6 Apr 2018

Survivors of the Wahine disaster tell their story 50 years on

Clarence O'Neill (centre, wearing life-jacket) on Seatoun beach after being rescued from the Wahine shipwreck. The man with the boy who is wearing a life-jacket is John McDougall of Martinborough. Photographed 10 April 1968 by an Evening Post staff photographer.
From News Extras

On 9 April 1968, the Meteorological Service issued a warning at 8:30pm. The Cook Strait was going to experience strong southerly winds, rain and poor visibility. A tropical cyclone was also making its way down the country. 

Fifteen minutes later the ferry Wahine left Lyttelton Harbour for Wellington, carrying 734 passengers and crew, and one stowaway. 

The ship entered Cook Strait just as Cyclone Giselle swept south. The Wahine rolled violently back and forth as it made its way in the storm in winds of up to 100 knots, but came through undamaged. 

Then, in the early hours of 10 April, the ferry ran aground and capsized at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. 

53 people lost their lives. 

This is the story of the Wahine Disaster, told by those who were there. 

- with audio from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision and footage from Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o the Kawanatanga. / Wahine Day (1973) National Film Unit Production


On 9 April 1968, Kath Henderson, Rob Ewan, Muriel Ewan board the Wahine, destined for Wellington. 

Kath: I was never comfortable on the ferry, I used to get seasick … they used to wake you up very early in the morning like about half-past five … as soon as I was awake I had my tea and dry biscuits. I got dressed, got my stuff together and went to the lounge on my level and sat there ready to get off. 

Rob: When our cup of tea arrived, the steward put it on the side bench and it wasn't long before it finished up in the hand basin.

Muriel: We could feel everything wasn't right … there was a lot of water coming towards us, like a wall of water, it hit the ship. 

Kath: It got rougher and rougher and people were almost running from side-to-side of the lounge getting there trying to hang onto furniture. Some of the furniture was bolted down, some of it wasn't. I was hanging onto the curtains, just sort of fitted to the wall basically by the porthole. 

The ship then began a half-hour drift before Captain Robertson gave the order to turn back - but the poor visibility meant he did not know how close the ship was to Barrett Reef. The Wahine slammed onto the rocks, breaking the starboard propeller and port engine.  An Eastbourne police constable, Phil Benge, answered the call for help. 

Phil:  At 8 o'clock in the morning I got a ring from Ron Horn, one of the staff of Petone, to say that the Wahine had hit some rocks. For the next three or so hours there, I went out for a bit then came back. Then the next thing that happened was I got a ring from Ron to say that, "It's okay. You can stand down now. The boat's safe." 
Kath: The ship seemed to just sort of lift right up and then come down. There was this crunching, crunch, crunch ... then, it was quite still for a while and a few minutes later they said: "We are aground on Barrett Reef. There's no danger. Can you go back to your cabin and get your life jackets and go to muster stations." 

Muriel: On the deck we were on, people were just bewildered, they couldn't imagine why we would be doing that because we didn't realise what had happened. Everyone just went to the muster stations with their life jackets on, sat down and there we stayed for the next six hours.

Rob and Muriel Ewan with daughters Gillian (6) and Kathryn (4).

Rob and Muriel Ewan with daughters Gillian (6) and Kathryn (4). Photo: RNZ / Supplied

Rob: I think it would be fair to say there was an element of apprehension. 

Muriel: They didn't have enough children's life jackets and that was very serious. Kiddies were being asked to put on adult jackets and they were clumsy and big and they just took them off again.

Kath: I was sitting talking to a girl from Christchurch and her brother was a steward on the boat, who was only 17. He brought her a towel to put around the back of her life jacket because they didn't have any head-resty bit, and his duffel coat, and his transistor radio, which was really useful. 

Rob: About the middle of the morning, we heard from a transistor radio how serious the damage was in Wellington city. So it would be fair to say, we were in relative comfort on the Wahine, the ship was stable, and we were more concerned for the people of Wellington.

Kath: They brought up coffee … it wasn't very nice coffee so I didn't have mine, but then they brought up trays of food. All morning the food kept coming. There was salad, there was cold meat, ice-cream, and soft drinks. Later on in the morning there was hot sausages and chips in serviettes. I ate all of that. 

