Just after 6am on Wednesday April 10, 1968, passengers on the Union Steamship Company’s inter-island vessel, Wahine, were woken in Wellington Harbour when the ship hit Barrett’s Reef. Jack was a director of the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company – and one of many Wahine passengers heading to the capital that day on business trips.
I had a meeting with the Meat Board and heard the weather forecast early on the Tuesday afternoon before I left. A very, very rough storm was predicted for Wellington the next morning, so, in my wisdom, I changed my air ticket to a boat ticket to make sure I got there.
I left from Lyttleton on that night – and I can still see the massive sou’wester brewing down towards Ashburton. It was a most ominous morning. Granny Win had gone back to Australia that day and as we came down the road the sky was literally black. There was heavy nor’west cloud and just the faintest glimmer of sunshine right out at sea level out to the east. Later that day, low fog started rolling in – again from the nor’east – against the nor’westerly background.
One of the first people I ran into on board ship was Sir Jack Acland, who was chairman of the Wool Board. We went and got a meal, chatted away until about 11 o’clock on various things and then went to our cabins. I was at the aft end of the ship, the only one in my cabin on C deck. I was asleep in no time, until a steward came about quarter to six with some tea and a biscuit to wake me up. We were only about four or five miles short of the Wellington heads at this stage, I suppose, because we were due in about half past six.
I was lying back in bed drinking my tea when suddenly the ship rolled – not badly but I nearly lost my cup. Until then they had been no real movement on the ship, so I thought that was a bit strange. Then around six o’clock there was an announcement over the load speakers that gale-force winds were forecast for Wellington, and that we could be delayed getting into port. I shoved on a few clothes and looked out the porthole up on B deck – and still can’t believe what the sea was like. It was like a million washing machines to the acre – just froth and foam. There were no great waves as far as I could see, and what there were, were just being torn to pieces. It was a frightful scene. There were some army girls playing cards next to me, and I asked them how they could play cards in conditions like we had outside. They said they were loving it. I told them they didn’t have much sense as I thought. And with that, the ship rolled and the water came right through the windows of B deck, about 12 metres above sea level. It brought an end to the cards and we all decided we should sit down at the tables.
Suddenly the ship just went over on her side. I was sitting with my back facing partly to the outside of the ship and I was pitched out of my chair on the broad of my back and slid right across the whole width of the ship and crashed into a table and a couple sitting there. I smashed the leg of the table, hurt my back and sort of lay there until I could gather myself.
The next moment there was an announcement over the ship had hit Barrett’s Reef, and passengers were asked to get their life-jackets.
That was an awful feeling, and we scrabbled around to lock the tables, which had key rings under them so you could tie them down to the deck. The worst thing was going down from B deck to C deck –all that way down the stairs against the passengers coming up. It really was quite an exercise – all I could think about was taking the life -jacket and getting the hell out of it as fast as I could.
Eventually, I struggled back up to B deck, and there was another announcement that everything was all right – that we’d be towed into port shortly. So we all sat down and talked, and everyone just sat and sort of looked at each other. I finally found a seat and started talking to this woman from Ashburton and two senior Canterbury mathematicians. One was Alan Ramsay, a senior maths master at Christ’s College and the other a maths professor at Canterbury University. They suggested we play bridge. Neither I nor the woman from Ashburton knew how to play, so we suggested euchre. The two professors didn’t know how to play the game so we spent the next hour showing them how to play a simple game of cards.
They were just getting the hang of the rules when the steward came round with the last pieces of food on the ship – sandwiches of soggy lettuce and a bit of bread and butter. The steward just tipped the whole lot on the table, and on the cards – this heap of rubbish. They landed on the cards so we said `to hell with it’, and tossed the cards away.
A bit later I met an old school friend Roland Stead from Amberley, who I’d met earlier on the trip. Somehow we got down into the steward’s mess and had a cup of tea. Roland had been on deck when the ship hit the reef, and he said it had no show of coming ashore –the side was ripped right out of it. One of the crew confirmed this later. There a noise below and then just sudden silence. I think it was the bulkhead that had gone at that stage – something had broken deep down below us because from them on we noticed the ship was really listing. They’d dropped the anchors when we hit the reef and we were drifting slowly as we came towards land – just like the pendulum on a clock. Rolling very slowly but swinging quite widely, gradually heading up the harbour.
