By Carlton McRae
The Invercargill-Lyttleton train was ten minutes late when it arrived at the wharf to link up with the Wellington bound Inter-Island ferry Wahine on 9 April 1968.
That and an eight minute power failure onshore, meant that the vessel was a little behind schedule when it pulled away from the terminal building at Lyttleton at 8.43pm.
Among the 734 people aboard were retired Southland farmers, Ivan and Alice Ewan. They were on their way to visit their daughter, Rosemary, a teacher in London.
The couple were scheduled to leave Wellington on 11 April on the ocean liner, Southern Cross.
Their son, Rob and daughter-in-law Muriel, had driven up from Invercargill with them and were also on the Wahine.
Rob and Muriel had planned a North Island holiday and would then drive the car back south.
‘Strong northerlies, changing to southerly after midnight’ was the latest weather forecast issued by the New Zealand Met Service. Tropical Cyclone Giselle, which had formed earlier in the week in the Coral Sea, had created pandemonium across much of the upper half of the North Island during the day.
The forecast said the storm would likely head offshore and out to sea somewhere along the East Cape. Southerly gales, heavy rain and a front of cold air moving up the West Coast from a depression south of New Zealand were of more concern.
Yet during the early hours of 10 April, the city of Wellington was absolutely still. In Maungaraki, Anne Robertson couldn’t sleep and found the tranquillity unnerving and eerie. Her husband would be bringing the Wahine through the heads in just a few hours.
“It was a relatively calm sailing during the night,” says Rob Ewan. “We went to bed quite early. Things began to change about half past five in the morning.”
At that time, passengers were delivered tea by the stewards and Rob says that the ship was beginning to roll, as the seas roughened. His and Muriel’s tea ended up in the wash basin in their cabin.
As the Wahine made its way past Pencarrow Head, at the entrance to Wellington Harbour and entered the channel, the situation suddenly changed dramatically.
Rolling and pitching in the heavy southerly swell the ship’s radar unit failed and then, pummelled by a rogue wave estimated to have been 13 metres high, the ship lurched violently onto its starboard side.
Giselle had not made its way out to sea as predicted, it had tracked south over the North Island and arrived in the capital at the same time as the polar blast from the south.
The two weather systems, violently and destructively collided in the skies above Wellington.
The super storm of 10 April 1968 had struck.
‘The Wahine Storm’ is still the worst on record for many parts of the country.
Wellington was hit by hurricane force winds for several hours and clocked 200km/h at the peak of the storm.
In Cook Strait 275km/h gusts were recorded.
The suburb of Eastbourne was cut off from the city by heavy seas which washed over Marine Drive.
At 6.41am the Wahine’s bridge lost its blind navigational fight with the huge seas and the ship ran aground on Barrett’s Reef. Massive damage was inflicted on the ship’s hull as it was driven across the rocks.
With the engine deck flooded, the vessel lost all power and Captain, Gordon Robertson made the call to drop the anchors.
Rob Ewan says passengers were told to put on their life jackets and make their way to the closest muster station.
“None of us thought ahead as to what was likely to happen,” he says, “and it’s probably a good thing we didn’t know. People sat around in life jackets, telling jokes. Really, we were lulled into a false sense of security.”
“One has to remember,” says Muriel Ewan, “there were no phones, or radios and virtually no connection with the outside world. The storm was so fierce that we couldn’t see land and literally, we had no idea where we were.”
Rob recalls that one person had a transistor radio and he had listened to radio broadcasts and reports of chaos and carnage in Wellington and its suburbs. Passengers shared this information with each other.
Kevin Brennan, 34, was a lithographer at the time working for Rotoset Print in Seaview. He set off for work on the 7.30am bus from Eastbourne as usual.
The same factory workers rode the bus on most occasions, but on this particular morning the journey was arduous.
While it was stationary and picking up passengers in Mahina Bay a gust of wind lifted the back of the bus up and plonked it back down with an alarming thud.
The bus was the last vehicle to get through before the road was closed.
Wellington had endured some ferocious storms in its history, but not one ever quite as violent as this.
Malcolm Burdan drove into work in Wellington with his brother-in-law that morning and he recalls having to stop and remove debris, as waves crashed across the road.
“As we drove through Seaview, I feared that the Morris Mini would be blown over and by the time we reached the city, billboards and parts of buildings were dangerously flying through the streets.”
Malcolm rang his wife Shirley at home Eastbourne and asked her to look after his prize-winning chrysanthemums, if it looked like they were going to be blown away. Major disaster averted, he was very pleased with himself.
But Shirley was to be busy enough with her own endeavours. Muritai School announced that it was closed for the day and with her parents away, she had to check on their top floor apartment in Rona House.
“I had to put towels around all the windows,” Shirley says. “The rattling and the shaking of the building was terrifying. Not long after I got home, my sister-in-law [Margaret Press] phoned and asked me to bring the kids and come down and give her a hand.”