Rob: Then about midday, a pilot launch came in really close, so close to the Wahine that Captain Gallaway, the deputy harbour master, was able to jump from that launch onto a rope ladder and climb up over the side. 

Soon after that, an announcement was made to abandon ship.

Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour, 10 April 1968. Shows the boat leaning to one side, and another boat on the right. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer.

 Ship Wahine capsizing in Wellington Harbour, 10 April 1968. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/35mm-01149-29-F

Phil: I was sitting with my wife and we were going to go into Wellington. So I put a couple uniforms in the car because I thought, 'I don't really believe that the boat was safe'. It was just a gut feeling that I had ... shortly after 1 o'clock, I was listening to the radio and Relda Familton, who was a news broadcaster, was saying that passengers are disembarking from the Wahine

Kath: Another announcement came over saying everything was under control. We switched on the radio again and listened to the news and everyone crowded around from the lounge and was listening ... the regional news came on and it talked about how the Wahine was sinking and people were starting to abandon ship, and here we were in the lounge who had just heard that it was all under control. 

Muriel: Rob and I had a quick talk because his parents were on board and we had two daughters at home being cared for, I thought, well, if we go our separate ways, one of us might get home, both of us might, but who knows. So I just walked away. 

By this time, passengers were in a state of panic. Many hadn’t realised how serious the situation was and had removed their life jackets earlier in the day. 

When the abandon ship call was given, passengers had been told to go to the starboard side. But people didn’t understand what that meant and ran the other way. 

Only four lifeboats were ever able to launch, all from the starboard side. One of those was immediately swamped upon landing in the water. 

Rubber life rafts were made available, but they were flimsy and many didn’t withstand the rough weather. 

Rob: The worst moment for me was when mum, dad and I got outside. I could see all these orange things in the water. They were the life jackets of people who had just jumped off the Wahine and into the water. I was very fearful for my mother ... If this was the way that she had to get on shore, I really worried that this wouldn't work for her. 

Lifeboat from ship Wahine landing passengers and crew on Seatoun beach, after the ship sank on 10 April 1968, photographed by an Evening Post staff photographer.

Lifeboat from ship Wahine landing passengers and crew on Seatoun beach, after the ship sank on 10 April 1968, photographed by an Evening Post staff photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1968/1576-F

Kath: I went sliding all the way down the very slippery wooden deck, through the metal rails, didn't hit them thank goodness, and went straight into the water. I was pulled onto one of the orange life rafts and I went to pull a man on who'd landed after me in the water. He got his head stuck between the life raft and the life boat next to us and crushed, and sank. 

Life raft and wreckage from the Wahine, washed up on Eastbourne beach after the ship sank on 10 April 1968, photographed 11 April 1968 by an Evening Post staff photographer.

Life raft and wreckage from the Wahine, washed up on Eastbourne beach after the ship sank on 10 April 1968, photographed 11 April 1968 by an Evening Post staff photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1968/1578/24-F

Muriel: Some of the people put up the raft canopies and when we got to the other side, unfortunately, there were one or two with people who were drowned inside them because the waves flipped them over and they couldn't get out. 

Rob: The surf was awful. There'd be 20-25 people in these rubber rafts, and it just picked up the raft and dumped it upside down into the water. That was an awful time and that was the cause of [the loss of] a lot of lives. You were lucky if you landed somewhere where there were no rocks. 

Muriel: Being thrown onto those rocks was just the end because they're horrible, jagged, awful rocks and the force of the sea was driving people onto them. You had no way of escape, really. It was hideous. 

Rob: There were two young children in the water when another man and I surfaced from the life raft. One was around four or five years of age, the other was a little bit older. We got them onshore and then we just walked and carried them until we got to Burdens gate and handed them over to authorities.

Kath: They threw out some life buoys and I managed to get an arm through one of those, and so did two other people. A boy who was 17 and a man who turned out to be a farmer from Cambridge who was 54. We just were floating, and by about this time our life jackets started to come away around our necks ... As we floated we could see people who had not managed to keep their life jacket under their neck. 

Muriel: On the beach I stood watching and this was something I'll never forget as bodies floated in and sometimes still alive and sometimes not - that was pretty awful. 

Coming ashore in Seatoun.

