1966: Kaitawa sinks

MV Kaitawa
MV Kaitawa

TSMV Kaitawa (callsign ZMVC) was a 2485-ton twin-screw collier owned by the Union Steam Ship Company. She was lost with all 29 crew on the evening of 23 May 1966 near Cape Reinga.

Kaitawa loading coal at Westport in 1963
Kaitawa at Westport in 1963. Another vessel of the same class lies astern. Photo: R/O Ron Moloney

Kaitawa had left Westport on the west coast of New Zealand’s South island at 1.13 pm on 21 May, loaded with 2957 tons of coal for the cement works at Portland, near Whangarei.

The voyage, via the North Cape, is one she would have completed many times since she arrived in New Zealand from her Scottish builders in 1949.

The following commentary has been written by Roger Wincer ZL2RX, a former Radio Officer whose seagoing career included time on Konui, one of Kaitawa’s sister ships.


The last hours of Kaitawa and her crew

By Roger Wincer

During the evening of 23 May, the weather near Cape Reinga was deteriorating. Winds were from the westerly quarter at 35 knots. Seas were very rough with a heavy swell. Visibility was bad in frequent rainsqualls.

The original ETA of Kaitawa at Portland was 4am on 24 May, but this was changed, on the morning of 23 May, to noon on the 24th, and later changed again, to 3pm on the 24th. This was presumably due to poor weather, as there was no message to report a breakdown.

Lyle Shipping Co freighter MV Cape Horn
The Lyle Shipping Co’s 8484-ton freighter Cape Horn

At 8pm NZ time, Kaitawa was seen by the southbound MV Cape Horn in a position about five miles west of the northern end of Pandora Bank (nine miles from Cape Maria van Diemen and 12-13 miles from Cape Reinga). The officer of the watch on Cape Horn reported that at about 8pm Kaitawa had started to alter course to clear Cape Reinga.


Approximate location of the Kaitawa wreck

An urgency (PAN) signal was sent from Kaitawa via radiotelephone at 2059 and received at Auckland Radio ZLD. No details were inculded. Then, a distress (MAYDAY) message, also on radiotelephone, was sent from the ship a minute later:

"Position (words missing) 10 miles
Cape Reinga bearing 035 (word missing)
30 degrees requiring immediate assistance."

The gaps in reception were due to fading or static. Auckland Radio asked for a repeat of the ship’s position, but there was interference from Adelaide Radio. Auckland Radio asked Adelaide Radio for silence, then made four attempts to contact Kaitawa but nothing further was heard from the ship.

Auckland Rescue Coordination Centre was alerted immediately and sea, air and land searches were quickly organised. MV Cape Horn was asked to assist, and turned back north to search for the collier.

MV Kaitawa in 1949
Kaitawa in 1949

Findings of the official enquiry

The officer of the watch on Cape Horn reported that at about 8pm Kaitawa was about five miles west of the northern end of Pandora Bank, and altering course to clear Cape Reinga.

The official enquiry was unable to determine the cause of the foundering, but theorised that Kaitawa had continued on her course to clear Cape Reinga, (about 035 True) until about 2100 hours, when some catastrophe occurred that resulted in her Master sending a Mayday call. The catastrophe was thought to have been a large wave that stove in the wooden bridge front and a wooden door on the port side of the accommodation (this was based on examination of flotsam from the wreck). The damage caused her to lose control and to list to port (the reference to “30 degrees” in the Mayday message was interpreted as being the angle of listing). It was surmised that the ship then drifted southward onto the northern end of Pandora Bank and broke up. The findings of the inquiry were that Captain Sherlock of Kaitawa knew the ship’s correct position (despite the ship having no radar or electronic depth sounder) but that the position given in the Mayday message was wrong – implying that it was sent incorrectly by the ship’s Radio Officer.

“The position given by the Kaitawa in the distress message would place her on the western edge of Pandora Bank. At this point it is sufficient to say that it is clear the Kaitawa was certainly not in that position. Her exact position cannot be fixed with precision but it has been calculated by Captain Milroy as at a point from which Cape Reinga was bearing 080 degrees True to 085 degrees True, and was distant 7 to 10 nautical miles. At this time the weather was deteriorating and a heavy sea was running”.

