The Wahine Disaster

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Wahine disaster

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The TEV Wahine was a New Zealand inter-island ferry that foundered on Barrett's Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour in a storm on April 10, 1968. Of the 610 passengers and 123 crew on board, 51 people lost their lives.

The wrecking of the Wahine is by far the most well known shipping disaster in New Zealand's history, although there have been worse with far greater loss of life. New Zealand television news broadcast the drama as it happened, within a short distance from the shore of the eastern suburbs of Wellington.

In the early morning of 10 April, two violent storms merged over Wellington, creating a single storm that was the worst recorded in New Zealand's history. Hurricane Giselle was a tropical cyclone heading south after causing much damage in the north of the North Island. It hit Wellington at the same time as another storm which had driven up the West Coast of the South Island from Antarctica. The winds in Wellington were the strongest ever recorded. At one point they reached a speed of 275 kilometres per hour. In one Wellington suburb alone the wind ripped off the roofs of 98 houses. Three ambulances and a truck were blown onto their sides when they tried to go into the area to bring out injured people.

As the storms hit Wellington, the ferry Wahine was crossing Cook Strait on the last leg of its overnight journey from the port of Lyttelton, near Christchurch, to Wellington. At 5:50 am, with winds gusting at between 130 and 150 kilometres per hour, Captain Hector Robertson decided to enter the harbour. Twenty minutes later the winds had increased to 160 kilometres per hour, and the ship lost its radar. A huge wave pushed the Wahine off course and in line with Barrett's Reef. The captain was unable to turn back on course, and decided to keep turning the ferry around and back out to sea again. For 30 minutes the Wahine battled into the waves and wind, but by 6.40 am had been driven back onto the rocks of Barrett's Reef. Passengers were told that the ferry was aground, to put on their lifejackets and report to assembly points around the ship.

The storm continued to grow more intense. As the winds increased, the Wahine dragged its anchors and drifted further down into the harbour close to the western shore. The weather was so bad that no help could be given from the harbour or the shore.

At about 11.00 am a harbour tug managed to reach the vessel, and tried to attach a line and tow the ferry, but the line gave way. Other attempts failed, but the deputy harbourmaster managed to climb aboard the Wahine from the pilot launch which had also reached the scene.

At about 1.15 pm the combined effect of the tide and the storm swung the Wahine around, providing a patch of clear water sheltered from the wind and the sea. As the ferry leaned more and more to this side, Captain Robertson gave the order to abandon ship. Only four lifeboats could be launched. One lifeboat was swamped when it hit the water and people were lost into the sea. Some managed to hold onto the boat as it drifted across the harbour to the eastern shore. Other boats were also swamped but many of the passengers were able to reach the rescue boats which by now were surrounding the Vessel.

At about 2.30 pm the Wahine rolled completely onto her side. By then the first of the survivors were reaching the western shore. Over 200 survivors drifted across to the rocky, unpopulated eastern side of the harbour.

On the eastern side the only road was blocked by land slips, and the road became impassable due to the huge seas breaking over it. Some of the survivors reached the shore only to die of exhaustion. Fifty-one people died, most of them middle-aged or elderly, from drowning, exposure or injuries from being battered on the rocks.

Ten weeks after the sinking, a court of inquiry found errors of judgement had been made, but stressed that the conditions at the time had been difficult and dangerous. The build-up of water in the vehicle hold was the reason the ferry finally capsized. The report of the inquiry stated that more lives would almost certainly have been lost if the order to abandon ship had been given earlier or later. The storm was so strong that rescue craft would not have been able to safely help the passengers from the ferry any earlier than about 12.30 pm.

Attempts were made to salvage the Wahine, but later storms broke up the wreck, and it was finally towed out to deep water, and sunk.

Today the Wahine Memorial Park marks the disaster, near where survivors reached the eastern shore at Seatoun. This park has a memorial plaque, the Wahine's anchor and chain, and ventilation pipes. The Wahine's fore-mast is part of another memorial in the Frank Kitts Park in central Wellington.

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