By this stage, you could see the water mark from the waves was just that fraction higher on the side of the ship with every roll.
I was talking to a Polish woman and her two daughters. She told this awful story of how she was in another panic situation in her village in Poland early in World War Two. The Germans had divided up the country with the Russians, who had this whole village, about 700 people, carted off to Siberia to work in the factories. At some stage they were put into a village hall in the middle of Russia, with about three or foot of snow on the ground and the only heating a stove in the middle of the hall. Somehow, the flooring in the middle of one building caught alight with virtually standing room only.
Everyone charged for the doors. She said she’d never felt anything like it – the panic and the terror. When they finally burst the doors open into the snow, the guards outside couldn’t see the fire inside so they opened fire. By the time they’d left there were over 500 dead in the hall, either smothered or shot, and the rest all standing shivering in the snow.
To this day, I don’t know whether the woman or her daughters, who were about 13 and 15, survived. But I found out years later that a woman and her two daughters, swam with one of her girls on her back and virtually towed the other the whole way across to Eastbourne. Earlier on I’d just been keeping an eye on things – we weren’t seriously worried but by now we were starting to get concerned. I had a poke around out on deck and the wind was still tremendously strong. They announced again they would tow us into shore. Out the window there was a tug about 200 metres away, trying to use a gun to throw us a line. Of all the stupid things to have tried to do, that was it. Here we were, no engines, anchors down, eight or ten thousand tonnes of dead weight, and in a narrow 200-metre wide channel…the thing was just bloody ludicrous.
The swells were still so great that at times all you could see was the top of the mast of the tug. They finally got the big heavy line on board but the next big roll came and it just snapped like a carrot. But it was the only time I heard laughter on the ship. People could see how futile it was. Every few minutes the ship was listing further over. When I went to the loo about 1pm it was becoming a struggle to walk around. They’d tied the loo door open with a hand towel but the inside of it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta, a stinking loo with no water on. There were no lights either– the generators had failed early on as well. I was standing relieving myself when all of a sudden I thought; ‘if the ship turns over and the door slams shut, and I’m drowned in here…what a dreadful bloody death that would be.’
I’ve never finished in the toilet so fast in my life. I was out that door flat out. Then the abandon ship signal went. About five minutes later there was another announcement asking us all to go to the starboard side. Only a few of us had a bloody clue what the starboard side was. The ship was going backwards at any rate, so it had everyone baffled. About 90% of the passengers went up to the top of the ship, the high side. We could see all the lifeboats but they were stuck there – we couldn’t get them lowered. The ship had gone so far over we simply couldn’t bring them down. They were left there, absolutely useless – and obviously half the people on board weren’t going to get a lift ashore at all. They were going to have to swim.
Then there was a scramble across the ship as people tried to get to the port side. By this stage the list was nearly 50 degrees and it was impossible to stand up without holding on to something. Once you got across from top deck you had to slide across – there was no other way. After the alarm went off, I was out on the deck holding a door for some of the passengers. Some of the crew had rigged up a rope across the deck so you slid down straight into a lifeboat held outside the railing by a hand-operated winch. Then you were lowered straight into the water. While I was at the door, though, there was a massive woman, who must have been about 18 stone, trying to get through the door with her bosom on one side and her backside on the other.
She was just jammed in it, petrified. I tried to get her feet through first, over the combing and against the lean of the ship, but she couldn’t get through. I poked my head through the door and told her it was like shoeing a bloody, great fat draught horse. I said, ‘Would you shift your legs, please.’ This poor woman had never been spoken to like this in her life but the best I can say that we finally oozed her through the door – this great heap of femininity. But I couldn’t hold her once she got through and she fell, hit her head against a bulkhead about three metres away and knocked herself out. We finished up with four unconscious women on the deck, so when we got the next life-raft ready, four of us simply pitched these women into it.