 

In the book New Zealand Tragedies, Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters by Gavin McLean, first published by Grantham House NZ in 1991, it is mentioned that during the official inquiry there were other theories about her fate, and there were calls for further investigations.

Troubling aspects of the official account

As I discovered more about this disaster I became puzzled about what had really happened. I published some ideas on the web, and various people contacted me and gave me information.

In particular I received from a source in Canada a copy of the findings of the official inquiry, and copies of letters, telegrams and telex messages relevant to the inquiry. I was able to use this information, and consult with colleagues at the NZ School of Fisheries, in Nelson, where I work as a radio and marine electronics tutor.

I cannot think of any reason why, at the time Kaitawa sent the MAYDAY message, her officers would not have been aware of the correct bearing to Cape Reinga light. These were professional seamen of long experience, and they would have known how to take an accurate bearing of a light. However I am prepared to believe they may not have been aware just how close they were to Pandora Bank. In other words they knew the bearing of the light but not its range (distance).

How could Kaitawa’s officers not realise they were near Pandora Bank? There are several possible explanations:

  1. Kaitawa had no radar or echo sounder. (With radar it would have been a simple matter to read off the distance. A depth sounder would have provided confirmation.)
  2. The weather was very bad.
  3. It was night and visibility was poor.
  4. They would have been distracted by the stressful situation.
  5. The ship was listing which may have made getting a decent visual bearing difficult.
  6. In that area the angle between two lights, the one on Cape Maria Van Dieman and the other on Cape Reinga, is not large enough to yield an accurate position fix.
 

Given these factors, it is quite possible they believed they were much farther out to sea than they actually were.

If Kaitawa was where Captain Milroy of the official inquiry suggested, then they could have seen both Cape Maria van Dieman light and Cape Reinga light – which would have given them a good position fix.

North Cape Chart of 1972 showing incident positions
North Cape Chart of 1972 showing incident positions

The official inquiry could not reconcile the MAYDAY message position with the last known position of Kaitawa as reported by the officer on Cape Horn.

In a letter dated 20 July 1966 addressed to Captain H Ruegg of the government’s Marine Department, Captain Milroy writes, “…it does not seem possible for the Kaitawa to have reached the Pandora Bank position at 2100 without actually steaming there.”

The inquiry assumed that Kaitawa continued north from her position at 8pm reported by Cape Horn.

I agree, because the officer of the watch on Cape Horn said Kaitawa had appeared to alter course just after 8pm to clear Cape Reinga.

In a letter to Captain Milroy, Captain Ruegg referred to a report that an airforce flying boat sighted wreckage at 11.25am the day following the accident. “This leads to the conjecture that perhaps the casualty could have occurred on the Bank and the wreckage drifted afterwards.”

But Captain Milroy remained resolute in his belief that Kaitawa did not wreck because she hit the Bank.

Reinvestigating the loss of Kaitawa

As I see it, there are two reliable facts about Kaitawa’s position in the hours prior to her sinking:

  • At 2000 she was 5 miles west of the northern end of Pandora Bank.
  • At 2100 she was close to the Bank where Cape Reinga light was bearing 035 degrees True.
 

The inquiry realised that some serious situation occurred between 2000 and 2100 hours, but could not imagine how she might have recovered from that and finished up wrecking on the western edge of Pandora Bank a relatively short time later.

Captain Milroy was correct when he wrote: “it does not seem possible for the “Kaitawa” to have reached the Pandora Bank position at 2100 without actually steaming there.”

I believe she did steam there.

The wreck of Kaitawa was discovered on 8 June 1966 at a position 246 degrees True and 4.77 miles from Cape Reinga light, about 6.5 miles north of where I believe she hit the Bank. The superstructure was gone and all the hatch covers were missing, as was the cargo of coal.

At 11.25 am on 24 May (the day following the disaster) wreckage was sighted by an airforce Sunderland flying boat about four miles north where I believe she hit the Bank.