Philip Benge, 23, was a police constable stationed in Petone and living in Alicetown in Lower Hutt. He was on standby that day.
He had listened to radio broadcasts which by late morning were saying the Wahine was in some bother in Wellington Harbour.
At 11am Petone station told Phil the boat was now OK and he could stand down for the rest of the day.
Around the same time Kevin Brennan’s boss at Rotoset had had enough.
“The walls and roof of the building in Waione Street were literally shaking,” says Kevin, “and at any moment we expected to see the roof lift clean off. The manager said; ‘That’s it boys! Head home, we’re not working any longer today.’
“At 11.30am, we managed to get around Lowry Bay on the return bus, but we had to keep stopping to pick up flotsam and logs off the road.”
By late morning on the Wahine, Rob and his brother had decided to go up on deck and see what was happening, if they could see anything at all.
Unbelievably, coming through the murk was the harbour tug Tapuhi, and an attempt was made to secure a four inch wire line to the stricken vessel. But a large wave drew the tug away from the Wahine and Rob says the line snapped like a rubber band.
Amazingly, given the treacherous conditions, the harbour master put his own life at risk and leapt from the tug to a ladder suspended from the Wahine and climbed aboard the ship. His courage allowed Captain Robertson to leave the bridge for the first time that morning and evaluate damage to his boat first hand.
“By late morning we sensed that things were beginning to change,” says Rob. “We were still a little vague as to exactly where we were. At 1.15pm, with the ship now not correcting from the list following the flooding of the vehicle decks, the call came to abandon ship.”
The five Ewans along with the rest of the passengers and crew were suddenly either in the water, on life rafts, or if lucky, in life boats.
Rob and Muriel decided to separate, reasoning that one of them may survive to raise their daughters Gillian, 7, and Kathryn, 5, back in Southland.
PC Phil Benge remembers hearing on the news that passengers were now abandoning the listing ship. Having been stood down, he was now told to get his skates on and get round to the eastern coast as fast as possible.
Because of the angle at which Cyclone Giselle had struck the North Island, a vast amount of seawater had been swept into the channel by the storm. When things began to calm, all that water began to pour out of the harbour and back into the ocean.
The occupants of the first lifeboats and life rafts to leave the ship soon found that instead of being able to make for nearby Seatoun beach, they were being carried away from the ship in a south-easterly direction.
Soon the sea was littered with bobbing heads drifting in the outgoing tide. In the 100 knot winds and mountainous seas - which turned to treacherous rollers near the coast - swimmers, lifeboats and rafts were swept towards the rocky Pencarrow coastline.
“Alice and I ended up in an inflatable life raft,” says Muriel Ewan.
“They couldn’t be controlled in anyway, so along with the 25 or so others aboard, we had to go with the tide and floated across toward the Pencarrow coast. But a wave hit the raft and it bent in the middle. Most of us were tossed into the sea.”
Meanwhile PC Phil Benge had made his way to Burdan’s Gate where he abandoned his car and continued on foot along the coast.
Soon he came across other police and was told that folk in the water would soon be coming ashore and the plan was simply to help them do so.
He remembers that the roar of the sea was deafening.
The skies were slowly clearing and occasionally the ship was visible across the harbour.
The police rescuers stopped and watched as the Wahine finally toppled over sideways, funnels toward Eastbourne emitting a huge amount of steam as it sank.
“It was like a dying whale,” Phil says, “and then a moment later it was completely closed in again by the fog and mist.”
As the mammoth maritime rescue operation got under way, Kevin Brennan was - at last - arriving home from work.
“I’d only just walked in the door,” he says, “when I looked out the window and saw a lifeboat go past with a man in a bow tie and black trousers at the helm. The sea was right across the street, very close. It was totally surreal, like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie.”
It was lifeboat S3 which able seaman Terry Victory had skilfully steered through the rain and murk across the harbour to the eastern shoreline before landing on Muritai Beach.
“I raced down to where the boat came ashore and helped pull the big white three-tonner up on the beach,” Kevin says.
“Passengers were trying to get off as soon as they could and waves kept lifting the lifeboat high out of the water, where even the rescuers were then in danger of being crushed. I recall hanging onto the gunwales and riding the boat up on to the beach.”
He believes that if it hadn’t been for Terry Victory’s skill in guiding the boat to shore, there would have been more casualties.
“He kept the lifeboat stern on to the waves,” said Kevin, “some which were breaking about 200 metres out. If he had broached it would have rolled over in the massive surf. But he rode the boat straight up onto the beach and ground her into the sand, which again was so perfect it almost looked scripted.”
Catherine Downes in her final year at Queen Margaret College remembers the smooth passage of the lifeboat coming ashore.
“As the lifeboat approached the shoreline,” says Catherine, “I could hear those aboard singing Onward Christian Soldiers.”
As the passengers raced from the lifeboat, a young police cadet issued instructions to a local rescue co-ordinator to take their names and put them on the waiting bus for Wellington Railway Station.
