the water. Although perfectly understandable in the circumstances, the fear of being sucked under was a needless one.

Louella Jensen, aboard one of the upside-down life rafts in the lee of the badly listing ship, was very concerned that the huge vessel would capsize on top of her. The cover of her raft was now underwater, acting like a sea anchor and preventing the raft from moving away from the side of the ship. When the Wahine finally did capsize though, the resulting wave actually washed them away from the wreck. A small vessel then manoeuvred close enough to take them all on board.

It must have been an utterly terrifying experience for everyone, but perhaps even more so for pregnant mother Shirley Hick. Not only did she have her own life to consider, but those of her three young children as well. She was travelling with her six-year-old son David, her three-and-a-half year old daughter Alma and her infant son Gordon, whose first birthday it was that very day. When the passengers were first issued with lifejackets, little Alma was given an adult-sized one. There is a hauntingly sad photograph, taken on board by a member of the crew, of a serious, pretty little girl, looking just a bit frightened, but sitting patiently in the lifejacket that was obviously too large for her.

Little Alma Hick in her too-large life-jacket, which she later slipped out of and drowned. Photo: Steward Frank Robinson.

When Shirley Hick and her children emerged onto the deck they were on the port side, opposite from where the boats were being loaded. A number of passengers and stewards gathered around to help Shirley get the children down the sloping deck, and a man took little Alma and placed her in the first boat to be lowered, S1. Sometime during its treacherous journey to destruction on the Eastbourne rocks, little Alma was thrown out of the boat, slipped through the too-large straps of her lifejacket and was claimed by the sea. The following day her tiny body was found on the Pencarrow shore, suggesting that she parted company with the lifeboat during the initial swamping, only minutes after leaving the ship and her family.

Six-year-old David was probably placed onto a flotation seat – yet another buoyancy device found onboard. He was washed across the harbour and quite miraculously landed, naked but alive, at Eastbourne. He was then sent to hospital where he was found to be suffering from no more than cold and shock.

Shirley handed her baby to Second Steward Brian McMaster, who took the one-year-old on his chest, entered the water and kicked away from the listing ship. McMaster, a non-swimmer, did well until an extra large breaker rolled them both over and they became separated. Both McMaster and Gordon were rescued shortly afterwards by Jim Toulis in his small outboard-motor-powered run-about, but the baby had stopped breathing. Efforts were made to revive him, and once on shore he was rushed to intensive care in Wellington Hospital. The doctors there thought that he would not survive for long because his brain had been damaged through lack of oxygen.

With her children already put to sea, pregnant Shirley was assisted down the ever-increasing slope of the deck and into the cold water. She soon lost sight of the steward and her baby. After nearly an hour in the water, she was rescued by one of the boats belonging to the Aramoana, but almost as soon as she was safe aboard the boat was capsized by a massive wave. Shirley struggled to stay afloat until she was finally taken on board the trawler Seaway and dropped ashore. After the horrifying experience of being parted from all three of her children, she was eventually reunited with her two boys. Gordon survived the doctors’ predictions and lived to his early twenties, when the long-term effects of the brain damage he suffered eventually claimed his life.

About 2 pm, after everyone had abandoned, the stricken Wahine rolled over onto her starboard side and settled on the bottom, with a good third of her port side permanently above the surface.

The end came at 2pm, when the Wahine rolled over onto her starboard side, but never actually sank. Photo: Evening Post, Wellington.

As the survivors came ashore, they were taken to Wellington railway station where their names were recorded. Of the survivors who made it to the Eastbourne side of the harbour, not all were from the Wahine. The Aramoana ferry had put two lifeboats in the water to pick up swimmers, but both of these boats were overcome by the sea. Fortunately, all 14 of the crewmembers were washed up alive, or picked up by other boats. The small sloop Tahi Miranda was also wrecked and her four-man crew, three of whom were badly injured, were pulled from the water at Muritai Beach. The second officer and the carpenter of the California Star also came ashore at Eastbourne. They had been aboard the Naval Launch Manga and had dived overboard to assist some children on a life raft. They were then unable to get back onboard themselves.