The strong tides in the area flow north or south. At about 1am on 24 May the tide began to flow north, which could have carried the wreck to the point where she sank. When the tide turned to the south, it may have carried the floating wreckage back to where it was spotted at 11.25am.

At 2350 hours on the 23rd, the crew of Cape Horn, which had returned from the south to search for Kaitawa, sighted a red flare on a bearing of 23 degrees True, distance 5-10 nautical miles. I have been unable to find out what position Cape Horn was in when she sighted this flare. The ship could not search for the origin of the flare because that would have brought her dangerously close to Pandora Bank. The bad weather conditions then forced Cape Horn to heave-to from midnight until daybreak. Though they kept up a radar search of the area they saw nothing of Kaitawa (sea clutter on the radar screen was severe due to the bad weather).

Clues in the wreckage

Only one body was recovered from the wreck of Kaitawa, that of John Easton Wright at Te Waiawa Bay. Wreckage of one of the ships liferafts was later recovered, showing evidence of having been inflated and an emergency pack having been opened.

Only 18 of the 32 lifejackets carried on the ship were recovered. It may seem strange that 18 lifejackets were recovered but only one body. I have, however, attended many lifeboat drills and seen crew arrive at their muster stations merely carrying their lifejackets, or with lifejackets worn incorrectly.

Much of the wreckage was found in a relatively small area of the coast. So if the lifejackets did float off there should have been a good chance of them coming ashore here. This could mean that 11 of the crew remained trapped inside the hull.

In that case, whatever happened to Kaitawa occurred very fast and with little warning. This may have been the sudden realisation of the close proximity of Pandora Bank, just minutes prior to going onto the Bank. This would be consistent with the change within one minute from an Urgency radio call to a Distress call, followed by an abrupt loss of radio communication.

It seems likely that at least some crew managed to abandon ship, probably in the two liferafts, but the chances of a liferaft or lifeboat surviving Pandora Bank that night would be very small indeed.

Kaitawa wreckage
Wreckage from MV Kaitawa is seen in this photo from the official inquiry.

An alternative explanation

My theory is that Kaitawa continued on her course of about 035 True until about 2020 hours when, under the influence of the heavy following sea, she broached.

Broaching is a condition that may capsize a vessel very quickly and with great violence. This usually occurs with a big following sea and when there is a 10-20 degree angle between the vessel’s course and the wave’s direction. The vessel is slowly overtaken by the wave that pushes the vessel off course and imparts speed to the vessel, as it slides down the face of the wave. This force converts the vessel’s speed into a rolling force that quickly capsizes the vessel.

This is not something that occurs often but it can happen to most vessels in a big following sea under the right circumstances.

Factors that affect this behavior are:

  • Wave height
  • Distance between waves (wave length)
  • Relationship of vessel’s length to length and height of waves
  • Speed of waves
  • Speed of ship
 

It is likely that all of these factors combined on that night to cause Kaitawa to broach and roll on to her port side.

This broaching may have caused a shifting of the cargo and perhaps water entering the holds. At this point the vessel may have suffered damage to the radio aerials, the wheelhouse and the radio room located on the port side.

After wallowing in the troughs of the swell for a short while, the vessel may have come nearly upright, but with a 30-degree list to port and with her engines still operating.

In this situation the Master would realise that he could not safely make a course to clear Cape Reinga, as this would risk broaching again. Neither could he make straight out to sea on a westerly course, this being due to the general low power of the vessel’s engines and the listing condition.

Realising he needed to protect the port side from the heavy seas, his only option was to try and make progress to the southwest, away from the land and Pandora Bank. Staying where they were and drifting towards land was not an option.

Simulation supports theory

Using the ship simulator at the NZ School of Fisheries, I have tried to simulate the conditions on that night with a vessel of similar characteristics to Kaitawa.

I started with the last known position at 2000 hours and then steered 035 degrees true at a speed I know Kaitawa was capable of (about 10 knots). It became very clear that in these weather conditions the vessel was extremely difficult to steer and would veer off course constantly. At some points the vessel would always go to a course 90 degrees from the steered course. This would have put the vessel broadside to the swells and in a situation where broaching could occur. This behavior is quite consistent with my own memories of a storm in the Tasman Sea aboard Kaitawa’s sister ship Konui in 1968.

