Underwriters abandon stranded Waikouaiti

Evening Post, 30 November 1939, p 9


(By Telegraph—Press Association.)
INVERCARGILL, November 29.

Bound from Sydney to Lyttelton, the Union Steam Ship Company’s intercolonial steamer Waikouaiti, which went aground on Dog Island, three miles off Bluff, in a heavy fog late last evening, is now hard and fast on the rocks about 150 yards off the southwest corner of the island in Foveaux Strait. She seems to be a doomed ship. In her exposed position she is at the mercy of the elements.

The captain, officers, and a few men who remained on board the ship throughout the day, left early this evening for Bluff. Though the vessel is not officially abandoned, any salvage decision will be made in Wellington.

How soon the sea will take its toll depends on the weather. As long as it is fair the ship can be expected to remain in the present position – tilted on her bow, which is towards the north-west, with the stern well clear of the water. She has a list of about 25 degrees to port. Once a westerly storm arrives, she may soon break up. Already there is considerable water in her forward holds, and it seems only a matter of time before it reaches the stokehold.

The crew of the Waikouaiti were never in danger. Their personal belongings were brought ashore on the pilot launch, which reached its berth as murky dawn was breaking. Thirty-eight bags of Australian mail were also brought on the launch, which returned to the Waikouaiti at 7.30 a.m. to tow in most of the crew, who had taken to the lifeboats. A few, including the master, Captain J. Bruce, and the chief officer, Mr. W.A. Todd, remained with the ship.


The Waikouaiti struck the rocky point of Dog Island in thick fog at 9.15 p.m. She was not bound for Bluff, but was on the way from Sydney to Lyttelton with mails and general cargo. An inspection of the ship was made yesterday by Captain W.J. King, marine superintendent for the Union Company. Decision about salvage has not yet been announced.

The ship will probably be a total loss, but her cargo of hardwood poles, sleepers, and steel from Port Kembla and Newcastle will probably be salvaged.

Members of the crew had little to say about what happened after the ship struck the rocks. It is stated, however, that there was no undue excitement, and, once it was realised that she was hard, and fast the men calmly waited till they could be taken off in the morning.

There was, it is stated, no big crash, as the ship struck, but it was soon apparent that she was badly damaged. Water entered Nos. 1 and 2 holds, and she began to tilt a little, the stern being clear of the water. A gentle swell caused slight movement of the ship. The grinding of the hull on the rocks caused some wonder whether she would slip over the ledge, but she was firmly held. Numerous rockets were fired to attract attention, and, though the explosions were heard by some residents of Bluff, few, if any, realised that they indicated a ship in distress.

When the pilot launch set out at 10 o’clock on Tuesday night to search for the Waikouaiti, thick fog enveloped the harbour. A report was received that some persons had heard signals from the beach at the back of Bluff Hill, so it was decided to search there first. Visibility was almost nil. After a cautious cruise for half an hour, no sign of a ship in distress could be seen. A course was then set for Dog Island.


Through inky blackness the launch groped its way on a compass course, and eventually came up to the Waikouaiti where it was first thought she would be. Fortunately the sea was as smooth as ever it is.

At first sight it seemed that there was every prospect of refloating the ship, and instructions were sent to Bluff to order the tug Awarua, which is at Port Chalmers for overhaul, to put to sea as soon as possible. In a short time it was announced that the tug would be ready to leave at 5 a.m. today, and that the Otago Harbour Board’s tug Dunedin was on the way.

Further inspection of the stranded ship revealed that she was opening and that water was entering the forward holds. It was then apparent that an attempt to refloat her was doomed to failure. Word was sent to the mainland cancelling the previous instructions, and luckily it was possible to get in touch with the Awarua before the dock had been flooded. The tug Dunedin was also stopped, and she returned to port. The Union Company’s coastal vessel Waiana, which left Bluff at 3 p.m. on Tuesday for Dunedin, had been ordered to return and stand by the Waikouaiti, but she too was later requested to resume her voyage north.

The Waikouaiti was taken at least two miles off her course by a heavy set during dense fog.


First to reach the Waikouaiti after daybreak was a motor-vessel chartered by an Invercargill newspaper. Cheery “Hallos” were shouted by those on the motor-vessel as it got within hailing distance. These were answered enthusiastically by men at the deck rail of the Waikouaiti. The sailors were obviously pleased to see a vessel from the mainland after their long and patient wait. Four or five men were whiling away the time fishing. They evidently accepted the situation with true seamen’s philosophy.

On board ship there was a scurry of activity as the men gathered together what possessions had not been taken ashore by the pilot launch on her first trip, and donned regulation lifebelts. Four boats were on the davits ready to be lowered, but only three were used, the other apparently being left for use by those who remained on the ship.

It was a thrilling sight as the boats rattled down to the water and the sailors scrambled down the rope ladders into them. One man, more energetic than the rest, wrapped his legs around a bundle of thin ropes running from the ship to the boat and slid down with amazing agility.

The blade of the ship’s propeller, which was uncovered momentarily by each movement of the sea, was damaged, apparently through striking a submerged rock.

As the men began leaving the ship a trail of smoke issuing from the single funnel showed that there was still some life in her. Within a few minutes the pilot launch had the three boats in tow and the short journey to Bluff was begun. The departure of the boats was watched by the master, Captain Bruce, a solitary figure standing at the corner of the bridge. Several strangely silent seagulls had taken up vantage points in the rigging and at the masthead.

Evening Post, 1 December 1939, p 9


The announcement was made by the Union Steam Ship Company last evening that its steamer, the Waikouaiti, which went ashore at Dog Island, Foveaux Strait, on the evening of November 28, has been abandoned to the underwriters.

If the weather keeps fine, however, an attempt, probably, will be made today to salvage some of the cargo from the after end of the ship, which is still dry.

Any salvage work done will be to conserve the interests of the owners of the cargo, pending instructions from them.

It will not be possible to generate steam for the ship’s winches as the stokehold is now flooded and no men remain on the ship.