Three rafts came for the passengers but one was blown away with no-one in it. Jack jumped in the last raft on the ship.
We didn’t have to be lowered far at this stage, and we were trying to get away fast from the ship in case it rolled over on us. We could only find one little paddle in the thing, and so were pretty well at the mercy of the tide, which had turned about half an hour earlier.
The ship had swung side on to the swells coming up the harbour so it did give us a bit of shelter on the lee side to come off. I will say that was the only time they could have abandoned ship with any degree of safety – that decision was decisive. We had to abandon ship because it was listing so badly, but still, we were lucky the tide turned when it did. The wind had died right away and we were out there floating on these huge rolling swells, sitting in this covered raft. There was no sensation of sea-sickness. It was rather a pleasant feeling, actually, once you got away from the ship.
But some people were torn away from us in the rafts and we just couldn’t rescue them. We were just about chocker, any rate. The only thing we did strike was a couple of Maori girls out in the middle of the harbour, who managed to swim over to us. They were grateful, of course, but they were sick all over me, bringing up the water they’d swallowed. I have no idea how many of us were in that raft.
I sat on the outside; I wouldn’t get in it. We sat there talking and I was keeping a running commentary “selling tickets to the Chatham Islands”, because you could see we were drifting towards the heads. A chap on the other side of the raft was chattering away as well and we tried to keep a bit of banter going – singing a bit, all sorts of things. The Aramoana came out but she was a waste of time – she couldn’t bring people on board. Then all we saw was a tug about 200 metres away. They waved to us but were really there to pick up swimming people, which I thought was fair enough. There was an uncovered raft near us which was picked up by a huge wave and the people in it were tossed out. When the wave had finished there was only one person clinging to the upside-down raft.
Suddenly we heard this roar, this wall of water at least four metres high. It wasn’t breaking, just cresting at the top.
I yelled to everyone to hang on, and this deluge, what I would describe as a tidal bore, just fell on us. About 10-15 seconds later, I don’t know, we came out the other side, still the right way up. Just after this wave we got caught up in the breakers coming into the shore. Then we started to really move, surfing through to some sandy beach on the Eastbourne side out near the heads.
I got out with another couple of chaps and we started to pull the raft up onto the beach. Suddenly my legs got caught up in the kelp. I tripped and fell under the water and the raft surged in on top of me. I was pushed down onto a sharp rock on the small of my back and I thought just for a moment that my back was going to break. But thank god the next swell gave me just enough room to pop out from underneath it.
The next thing I remember racing up the beach, out of the water and up a steep bank onto the road. After the sheer fright of nearly breaking my back, I was up that beach so fast you couldn’t see me for sand and dust.
I’ve also got no idea what happened between getting out of the water and when I came back to look at the raft. How far I’d been, I don’t know, but I remember coming back and seeing the empty raft on the beach and no sign of anybody, so it must have been quite a while.
Before I’d got off the life-raft I’d kicked my shoes off so they wouldn’t drag me down in the water. I was in stocking feet at this stage and I wasn’t cold in any way… it was quite mild and the wind had gone back to the nor-west.
I hadn’t walked far when I came across this woman sitting by the side of the road. She thought she’d broken her toe and her hand and she felt bruised down her side, but I suggested we might as well try to walk for help. She was carrying her handbag and I thought ‘typical woman. She still has her handbag’. So I said; ‘look, give me your handbag, I’ll carry it for you’. She said; ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that, I don’t know who you are’.
So we stopped and introduced ourselves and it turned out her husband was chief engineer of the Kaiapoi Freezing Works, and I knew him quite well. We walked about a mile and a half or two miles until this real old bomb of a truck came down the beach road, with bodies draped on the back – the only rescue vehicle we saw. As we walked along we could see all these bodies lying on the sea front. This woman had an uncle on board who she’d lost contact with, so every time we saw a body, she went to have a look. So she’d turn this body over, and by the time we’d seen about 20, I’d had a gutsful – it really did turn my stomach. It was quite horrendous. An awful walk.
Fifty-one people died in the disaster, a toll which was probably inflated by the lack of rescue services from the city.