It is interesting to read in the inquiry papers that Captain Webling (who had been called by the Cooks & Stewards Union and the Seaman’s Union) reported that he had experienced areas of sea turbulence when in that area off Cape Reinga, as had other mariners. The RNZ Navy survey also noted some areas where there are under water hills or shallow areas. But the inquiry did not think these would have played a significant part in the sinking.

In the area where I estimate the accident occurred there is one such underwater hill which Kaitawa would have passed over at about 2020 hours. This may have caused sea conditions that led to broaching.

The simulator showed that after a broaching, any attempt to steer in a general westerly direction (into the heavy seas and swell) would result in the vessel wallowing and drifting astern. This behavior was consistent with my own experience of Konui. Forward speed would fall off severely as she attempted to make progress to the west, but she could make good progress to the south. So by trying to pick up speed by going south then altering to the west to put distance between the ship and the land progress was possible in a general south by southwest direction.

When doing this exercise on the simulator there was always the hope that the vessel would clear Pandora Bank and be able to get south of the bank. I can well imagine how in the real situation and not knowing his position as accurately as the simulation computer shows, Captain Sherwood, the ship’s master, might well have felt he was making good progress away from danger.

I did this exercise six times, and the simulated vessel always hit the Bank with her port side, close to where the real Kaitawa reported her Distress position, and at times ranging from about 2045 to 2120 hours, close to the actual Mayday time of 2100 hours.

This simulation convinced me that the position given in Kaitawa’s distress radio message was correct.

Tide

The simulation also demonstrated that tidal flow was an important factor as it enabled the vessel to pick up speed when steering south. The tide turned to the south at about 1900 hours and at about 2000 hours the tide information on the chart indicated it should have been flowing at about 0.6 knots increasing later to about 1.6 knots.

Note: Divers who have examined the wreck of Kaitawa reported unpredictable tides up to 5.5 knots at times.

Further evidence Kaitawa was heading south

Navy divers who examined the wreck of Kaitawa reported severe denting and holes in the hull, on the bottom of the port side, one dent being 80 feet long. This suggests the ship could have hit Pandora Bank while heading south.

A hole approx 2m by 3m in the hull of Kaitawa
A hole approx 2m by 3m, in the port side of Number 3 hold, caused by an internal beam being pushed through the hull. Photo by RNZN diving team headed by Lt N Merrick.

Radio communication

I believe that the initial Urgency call from the Kaitawa on 2182 kHz was for the listing situation. An “Urgency” message denotes that the situation does not involve immediate danger of loss of life.

The delay in sending this message from the time of the “broaching” until 2059 hours, about 40 minutes, may have been because they were trying to make repairs to the radio aerial system or other radio equipment. This URGENCY call was very quickly changed to a DISTRESS call when they realised their close proximity to Pandora Bank. Remember, it was dark and you would have to be quite close to be aware of it in such storm conditions.

A puzzling feature of the distress incident is that when the Radio Officer sent out the PAN PAN PAN (urgency) call followed immediately by a MAYDAY (distress) call and message, he chose the radio telephone frequency of 2182 kHz. Kaitawa was a compulsory-equipped W/T (Wireless Telegraphy, i.e. Morse Code) ship. In 99 cases out of 100 I would expect a Radio Officer to send out an SOS call and distress message on 500 kHz using Morse Code. The call was certainly sent by the Canadian Radio Officer and not any other crewmember, as it has been reported the sender had a Canadian accent. So there was no obvious reason not to use Morse. In fact Morse would have been more reliable than radiotelephone in that area, which was known to be a bad area for radio communications with Auckland Radio.

After Kaitawa hit Pandora Bank the engine room power would most likely fail and as a result so would the main transmitter, which was the only radiotelephone transmitter on the ship.

So then why was not communication resumed using the 500 kHz Morse-only emergency transmitter? It could have been that the emergency radio batteries in their locker on the port side bridge deck had become dislodged by the broaching. They may have been tossed out of their secure shelves, spilled their acid and broken the electrical straps connecting them together.

