2018: ZM50GW – 50th anniversary of Wahine disaster

The inter-island ferry Wahine sinking in Wellington harbour, 10 April 1968

The inter-island ferry Wahine sinking in Wellington harbour, 10 April 1968
Photo: Evening Post, Alexander Turnbull Library

During the month of April 2018, special radio station ZM50GW will mark the loss of the interisland ferry TEV Wahine ZMGW, as part of a series of three commemorations during the year, sponsored by maritimeradio.org and ZL1NZ.

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For QSL information, and to check the log, please scroll to the bottom of the page.


Loss of Wahine – in brief

The wreck of the Wahine in Wellington Harbour, with the loss of 51 lives, can be attributed, primarily, to one cause – stress of weather. On the day of the disaster, April 10, 1968, Wellington and the surrounding area was savaged by a storm, the force and violence of which had never before been recorded in New Zealand. In its wake it left a trail of death, damage and destruction.1

Wahine, a passenger/vehicle ferry, sailed from Lyttelton at 8.43pm on 9 April bound for Wellington, under the command of Captain Hector Gordon Robertson. She carried 123 crew, 610 passengers, one stowaway, and about a hundred vehicles.

Approaching Wellington, Wahine encountered SSW gales that continued to increase in strength. At 6.10am, with Pencarrow Light abeam, the ship suddenly veered more than 20 degrees to port and would not answer the helm. The crew struggled to regain control of Wahine, as the ship pitched and rolled, with propellers at times completely out of the water.

At 6.41am, Wahine struck the southern end of Barrett Reef, losing her starboard propeller. The port engine then failed, leaving the ship completely at the mercy of the storm. Winds at the Wellington weather office were averaging 64 knots, with gusts to 106 knots.

Wahine was blown across the reef, sustaining further damage, then into deeper water until her anchors finally held near Steeple Rock light at about 11 am.

Captain DW Galloway, deputy harbourmaster, was able to board Wahine around noon, by leaping from the pilot launch Tiakina onto one of Wahine’s lifeboat ladders, a remarkable feat in the extreme conditions.

At 1.20pm there came an unexpected development which was to change the course of events. Up to this time the Wahine had been riding to her anchors, bow-on to wind and sea, and heading south, with her stern close to Steeple Rock. Under the influence of a premature ebb tide, the ship swung to port until she came beam on to the weather… Captain Galloway, who was stationed on the starboard side of the bridge, noticed that a lee had developed on that side. He advised the master of this and, after a brief discussion, Captain Robertson gave the fateful order, “Abandon ship.” 2

Lifeboats and liferafts were launched, while some people chose to jump from the ship into the sea in hopes of being plucked out by one of the lifeboats or any of the numerous small craft which had come to help. Survivors were blown across the harbour to the eastern shore were they were met by huge waves breaking onto the rocks.

Although all 734 people aboard Wahine left the ship alive, 51 died thereafter.

At the end of the day the plight of the rescuers was little better than that of the rescued. Time after time they dashed into the turbulent water to grasp struggling survivors and haul them ashore, stometimes to see them swept back by the next receding wave. At other times as they entered the water they themselves were overwhelmed by the often 20-foot waves.3

Notes
1. Ingram, C.W.N. (1977). New Zealand shipwrecks, 1795-1975. Wellington, NZ: A.H. & A.W. Reed. p 417.
2. idem, p 420.
3. idem, p 422.

Detailed description of the Wahine disaster – with a radio perspective
Photos and video of the rescue effort
Photos and video of the salvage operation
Wahine 50 Charitable Trust
NZ Post Office special stamps


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