1966: Kaitawa sinks

MV Kaitawa
MV Kaitawa

MV Kaitawa 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 was carrying coal from Westport to Portland (Whangarei) and had to travel around the northern coast of New Zealand.

Weather conditions at the time were stormy and the ship was near the Pandora Bank when she foundered. She carried no radar or depth sounder, and there is some confusion about the radio equipment aboard; some accounts say she had only R/T (radiotelephone), as her voyages were all coastal, while others say she also carried W/T (radiotelegraph). She did, however, have a qualified Radio Officer, a young Canadian named Philip Mowat who was working on his first vessel.

An urgency (PAN) message was sent from Kaitawa via radiotelephone and received at Auckland Radio ZLD. Then a distress (MAYDAY) message, also on radiotelephone was sent from the ship:

"Position (words missing) 10 miles
Cape Reinga bearing 035 (word missing)
30 degrees require immediate assistance."
Kaitawa wreckage
Wreckage from MV Kaitawa is seen in this photo from the official inquiry.

Kaitawa came to rest 15km southwest of Cape Reinga, upside down in 144ft of water (approximate location shown below).

Surveys of MV Kaitawa, 1963-1966
Surveys of MV Kaitawa, 1963-1966. Click to enlarge.

There are many online accounts of the disaster. In particular, Roger Wincer has examined the evidence from the point of view of a radio officer who had sailed on similar colliers of the Union company.

Part of a memorial to the crew of Kaitawa at the mouth of the Buller River in Westland
Part of a memorial to the crew of Kaitawa at the mouth of the Buller River, Westport
Poster for a 2016 memorial service for the crew of Kaitawa
Poster for a 2016 memorial service for the crew of Kaitawa


“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

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


Archive research: Alex Glennie