Here we were, within a few kilometres of the capital city, and a perfectly good road alongside the beach and there was nobody to help – I couldn’t believe it was possible. Finally, a group of six or eight police cadets from Trentham came running down the track. I asked them to pick her up and carry her back. I struggled on behind them in my stocking feet. I could see her staring back every now and again to see where I was because I still had her handbag.
We finally got to a roadblock where there was a big fat police sergeant, a traffic cop and one or two others who’d put a roadblock in for a slip on the road. There were about 12 Land Rovers parked on the bitumen, not being used. I said to him; ‘For God’s sake, send those Landrovers down the beach. There are people dying down there. Bodies just lying there’. He said; ‘Oh, no, if we sent the vehicles they couldn’t turn round. We’d have an awful mess.’
He flatly refused to release these vehicles; said they were there to take us up to Eastbourne on the tar-sealed road.So all those people were left down there on the beach at the end of the bitumen. My friend Roland swam into the beach at Eastbourne, floated in twice and went back out gain. The only person operating down there was the local cop at Eastbourne, who managed to get hold of him at the third attempt and pull him ashore.
Roland said if another wave came in and out he’d have died. He was just helpless. He was a prime example of someone who was helped by the local policeman, but I don’t know how many other people could have been helped if they’d had people down there.
Survivors were taken to the RSA Hall in Eastbourne.
They did a superb job. The tables were groaning with food, the bar was open in one corner, there were warm clothes and heaters going in every direction and the local vicar and priests were taking messages and addresses for next of kin. I went straight to the bar and had six brandies just as quick as they could fill the glass, had a bit to eat, changed my clothes, and finally found Roland. Just as we were walking out, the chief engineer of the Post and Telegraph Department arrived in a massive government car with a chauffeur. He offered us a lift to Wellington so I asked him to take me to my sister Kate’s place in Wadestown. We by-passed the major emergency centre at the Railway Station but meanwhile, my brother-in-law Peter Harcourt had been sent down to the station to see where I’d got to.
Poor Peter had heard there were likely to be casualties on the Eastbourne side and couldn’t find me anywhere, but by this time I was back at Kate’s, starting to enjoy a bottle of whisky and settling down to some serious drinking.
Norna had already got a message via one of John’s colleagues who was working at the hall, that Jack was safe. At this stage Gordon was at Lincoln College, Rod at Christ’s College and Joanna at Craighead girl’s school in Timaru.
Gordon came from Lincoln and, with Ian Kirkpatrick and Hamish Macdonald, they got down some serious drinking once they heard the news. In fact they had to go up to the Cust pub to get some more grog; I often wonder, in fact, whether they were celebrating my demise. I was never too sure…
Jack spent the night in Wellington and got up, still unshaven, for Kate’s husband Peter to drive him to the airport early the next morning. Wellington was calm by now and the flight was pleasant until it was about to land in Christchurch.
All I could see was one little bit of clear ground – the whole place was in thick cloud. The pilot said there was no way to land. By this stage, the same storm had hit Christchurch and it was nearly as bad as it had been in Wellington the day before. Initially we were going to go back to Wellington and there was a cry from the plane; ‘what the hell do you want to send us back there for? There’s no ferry, it’s just about Easter, for god’s sake, don’t send us back to Wellington. Put us down at Blenheim’.
It was beautifully clear there, and we were just about to touch down on the tarmac when suddenly the pilot put the power down and took off. We said; where on earth are you going? He said; ‘Oh, we’ve got to go to Nelson.’ Why the hell we’d want to go there I don’t know, but there wasn’t going to be any argument about it…we landed there’. After about an hour’s wait in the airport, an old, semi-condemned suburban bus was found for the trip back to Christchurch. Meanwhile, we couldn’t get word to Christchurch about our whereabouts because the local phone lines had been damaged in the storm.
