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Wahine relic languishes

Geoff Gawler with the lifeboat believed to be from the ill-fated Wahine. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

By Hayley Gastmeier

[email protected]

On the corner of Geoff Gawler’s Tauherenikau property sits a piece of New Zealand’s maritime history — a lifeboat believed to be from the ill-fated Wahine.

Damaged and covered in vines, its owner is hopeful it can be restored in time for next year’s 50th anniversary commemorations of the 1968 disaster, which cost 51 lives on the day.

But time is running out, especially given the boat was further damaged by a falling tree six months ago.

“Maybe I could sell it to Peter Jackson,” Mr Gawler, a former second-hand dealer, joked yesterday.

How the boat came to be perched on the side of State Highway 2 is an interesting story in itself.

Shortly after the Wahine ferry sunk at Barrett Reef off Seatoun, Wellington, on April 10, 1968, the lifeboat washed up on Ocean Beach, on Wairarapa’s southern coast.

The passenger and vehicle ferry had been badly damaged during one of the worst storms in recent Kiwi history.

Les Johnson, of Featherston, describes how the lifeboat came to end up in Wairarapa.

“It was moored to the Wahine in the harbour when they were doing the salvaging.”

The lifeboat broke free from the ship during a big storm that followed the one which sunk the ship.

“It washed right around the coast to the Cape Pallier side, so that’s where we picked it up from — it washed right up onto the shore.”

The lifeboat, with a hole in its base, was dragged onboard the Johnson family’s house transporter trailer, and was taken back to their Featherston property on Moore St, where it sat for decades.

“We thought we’d resurrect it,” Mr Johnson said.

“But as time went on we didn’t get any further with it and it just sat in the yard.”

He said it was “surprising” to see the lifeboat had no motor in it.

“They had a big shaft through the centre like a crank handle and all the people that were in the boat had to wind the crank shaft to propel the propeller.”

Mr Gawler took possession of the lifeboat about five years ago.

When he first saw it in the Johnson’s yard “it was upside down and had trees growing through it”.

Formerly a second-hand dealer, Mr Gawler was intrigued by the boat and eventually took ownership of it.

It cost him about $800 to transport the lifeboat the 5 or 6km north to his property.

The boat proved to be an attraction, with people stopping in to enquire about it on a regular basis.

He said some people revealed how they had worked on the Wahine or were somehow involved in the rescue effort.

One man who stopped by recently to chat with Mr Gawler claimed he had carried out autopsies on the victims.

Unfortunately the lifeboat was further damaged about six months ago when a poplar tree fell across SH2 and through the boat’s side.

Mr Gawler said it would be nice to restore the boat in time for the Wahine disaster’s 50th commemorations next year, but that would be a big job and cost a lot.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I have it good authority that the boat was first discovered by a couple of well known local hunters from Featherston who were on their way out of the Mangatoetoe after the roar, they thought they might have some claim via salvage rights so headed back to Feathy to try and get a trailer to haul it back.
    Upon arriving back to the site the Johnsons were there taking it away.

    • yes the johnsons we owned the property for 30 years after Steves Grandad sold it to us and sold the property last year there now is a new house on that land.

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