Within a few minutes of sending the MAYDAY call, I believe Kaitawa hit Pandora Bank.

Reflections

The loss of Kaitawa was a tragedy – so many lives lost and even more lives disrupted or ruined. I don’t think any one person could be blamed for what happened. The sea can be tough and cruel at times. Certainly anyone who has worked on those old under-powered and under-equipped colliers will feel great sympathy for those lost that night. But understand these things can happen at sea, any time anywhere.

It is easy to say, if the Master of Kaitawa had had radar, an echo sounder and a decent chart to help him things could have been different. Maybe if Kaitawa had more powerful engines, more freeboard and hatches that didn’t leak she might have made port safely. If she had not been in that part of the sea at that time and steering that course at that speed in waves of that size she would not have broached.

But accidents are a series of events and conditions that accumulate, and then happen. Usually no one sees them coming and when some one does it is too late to change things, the point of no return has passed. Perhaps the point of no return in this situation was when the officer of the watch on Cape Horn saw Kaitawa change course to 035 true to clear Cape Reinga.

Cape Maria van Diemen and Motuopao Island, seen from the carpark near Cape Reinga
Cape Maria van Diemen and Motuopao Island, seen from the carpark near Cape Reinga. Pandora Bank lies about 4.5 nautical miles (8km) beyond Cape Maria van Diemen to the south-southwest. Photo: Joerg Mueller

Comments

“The fact that [Kaitawa] was fitted with neither radar nor an echo depth sounder was, in my view, a critical factor in its sinking off Cape Reinga. For a company renowned for its frugality, this further omission was, I consider, criminal neglect. Yet the official inquiry in its report only mentioned this “omission” in passing. The weight of its findings was “the vessel was lost as a result of being overwhelmed by the sea”. That, I thought, was pretty obvious, but the question “why?” was never properly answered.”
– Michael Cox, ex 1st Officer, MV Kaitawa

 

“I joined Kaitawa in September 1963 as the R/O, having previously sailed with NZS. I was appalled at the state of the radio room and its equipment. It did carry both w/t and r/t but MF only. There was a constant layer of coal dust all over the accommodation, and probably in the galley as well. I transferred to Kawatiri where the captain tried to give me a lesson in RDF. After that I was then sentenced to several weeks on Karitane. I subsequently did a pier head jump onto Koromiko. In the short period (thank goodness) that I sailed on Kaitawa, I did not see any sort of calibration chart for the DF. The transmitter and the receivers were powered by a bank of 24-volt batteries, all very primitive, and there were times when it was difficult to contact ZLD by w/t when leaving or arriving at South Island ports.”
– Gordon Grey (compiled from postings on Ships Nostalgia, 2018-2020)

 

“I was on the 2182 kcs radiotelephone distress watch at Awarua Radio ZLB during this incident. Senior telegraphist Joe Bell was on the 500 kcs morse distress watch; we were both in the same distress watch room, which was separated from the main HF receiving room. Joe and I, on our respective watches, thanks to excellent night reception conditions at the time, were well up with the unfolding tragedy over 1000 miles away off the top end of Northland.”
– Barry Munro

 

“I was in the RNZAF at the time and returning to Whenuapai from Laucala Bay in Suva after being posted there. What started as a routine five-hour flight in a Sunderland flying boat turned out to be a 14-hour mission. I spent most of it in the tail section as an observer looking for wreckage. At 5000 feet and still in summer uniform it was about the coldest I’d ever been! My colleagues back home were already in winter blues. My offsider on the other side of the aircraft thought he saw something and deployed a smoke float but we never heard anything further.”
– Peter Scott ZL1AAM

 
See also

News reports of the sinking of Kaitawa
Memorials to the crew of Kaitawa
Report of the Official Inquiry into the loss of Kaitawa
Michael Cox: Anger lingers over Kaitawa sinking (Waikato Times, October 2011)
Kaitawa discussion on shipsnostalgia.com

Acknowledgments

Archive research: Alex Glennie