Kevin says it would not be a good idea to print the expletive loaded reply the cop received.
“Most did board a bus for the city,” he says, “but those with extreme hypothermia or the badly injured were whisked down to the RSA, where the community response, once the word had gotten out, was truly remarkable. Blankets, clothing and hot soup arrived literally within minutes.”
After telling patrons, gathered for an early afternoon beer, that the premises were to be used as an emergency centre, RSA staff began telephoning local businessmen for supplies.
Offers of help began to pour in as news of the disaster spread.
Residents took in survivors, Eastbourne's two hair-dressing salons emptied their establishments of towels and the local bakery delivered sandwiches, soup and trays piled with buns, scones, muffins, pies and cakes to the RSA.
Shirley Burdan and Margaret Press also reacted quickly on hearing the news and within moments soup was on the stove.
Margaret raced the first batch of hot soup to Burdan’s Gate and talked her way past the police block.
Shirley stayed behind and looked after the children. They would then reverse roles and spent the rest of the afternoon keeping up a production line of pikelets and scones.
Passengers and crew began coming ashore at 2.15 pm and continued to do so until nearly 5pm.
At Camp Bay Point the surf was thick with survivors and as they reached the shoreline, police and rescuers were hopelessly outnumbered.
Some came ashore and in shock raced straight up the bank, still terrified for their lives.
Others made it to the beach but exhausted, were dragged back into the surf and killed on the rocks as the next incoming wave broke.
Others died where they lay, hypothermic, wounded or both.
Some still in the water, recalled seeing people tumbled among the rocks on the shore and believed that this would also be their fate.
Nearly all of the 51 people who died that afternoon ended up ashore, somewhere between Camp Bay and Hinds Point.
Three quarters of the dead were over fifty years of age, having suffered a terrifying and unequal struggle with sea, surf and rocks.
Some died in the water near the ship, some in mid-channel after being thrown from rafts or the Wahine's motorboat.
The shoreline was littered with life jackets and up-turned rafts, some still with bodies trapped underneath.
The reality of what had happened struck home for Phil when he and another officer pulled the body of Wahine crew member, 1st class assistant steward George Vincent from the water, still immaculately dressed in uniform.
He recalls thinking that these people were all alive only a couple of hours before and now, here they were dead and being washed up in the surf.
Phil also recalls coming across a flat deck truck, piled with bodies on the back, which he initially believed to be a travelling morgue. Suddenly, one of the bodies moved, setting off a chain reaction and he realised that in fact, all aboard were alive but completely exhausted.
Shirley Burdan says the whole ordeal was petrifying. “I can still see it all today,” she says, “bodies rolling in on the beach and people running everywhere. It was the most unpleasant situation I have ever been in throughout my life-time.”
Rob, Muriel and Alice also came ashore at different points along the coastline that afternoon.
“I was lucky,” Muriel says, “and came ashore without any problems. I was looking for Rob’s mum, but couldn’t find her anywhere. I was quite sure that she wasn’t one of the bodies floating in.”
Muriel found Alice sitting under a gorse bush and the pair, glad to be alive and in just stockinged feet, began the long trek along the shore to Burdan’s Gate.
“It was incredibly disturbing,” says Muriel. “There were bodies literally everywhere. Some clearly had passed, others we were not so sure, but quickly one became hardened and the only intent was survival. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Rob came ashore at Burdan’s Gate and remembers adding his life-jacket to the growing pile. He was picked up in a private car by local super market owner Derek McClellan and driven to Wellington Railway Station.
“After about an hour,” says Muriel, “we eventually arrived at Burdan’s Gate and from there were taken to the RSA hall in Eastbourne. The local people had set it up with everything we could possibly want; food, drink and dry, warm clothing. We didn’t care what we looked like, having dry clothes was all that mattered.”
Muriel and Alice waited at the RSA until being bussed to the Railway Station to register. There they were reunited with Rob, who with unbounded joy, had made out the figure of his wife in the headlights of a car.
Ivan and Lloyd Ewan had been picked up in the harbour by tug boats and taken to Queens Wharf.
All five members of the Ewan family had survived.
Kevin says that fifty years on, he still has a degree of resentment that the folk of the Eastern Bays have never truly been recognised for their swift action and life-saving efforts.
A third of Wahine's passengers and crew came ashore there, walking, crawling or being pulled out of sea by rescuers.
“Neither the police or any of the local rescuers were given any recognition for the countless lives they saved,” says Kevin.
“They waded into the surf on numerous occasions to save people, some of them very badly wounded.”
More than 90 percent of those who went into the water were rescued and Rob Ewan believes that hundreds of lives were saved by the people of Eastbourne.
“They were just wonderful. They seemed to know exactly what we needed and provided it. They gave loving care and literally took the shirts off their backs for us. We came from the deep-south. We will never forget.”
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Eastbourne Herald.