On April 10, 1968, 51 people lost their lives in the sinking of the wreck of the Wahine, in what is known as New Zealand’s worst modern-time maritime disaster. Fifty years later, ELISA VORSTER looks back on a tragedy that shook the nation.
The Lyttelton-Wellington roll-on roll-off ferry TEV Wahine was the largest ship of its kind in the world when it was completed in 1966.
With the Easter weekend approaching in 1968, the pride of the ferry fleet was filled in Lyttelton with many passengers planning to spend the holiday with their families.
The 734 passengers and crew set sail around 8.40pm on Tuesday, April 9, expecting rough but not unusual conditions in Cook Strait, completely unaware they were heading into one of the worst storms ever recorded in New Zealand.
The tropical cyclone Giselle was sweeping south and had collided with a southerly front just as the ship reached Cook Strait, causing exceptionally rough conditions.
At 5.50am on April 10, Captain H.G. Robertson began taking the Wahine into Wellington Harbour in winds blowing at over 50 knots (92kmh) – strong but conditions other vessels had coped with before.
Things began to go wrong when the ship reached the narrow funnel of the harbour mouth, with the wind speed unexpectedly increasing to 100 knots, and the ship’s radar failing.
A large wave slammed into the side of the ship, knocking people off their feet and putting the vessel side-on to the waves which pushed it towards Barrett Reef, on the western side of the harbour entrance.
After 30 minutes of battling fierce waves, Captain Robertson tried to turn the ship around to head back to the relative safety of the strait.
With visibility poor, and unaware of his location, he ordered full speed astern – and the ship reversed on to Barrett Reef.
The starboard (right-hand) propeller was knocked off and the port-side engine failed shortly after.
Because of the battering from the storm, many passengers were unaware the ship had hit the reef.
Without engines, Captain Robertson ordered anchors to be dropped and watertight doors closed, and the nearby signal station on Beacon Hill was advised of what had happened.
The anchors would not hold, however, and the ship drifted up the harbour past Point Dorset.
Despite being close to shore, the weather made it impossible for rescuers to reach the ship from land.
By 1.15pm, the Wahine was listing heavily, and the command to abandon ship was given 15 minutes later.
Passengers who had been kept in the dark about the seriousness of the situation were now confused and frightened as they frantically tried to make their way to the lifeboats.
Amid the confusion, people went to the high side of the ship from which it was impossible to launch the lifeboats.
Only the four starboard lifeboats could be launched, and crewmen struggled to get as many passengers aboard them as possible.
At 2.30pm, the now-abandoned Wahine capsized east of Steeple Rock, sinking in just 11.6m of water.
Survivors struggled through the waves to reach the eastern shore of the harbour with 200 reaching safety. But this was where many of the fatalities occurred when people they didn’t receive medical attention fast enough to prevent death from exposure.
A massive land, sea and ground search swung into action at first light on the morning of April 11 to locate any remaining survivors.
The storm had died out overnight, and bodies were found smashed on the jagged rocks of Wellington Harbour.
Fifty-one people lost their lives that day, with another person dying several weeks later, and a 53rd victim being acknowledged in 1990 as dying as a result of injuries sustained in the wreck.
Masterton man explains confusion among passengers
Keith Donovan of Masterton told the Times-Age of the day of his experience on the Wahine and the frenzy which ensued in the final minutes onboard.
“It was a pitiful sight.
“Old people just throwing themselves into the sea from the top deck.
“Others were leaping into the boats regardless of how they landed.”
Mr Donovan could see the reef looming as he sat aboard the Wahine in the smoke room.
“There was no doubt that she was taking water but there was no panic until the last 20 minutes when the ship began to list.”
Asked about the reported confusion of passengers going to the wrong side of the ship, Mr Donavan said this could have arisen from passengers not realising the Wahine was travelling backwards.
“It was an experience that I never want to go through again.”
Reports from Wairarapa as events unfolded
On the morning of the disaster, the initial report in the Times-Age stated the Wahine was drifting slowly down Wellington Harbour with both anchors out but was “in no immediate danger”.
Captain Robertson was described by a Union company spokesman as “one of the company’s most experienced steamer express masters” and said in radio message to the company that all on board were safe and well.
The company had no explanation at 9.45am for the grounding of the vessel.
Meanwhile, the region was isolated as it reeled under the most fierce gale since a
disastrous tornado which wreaked havoc over a wide area in 1934.
Communications with other New Zealand centres were cut, electricity supplies completely disrupted, schools closed, homes flooded and hundreds of trees and branches crashed down over roadways bringing down scores of power and telegraph poles.
Masterton resident Ben Iorns told the Times-Age at the time that the gales were comparable to the 1934 hurricane which smashed windows, lifted roofs and brought down power poles.
He described the storm on April 10, 1968 as “the worst southerly I can remember in the Wairarapa”.
By 10.30am, most of the region was without power and there were fears of flooding in the lower valley as the rivers continued to rise.
Masterton’s telephone exchange was jammed with calls before a broadcast appealed to subscribers to refrain from making all but essential calls.
A round-the-clock guard made up of council staff bearing chainsaws was mounted at Memorial Square in Carterton to protect the area of the skating rink where several trees had become uprooted.
By 2pm the Wahine had unofficially been reported “to have her starboard deck underwater”.
Eyewitnesses were terrified as the ship began to tilt to one side and passengers lining its rails were seen throwing themselves into the sea.
An emergency call had been sent to the sister ship Aramoana to go alongside the Wahine in an attempt to rescue some of its passengers.
A reporter watching the events unfold described the ship as “nearly gone.”
Meanwhile, the worst of the storm was over in Wairarapa and residents had begun to take stock of the damage.
Resident’s accounts of the storm
The 12-hour storm had left a trail of toppled trees, flattened power lines, damaged properties and blocked roads.
Mrs Milne had been sitting in the kitchen of her Herbert St property when part of the roof of her house was ripped off by the storm.
“I am still getting over it,” she said that afternoon.
The driver of a passing car called the police for her, who came to her house to assist with the repairs.
“While I was waiting for them I thought the rest of the roof was going to take off too.”
Among the casualties was Carterton farmer W.P. Cadwallader, who was taken to hospital with concussion after being struck in the head by a flying branch while shifting stock on his property.
Radio station programme officer Walter Jakes narrowly escaped serious injury after a building board from a sign crashed through a window, leaving him with severe gashes to his head and arm.