I was finally able to ring from Blenheim to say he’d be home about 8 o’clock that night, but I was still steamed up, pretty emotional at this stage and I spent most of the trip down from Nelson telling my story to the rest of the passengers. Eventually, a lot of the passengers got sick of that but Roger Duff, who was a director of Canterbury New Zealand, kept us interested with stories about the history of Maori settlement on the east coast of the South Island. It was a long haul – this frustration of a day, and it got worse and worse. The further south we went we could see all the damage from the storm the previous night. A massive amount of trees were down and by the time we got in to Christchurch it was raining and blowing. When we got to the bus station around 10pm I had a look round and there wasn’t a soul in sight.
Finally I turned to the bus depot manager, who said he’d told everyone the bus wouldn’t be in till midnight. I was furious – I called him every name I could lay tongue to. I was left there until I got a message to CFM secretary Ken Cox, who picked me up and drove me home. When I finally got back to Larundel, my old dog Mac was loose. He jumped all over me and pawed me and tried to get inside when we got to the back door. To my knowledge, he’d never been inside or ever wanted to, but as I got there he pushed his way in. I was staggered, so I let him go and he came into the little sitting room, sat down beside me and after about four or five minutes he got up – put his head on my knee, scratched the door and walked out. Obviously he realised I’d been through some form of pressure because he never again looked likely to do it again.
I just sat there with Norn, talking and talking until she finally rang our local doctor, Arthur Cotter, who said she should just keep filling me up with whisky and let me keep talking till eventually I’d collapse. I’ve often said since that he’s never taken me off that regime…but really, it did help me early on at least with the pressure. I was just so furious, so tense and so angry with everything…really hyped up.
*The ship which John took to Australia as a child has a bizarre link to the Wahine; both ran
aground on Barretts Reef.
On January 19, 1947, the Wanganella, owned by the Huddart Parker line, hit the reef and incurred damage that put her out of action for over a year.
It seems Wahine was blighted in some way. On August 15, 1951, the original Wahine ran aground on the Masela Island Reef in the Arafura Sea, separating Australia from New Guinea. Salvage attempts were unsuccessful and the vessel was abandoned.
Sources: Webpage: Historic New Zealand Vessels section of the
New Zealand National Maritime Museum
In 1998, retired police officer Hoppy Hodges spoke to the Wairarapa Times-Age about the day he was called to rescue Wahine survivors.
Mr Hodges was a 34-year-old constable stationed at Naenae, and that day he was rostered on an early shift. The weather was already bad with roofs blowing off and power lines dropping. Mr Hodges recalled being half way through eating lunch when he was called to Eastbourne Beach because the “Wahine was listing”.
A car load of eight police officers, including Mr Hodges, made its way to the beach and people had already started to jump off the ship.
“People who were in the water or life rafts were being blown across the harbour.
“When I arrived I knew I’d get wet but the first problem was getting to the beach. There was so much debris on the road and no rescue vehicles could get past Burdens gate.”
He remembered thinking at the time the waves must have been more than 6m high and as the canopied rubber life rafts got closer to shore many were capsized by the huge surf.
“Lots of people perished that way.”
Mr Hodges said he just concentrated on the job of rescuing people and getting them ashore. For most of the time there was only about eight police officers at work on the beach.
An elderly man in his mid 60s stands out in Mr Hodges’ memory of that day for his courage.
“He was a big man and as I was dragging him in a wave caught us and washed us back out but once I got him ashore he couldn’t move.”But told me to leave him and go and help others and he would crawl up to the road.”
Mr Hodges said the bravery of the man stuck in his memory but it was sad to return two hours later and find him dead by the road. “The guts he showed is why I remember him and it was probably exposure that he died from.”
Mr Hodges helped people ashore along the coast as far as Pencarrow Lighthouse. As he worked his way towards the lighthouse he saw a flash of orange from some scrub near the road.
“It was guy and a girl and he was off his head saying `don’t make me go back out’ and I told them to follow the road but he took off and ran up a steep bank – that was how scared he was and how the disaster affected some people,” Mr Hodges said.Working in just a nylon shirt and singlet, his trousers and boots, Mr Hodges had given his raincoat and tunic to two women with children.
At 6.30pm he was handed patrol car keys by a senior officer and told to go and have a shower, but he couldn’t hold the keys because his hands were so cold.
