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Wairarapa’s shipwrecks

“Captain” Mark Pacey – Wairarapa archivist and author of The Lost Shipwrecks of Wairarapa. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Shipwrecked! Keen response inspires book

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

What started as a distraction during lockdown has propelled Masterton historian Mark Pacey to celebrity status – which, in turn, inspired his latest book.

Pacey, Wairarapa archivist, author, and long-time maritime enthusiast, has completed The Lost Wrecks of Wairarapa – a history of the region’s shipping disasters, stretching from Akitio to Palliser Bay.

The book, published by Pacey’s company Gosson Publishing, contains 78 stories spanning a period of 160 years: from the Victorian barquentines that foundered in the treacherous Palliser Bay, to the fishing trawlers stranded in the sands of Castlepoint.

Like many shipwreck tales through the ages, the book features a colourful cast of characters: two men arrested in a case of mistaken identity, a captain pilloried in the press as a “dirty despicable dog”, a crewman who jumped ship to get breakfast, and even a shipbound kitten (you’ll have to read to the end to see if it survives).

Also featured is New Zealand’s third worst maritime disaster – a ship which sank near Great Barrier Island, happened to be named the SS Wairarapa.

“I couldn’t not include that one!” Pacey said.

The Lost Wrecks of Wairarapa, Pacey’s fifth book, started life as a series of articles he researched and wrote for the Wairarapa Times-Age while in lockdown last year.

To help “keep [his] mind off things”, Pacey wrote a trilogy of articles, featuring the wrecks of the Addenda, Opua, and SS Ripple – which met with a rapturous response from the public.

On request from the Times-Age, he wrote a fourth shipwreck-themed article – and eventually became a regular fixture in the newspaper, going on to write 50 articles in 18 months.

The readers couldn’t get enough, Pacey was soon bombarded with enthusiastic requests for a “whole book” – and the rest, as they say, is history.

“People were stopping me in the street, asking if I was going to do a book,” he said.

“We had a man ring the archive who had the wrong number, and he asked me if I was the guy who wrote the shipwreck stories – and could I please do a book?

“Honestly, once I’d done that first trilogy, I’d planned to move on to other things. But there’s something so alluring about shipwrecks – people loved the stories and wanted to read more.

“I received so much positive feedback that a book seemed like the right thing to do.”

Pacey, who grew up “near the sea” in Hawke’s Bay, has been fascinated by maritime history since his childhood.

His obsession with shipwrecks was sparked when his father brought home a copy of The Discovery of the Titanic by Dr Robert Ballard – the US Navy officer and oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the infamous RMS Titanic in 1985.

“I was about eight – the book was way beyond my age level, but I devoured it.

“After that, I asked for a book on shipwrecks every year for Christmas!”

“I just loved Ballard’s writing style. I thought to myself ‘I want to do what this guy does.’”

After leaving school, Pacey worked as a furniture maker – but decided to change direction in the early 2000s, after the rise of cheap imports “killed the New Zealand industry”.

Pacey decided to follow his passion and embarked on a degree in history and defence studies at Massey University – and within three months of graduating, got a job at the Wairarapa Archive.

The archive, he said, played a vital part in the research for his book – containing a treasure trove of newspaper articles and countless photographs.

“We are so used to googling information these days, but there are some real gems that can’t be digitised.

“I was lucky to have some fantastic support from my archive colleagues while researching.”

The Lost Wrecks of Wairarapa is likewise a treasure trove of enthralling tales: for example, 37 of the featured wrecks took place at Palliser Bay which, back in the early days of New Zealand shipping, terrified even experienced seafarers.

“It was a horrible place – it wasn’t well mapped and had a lot of partially submerged rocks.

“One of the captains wrote of being ‘trapped in the jaws of Palliser Bay’. It really had a terrible reputation.”

Some stories, Pacey said, were “hard to write”: such as the Ripple, which sunk off the coast never to be found; and the yacht Pacific Padnag, which foundered in heavy surf near Castlepoint, killing four of the five “good mates” on board.

“The only one who survived wasn’t actually a boatie – he just went out for a trip with his friends on their yacht.

“Some stories are very sad, especially when a family gets no closure. It shows how dangerous the seas can be.”

Some others were more amusing, like the tale of two men who escaped a ship beached at Castlepoint – only to be arrested on their way home.

“These guys managed to leg it off the beach and get to a bus. Then, the police stopped the bus, and they were dragged off.

“They were mistaken for two prisoners that had escaped from Wellington earlier that day. But they were just two innocent guys trying to get home after a shipwreck!”

As well as Dr Ballard and the Wairarapa public, Pacey also credits his parents for his book.

His keen boatie dad, he said, nurtured his love of the sea, and his mum’s childhood photos of the shipping trawler Jenco III, washed up at Castlepoint in 1962, inspired one of his early Times-Age articles.

“I’ll have to send her a copy of the book in that case!

“Dad has passed away now – but I think he’d be very proud.”

The Lost Wrecks of Wairarapa will be available to purchase in January 2022. Go to www.gosson.co.nz to order a copy.

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