New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster
Ship Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour. Further negatives of the Evening Post newspaper © Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Ship Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

The Lyttelton to Wellington ferry Wahine sank of on 10 April 1968. Fifty-one people lost their lives that day, another died several weeks later and a 53rd victim died in 1990 from injuries sustained in the wreck.

Would-be rescuers stood helplessly on the beach at Seatoun as the Wahine succumbed to one of the worst storms recorded in New Zealand history. It seemed impossible that so many lives could be lost so close to shore.

The Wahine left Lyttelton at 8.40pm on the evening of 9 April. There were 734 passengers and crew on board. Storm warnings had been issued, but rough seas were nothing new in Cook Strait. As it turned out, the Wahine was about to sail into one of the worst storms ever recorded in New Zealand. The ship reached Cook Strait as tropical cyclone Giselle swept south and collided with a southerly front. The combination of warm tropical air and cold air dragged up from Antarctica produced exceptionally violent turbulence.

Just as the Wahine reached the narrow funnel of the harbour entrance the wind speed suddenly increased to over 100 knots. Shortly after 6am the Wahine’s radar system failed and a huge wave slammed into the ship, throwing many of those on board off their feet. Now side-on to the towering waves, the vessel was pushed towards the notorious Barrett Reef on the western side of the harbour entrance. The starboard propeller was knocked off, and the port engine stopped shortly after.

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Wahine shipwreck survivors coming ashore at Seatoun, Wellington
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

Just before 1.30pm the order was finally given to abandon ship.

Only the four starboard lifeboats could be launched, and crewmen tried to get as many people as possible onto them. One lifeboat was swamped shortly after leaving the sinking ship and its occupants were tossed into the sea. Two of the other lifeboats safely reached Seatoun; the third landed at Eastbourne.

Other passengers were forced to jump into the cold, churning sea. Some clung on to inflatable life-rafts that had been thrown overboard, but a number of these were punctured by the wreckage or flipped over by the heavy seas.

Many were blown across the harbour towards Eastbourne Beach, an area with difficult access. Rescue teams found the road to Eastbourne blocked by slips. Eventually 200 survivors struggled through the surf to safety on this coast, but it was here that most of the 51 fatalities occurred.

A number of people who reached shore alive did not receive medical attention quickly enough to prevent death from exposure. Others were drowned or killed when thrown against rocks.

Source: ‘The Wahine disaster’ (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Aug-2014