1991: Celtic Kiwi sinks

MV Holmdale at Chatham Islands c1982
MV Holmdale at Chatham Islands c1982. Photo: Tony Graham

Celtic Kiwi was the former MV Holmdale, which served the Chatham Islands for more than two decades as well as sailing to the Pacific islands and carrying supplies to the meteorological stations on Raoul and Campbell Islands.

Holmdale was launched in 1961 to replace the Holm Shipping Company’s MV Holmglen, which had sunk two years previously in a storm off Timaru.

Retired from service in 1990, she was sold to Captain Tom Culhane early the following year and renamed Celtic Kiwi. Her first voyage under her new name was to be her last.

Neil Sanderson remembers:

On Sunday 27 October 1991, I was about 300 miles north of Cape Reinga aboard my 38 foot sloop Oceana. My crewmember and I were on our way from Port Vila to Auckland. We’d been hard on the wind to keep our easting for about six days and were looking forward to easing sheets when we got a little closer to the Cape.

Oceana was a 1960s Sparkman & Stephens design, narrow in the beam and with long overhangs. She was a very small boat in comparison to modern 38-footers, but she loved going to windward. We were expecting winds to increase to as much as 35 knots overnight, so we had reefed the main and changed down to a #4 jib.

It was a cloudy evening, the sun had set, and at 1934 hours I tuned the little Sony short-wave receiver to 4445 kHz to catch any weather updates. Instead I was stunned to hear a Mayday message being relayed from New Zealand, reporting that the 180′ ship Celtic Kiwi was listing to starboard in Force 8 conditions, and that her 13 crew were in a liferaft. The ship’s position was given as 31° 55’S and 170° 57’E, about 340km (180 nautical miles) north-northwest of Cape Reinga.

I checked our latest position (based on that day’s noon site – no GPS in those days) and calculated our distance and time to reach Celtic Kiwi. It was going to take several hours – and I had no way of letting the authorities know we were out there, as Oceana did not have a radio transmitter.

It was with great relief that I then heard another yacht, Rock Steady, respond to the Mayday. That yacht was at 31° 40’S, 170° 36’E – much closer than we were. Another yacht, Manureva, was not quite so close. Nevertheless, we maintained a course to reach the scene, until 2200 hours, when we heard on the radio that Rock Steady had picked up all 13 crew and was heading for Opua. Celtic Kiwi had sunk.

I honestly don’t know how we could have managed 13 extra people on our little boat, so it was lucky for the Celtic Kiwi crew that a larger yacht was there to help.

– Neil Sanderson, editor, maritimeradio.org

» Read more about MV Holmdale on the New Zealand Coastal Shipping site.