“It was bloody cold, I tell you.I was told to get changed and get back to the Lower Hutt station in case I was needed – I wasn’t, so we had a few whiskies.”
He remembered the state of chaos, rescue vehicles getting bellied on the road, boulders, logs, seaweed and bodies.”It takes a lot to upset me – but walking back along the road and seeing all those dead bodies made me think.
“I put my life at risk for them and it didn’t help them at all – it was heartbreaking that I was no help and I could have been one of them.”
Mr Hodges also had praise for the people living at Eastbourne at the time.
“They set up a receiving base at the Muritai School for people who managed to get ashore, where they were given drinks, food and blankets before they were taken
to Wellington Railway Station for identification. The death toll might have been a lot higher if the school hadn’t been set up to help the survivors.”
In Tamihana Te Rauparaha’s book about his father, he tells a story that shows the deep respect Maori people have for Ruakawa (Cook Strait).
When someone made their first crossing of this dangerous stretch of water, a blindfold was tied over their eyes, and they paddled the whole way across without seeing their surroundings. When they reached the far shore, they were carried to land without touching the water. Then the blindfold and the karaka leaves covering the prow of the canoe would be taken and left at a sacred place. The message was clear: no crossing of this body of water should be undertaken lightly.
The MetService website describes how the Cook Strait weather took a ferocious hold of the Wahine:
“Although forewarned of the possibility of extreme weather, the ship’s master attempted to enter the harbour in deteriorating conditions. For reasons never properly understood, though possibly connected with rain or blowing spray, the ship’s radar broke down just as she was approaching the harbour mouth. After rolling badly off a big wave she became disorientated in very poor visibility, and manoeuvred in the harbour mouth for some 25 minutes before striking the rocks.
The ship immediately lost power and dropped both anchors. The wind continued to increase in force, and drove the ship up into the harbour, dragging the anchors.
Paradoxically this may have saved many lives, as the death toll is likely to have been much higher than the 51 who died had the ship finally rolled over at Barrett’s Reef, rather than inside the harbour mouth. At the time the Wahine got into difficulty, the wind at Wellington Airport was 60 knots gusting 80 knots, and peaked at 78 knots gusting 101 knots a couple of hourslater. The maximum wind recorded at Oteranga Bay was 98 knots gusting 145 knots — the highest ever recorded in New Zealand.”
The MetService says the wind near Cook Strait is often strong because the waterway is the major gap between an otherwise nearly continuous line of mountains and hills running for much of the length of New Zealand.The extreme southerlies that drove the Wahine – and decades earlier the Rangatira – on to the rocks were caused by deep depressions that had originated far to the north as tropical cyclones. Instead of weakening as they moved away fom the tropics – the normal course of events – they re-intensified as they changed into mid-latitude depressions a little to the north of New Zealand.
On average, northerlies outnumber southerlies about two to one through Cook Strait. This is because Cook Strait lies in a latitude where westerly winds predominate, but the westerlies are deflected by the mountains to blow north or north-west through the Strait.
Thankfully, not all shipping accidents in Cook Strait have ended in tragedy. One of the most dramatic narrow escapes occurred on February 2, 1936, when the Rangatira, with almost 800 people on board, struck rocks near the entrance to Wellington Harbour in a southerly storm almost as severe as that which capsized the Wahine. Again, poor visibility was a factor, with a combination of rain and driving spray masking the land. However, because of the conditions, the ship was moving very slowly when she struck, and was able to reverse off the rocks. The Rangatira then manoeuvred her way to the heads, and proceeded stern first up the harbour with the assistance of two tugs.
Although the ship took in a considerable amount of water, was down at the bow with the propellers partially clear of the water, and developed a list, she successfully reached the wharf with no loss of life or even serious injury to any of the people on board.
The longest-lasting narrow escape concerned the Wanganella. On January 19, 1947, making its first trans-Tasman voyage after the war, the Wanganella struck Barrett’s Reef just before midnight and stuck fast. The weather conditions were benign, and remained so for the 18 days the ship spent on the reef. No-one was injured, and the passengers were taken off the ship the morning after the accident.