Hear this radio broadcast from the day of the disaster. See a transcript and reference for this file.
The Union Steam Ship Company’s 8948-ton roll-on roll-off (RO-RO) passenger ferry Wahine, the largest ship of its kind in the world when completed two years earlier, left Lyttelton at 8.40 p.m. on the evening of 9 April. There were 734 passengers and crew on board. Storm warnings had been issued, but rough seas were nothing new in Cook Strait. As it turned out, the Wahine was about to sail into one of the worst storms ever recorded in New Zealand. The ship reached Cook Strait as tropical cyclone Giselle swept south and collided with a southerly front. The combination of warm tropical air and cold air dragged up from Antarctica produced exceptionally violent turbulence.
At 5.50 a.m. on the morning of 10 April Captain H. G. Robertson decided to enter Wellington Harbour. The wind was blowing at over 50 knots, but vessels had entered the harbour in stronger winds before. Just as the Wahine reached the narrow funnel of the harbour entrance, however, the wind speed suddenly increased to over 100 knots. Shortly after 6 a.m. the Wahine’s radar system failed and a huge wave slammed into the ship, throwing many of those on board off their feet. Now side on to the towering waves, the vessel was pushed towards the notorious Barrett Reef on the western side of the harbour entrance.
For 30 minutes the Wahine fought the waves, as Robertson apparently attempted to turn his ship back out to sea in poor visibility. At about 6.35 a.m., unaware of his location, the captain ordered full astern. At 6.40 a.m. the vessel reversed onto Barrett Reef. The starboard propeller was knocked off, and the port engine stopped shortly after. Initially many of the passengers were unaware of what was happening due to the ferocious battering the ship was receiving from the storm.
With the ship's engines no longer working, Captain Robertson ordered that all watertight doors be closed and both anchors dropped. Passengers were now informed that the ferry had run aground on the reef. The signal station at nearby Beacon Hill was notified of the accident as the crew prepared life-saving equipment. Flooding in four compartments and on the vehicle deck raised serious concerns about the stability of the ship.
The Wahine dragged its anchors and gradually drifted further up the harbour past Point Dorset. Despite being close to shore, the weather made it impossible for rescuers to reach the ship from land.
The tug Tapuhi set off from Queen’s Wharf and reached the Wahine at about 11.00 a.m. By 11.50 the tug had secured a line to Wahine. An attempt was made to tow the ferry to safety, but the line quickly gave way. Other attempts to get a line to Wahine failed. Shortly after noon the deputy harbourmaster, Captain Galloway, managed to climb aboard the Wahine from the pilot launch, which had also reached the scene. He risked his life jumping from a heavily pitching launch to a ladder hanging over the starboard side of the ship.
By 1.15 p.m. the Wahine was listing heavily to starboard. The tide and storm had swung the ship around so that there was a patch of water sheltered from the wind and waves on the lower starboard side. Just before 1.30 p.m. the order was finally given to abandon ship.
Captain Robertson had resisted this call because he felt that the storm conditions meant it was safer for the passengers to remain on board. He was also keen to avoid causing any unnecessary panic. Passengers, who had been unaware of just how serious the situation was, were now confused and frightened. People slid across the sloping deck, trying to make their way to the lifeboats. Some passengers had removed their life jackets during the morning and were using them as pillows when the order came to abandon ship. Others did not know which side was starboard and instead made their way to the high side of the ship, from which it was impossible to launch the lifeboats.
Only the four starboard lifeboats could be launched, and crewmen tried to get as many people as possible onto them. One lifeboat was swamped shortly after leaving the sinking ship and its occupants were tossed into the sea. (Two of the other lifeboats safely reached Seatoun; the third landed at Eastbourne). Other passengers were forced to jump into the cold, churning sea. Some clung on to inflatable liferafts that had been thrown overboard, but a number of these were punctured by the wreckage or flipped over by the heavy seas.
At about 2.30 p.m. the now-abandoned Wahine capsized in 11.6 metres of water just east of Steeple Rock Light and crashed heavily to the seabed. By this time the first of the survivors had already reached the western shore at Seatoun.
The Wahine was within sight of land and many other vessels, including the smaller New Zealand Railways Wellington-Picton ferry Aramoana, which stood by to pick up survivors. Many were blown across the harbour towards Eastbourne Beach, an area with difficult access. Rescue teams found the road to Eastbourne blocked by slips. Eventually 200 survivors struggled through the surf to safety on this coast, but it was here that most of the 51 fatalities occurred. A number of people who reached shore alive did not receive medical attention quickly enough to prevent death from exposure. Others were drowned or killed when thrown against rocks.
Robertson and Galloway were the last to abandon ship after checking that no one remained on the ferry. They spent an hour in the water near the wreck before being rescued.