The total casualty list from the disaster was officially 51 people, but that did not account for little Gordon Hick, who died all those years later, or a salvage diver who was killed in an underwater explosion during the eventual removal of the wreck. Therefore, the true casualty figure is 53 lives lost.

Wellingtonian Russell Crabbe, a retired marine engineer, told me an  interesting story of coincidence concerning the birth and death of the Wahine. Years ago Russell was appointed as chief engineer of the New Zealand ferry Aranui, then being built in Scotland at the same time as the Wahine. On the day the Wahine was launched, in 1966, Russell Crabbe was invited to attend the ceremony where he found himself standing beside an old friend of his from the Union Steam Ship Co. As the ship slid gracefully into the Clyde, Crabbe’s friend gave a proud sigh. ‘There she goes,’ he said. Just two years later, by sheer chance, Russell Crabbe found himself standing once again next to the same friend on Seatoun Beach as they strained to see the listing Wahine through the storm. Standing shoulder to shoulder once again, the two old friends witnessed the death of the ship that they had so proudly watched being launched, and as she capsized the friend uttered the very same words, ‘There she goes.’

There was a 26-day inquiry into the loss of the Wahine. Many people regarded it as a whitewash, as no one ended up being blamed or held accountable. The weather was deemed entirely responsible, and although some individuals and systems had failed badly on the day, no one was accused. The tragedy occurred inside the harbour and therefore came under the responsibility of the Harbour Board. If any Harbour Board employee had been found to be at fault then the survivors could have sued for compensation. As it was, no one received any compensation at all.

The newspapers reported that the Wahine foundered at 2 pm. This was an exaggeration of the facts because although the ship did capsize about that time she never actually sank. In fact, she could not sink; the water simply wasn’t deep enough. Even once she had keeled over onto her side at least a third of the hull and the superstructure were still above water. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the captain had not decided to abandon ship, but had got the crew to get everyone up onto the port side, above the sea and in shelter, and waited for the bad weather to pass. Amazingly, although the storm was ferocious it quickly moved on to leave an eerie calm. By mid afternoon, although the sea was still rough with a long southerly swell sweeping into the harbour, the weather was like any pleasant summer afternoon.

The wreck of the Wahine remained lying on her starboard side like a huge beached whale for five years. Then, in 1973, another violent storm broke her into three sections. It was decided to cut her up and eliminate all evidence of one of New Zealand’s most tragic shipwrecks.

Large pieces of the ship were cut free and lifted by the floating crane Hikitia, then ferried to the wharf. Photo: Victor Young Photography, Wellington.

Although the ship was removed from the harbour and from sight of the travelling public, those who were involved will never be able to remove the memories from their minds. To this day, elderly men and women survivors  and others who were involved are easily brought to tears at the thought of the tragedy that overtook them so unexpectedly.

Footnote: I arrived in Wellington in 1973, just in time to witness the final salvaging of the vessel. Huge chunks of the ship were cut out, lifted with a giant crane and then ferried ashore where they were landed on the wharf. Having had a lifelong interest with anything to do with shipwrecks, I made it my business to get an early train into work each morning and then walk the final two miles along the wharf, just to witness the latest piece of salvaged ship to emerge from the depths. One fine, sunny morning I came across a section of ship that had a profound effect on me. It was a huge ‘lump’ of one whole side of a cabin with two bunks and all the usual fittings intact. When I first saw it, I was impressed that it was so undamaged and ‘normal.’ Then, as I looked closer, I saw a suitcase under the bottom bunk, and there, next to the case, I spotted a small rag doll. For a moment the significance didn’t sink in, but then I remembered that at least one little girl had died in the tragedy and what I was looking at was a brief moment in history, frozen in time, of someone’s quite normal life, a happy holiday perhaps, just before the tragedy unfolded and their lives changed forever, or even ended. The sad sight of that suitcase and doll under the bunk has remained with me to this day to emphasise the human side of any lost ship.


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