Coming ashore in Seatoun. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/35mm-01157-24-F

Phil: The first body that I came across was a guy in a uniform, black jacket, tie, and rings ... we brought him in, and we turned him over. There was not a mark on him and he looked totally at peace. 

Phil, Rob and Muriel were now all on land. Kath was still battling the waves. She would spend three hours in the water before being rescued. 

Kath: We could see we were getting towed out to sea and there was nothing we could do. The older man started praying aloud and he was saying "They'll find us, they'll find us."  But we were past the boats. Then suddenly we were up on the very top of a wave and we saw a boat a couple of waves away also on top of a wave. There were three people on it. One of them had a red parka, you couldn't tell anything else really. They made the decision to keep coming out into those very dangerous waves and try and get us. 

Kath and the younger boy lived. Sadly, the older man suffered a fatal heart attack with five minutes of being rescued. 

On shore, the Eastbourne and Seatoun community were rallying to support the survivors. 

Rob: I got tapped on the shoulder by a chap who said, 'I live nearby, how about you come home with me and have a hot shower and I'll get some dry clothes and have something to eat'. He took three of us to his place and that's what we did and that's what the people of Eastbourne did that day in a very short period of time. They got a rescue operation going that was amazing. 

Beached lifeboat from the Wahine, Eastbourne, taken 11 April 1968 by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. Shows the lifeboat lying upside-down, with pieces of seaweed on and around it.

Beached lifeboat from the Wahine, Eastbourne, taken 11 April 1968 by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. Shows the lifeboat lying upside-down, with pieces of seaweed on and around it. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1968/1577/6-F

Muriel: In the RSA hall they had dry clothing for absolutely every age, from a baby right up to the oldest person. And we just took off everything we had and walking around looking for clothing, men, women, children, you just didn't care what you looked like and you didn't care what you put on as long as it was dry. 

Phil: One of the things that happened, which was absolutely amazing on this whole episode, was that you couldn't see the Wahine, and every so often, the sea mist would part.  At one stage it was like the final act of a play. The curtains pulled back, and you could see the Wahine and then it started to tip over.  Everyone who was around me and in close vicinity of the beach, we all stopped. We all looked out over where the Wahine was. There were plumes of steam coming out of the funnel. In other words, it was like a dying whale with a spume of steam there. That was the end of the act. That was the end finale for the Wahine, and it's something that imprinted in my mind.
The Wahine disaster had a profound impact on all involved. 

Some were able to recover quickly. Others were never the same. 

A Court of Inquiry would soon follow, with questions raised about Captain Robertson's conduct on the day. However, it was soon concluded that the bad weather was ultimately responsible for the Wahine disaster. 

Aerial view of the inter-island ferry, Wahine, lying on her side in Wellington Harbour. Photograph taken 11 April 1968 by an Evening Post staff photographer.

Aerial view of the inter-island ferry, Wahine, lying on her side in Wellington Harbour. Photograph taken 11 April 1968 by an Evening Post staff photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1968/1572/23-F

Rob: The next day in the DIC department store in Wellington getting clothes, the little girl I had rescued came up and gave me a hug. I realised then that she was with her family and there were three generations, the grandmother, the parents and three siblings.  We then flew home on Easter Monday to Invercargill and the family were there to meet us. We probably had a meal together and chatted. We got the girls and went back to our farm and got on with life. 

Muriel: I never had any after-effects from it at all, but some people did.

Rob: For some of them, it was a very unhappy and unpleasant experience. We didn't lose any members of our family and that probably conditioned us to be grateful and thankful that we survived. Others were not so lucky and for them it would affect them, no doubt.

Kath: I felt very up and down all that year, just coming to terms with having almost died and the whole thing. When I came home my dad had been in World War Two and he had had shell-shock, he'd been not in a very good condition when he came back. He had pulled himself back from that with huge willpower, and he said to me 'what I want you to do is write down everything you can remember'. He said, 'put it away. You've got it if you ever want to look at it, and then forget it'. That's how he dealt with it, and that's what I did, too.

Philip: It was just awful, the whole thing, the whole tragedy. The boat coming in, the storm, and the sinking. Then the people coming across. I just hope - and I really hope - that I never, ever be witness to something like that again. 

A dawn service will be held at the Wahine Memorial at Eastbourne tomorrow, marking fifty years since the disaster. 

Events will be held during the day throughout Wellington. 

You can find out more here.