Captain's log book
© Photo by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

The Wahine's bridge log book and Captain Robertson's binoculars, photographed on public display at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. The log book, kept on the Wahine's chart table, shows the damage it received after having been placed aboard the Wahine's starboard-side Number 1 lifeboat when the ship was abandoned. It was then thrown into the harbour when this lifeboat capsized. Subsequently the log book was recovered washed ashore on the Pencarrow coast.

Questions and Answers

Many questions still persist today about what happened to the Wahine and those aboard her on the 10th of April 1968. If he was alive today, what are the answers Captain Robertson might give?

1. Why did he proceed with entering Wellington harbour in such severe weather, when he should have foreseen that wind and sea conditions were about to get much worse?

The Wahine's loss is often attributed to Captain Robertson deciding to carry on with entry into Wellington harbour regardless of the violent storm that had hit the ship while she was crossing Cook Strait. This is all completely false. Assertions of this nature can still be found on otherwise reputable websites. The Christchurch City Libraries website, for instance, states: "By now the winds were gusting at between 130 and 150 kilometres per hour. At 5:50 a.m. on the morning of 10 April the Captain of the Wahine, Captain Hector Robertson (sic) decided to enter the harbour." The winds were NOT gusting between 130 to 150 km per hour as the Wahine entered Wellington Harbour. Christchurch City Libraries doesn't even take the trouble to ensure Captain Robertson's name is accurately stated. And there's the New Zealand Meteorological Service's website: "Although forewarned of the possibility of extreme weather, the ship's master attempted to enter the harbour in deteriorating conditions." This is utter claptrap: Captain Robertson was NEVER "forewarned of the possibility of extreme weather."

In reality, the storm of 10th of April 1968 struck the Wahine when she was just to the north of Pencarrow Head, after she had come in through the entrance to Wellington harbour. The storm rose out of the darkness with great suddenness, immense ferocity, and entirely without warning. Up until that point the weather, although very rough, had been within the Wahine's capabilities as an ocean-going ship.

Wind and sea conditions did not deteriorate during the Wahine's passage across Cook Strait and as she came towards the harbour entrance. Throughout the night since departing Lyttelton at 8.43 p.m. the ship had met with a steadily worsening southerly gale, the winds and seas coming from astern. By 5.50 a.m. the wind was gusting to 50 knots and had been consistent at this strength, without increasing, for the previous hour or so. One knot is 1.852 kilometres per hour, so 50 knots equates to 92.6 km per hour.

The last weather forecast received aboard the Wahine, at 8.30 p.m. on 9 April from the New Zealand Meteorological Service and applicable for the next 24 hours, had begun with the words "Storm Warning". "Strong northerlies changing to southerly after midnight tonight" were forecast, with the southerly winds "gradually increasing to gale or storm from tomorrow morning." There would be "rain and poor visibility." Comments printed in the Dominion Post newspaper on 6 April 2013 assert that “it was clear as the Wahine left Lyttelton that the storm warning it had received was for a 10 to 20 year event.” There is nothing in the words of that forecast - “…gradually increasing…rain and poor visibility…” - from which Captain Robertson and his officers could possibly have detected the coming of a storm only experienced once in every 10 to 20 years. Or that the weather on 10 April 1968 would be anything different from storms normal for Cook Strait.


This is the weather forecast that was published in Wellington's "The Dominion" newspaper on Tuesday 9 April 1968, the day before the Wahine Disaster. It contains not the slightest hint of the hurricane winds and seas that were about to descend on Cook Strait and Wellington harbour in less than 24 hours' time. Note the words of the section entitled "Outlook for tomorrow" (tomorrow being 10 April 1968): "Unsettled with rain or showers at times."

Evening Post forecast

And this is the weather forecast that was published on page 11 of "The Evening Post" newspaper in Wellington, late afternoon on Tuesday 9 April 1968. It gives the Meteorological Service forecast for the next day, 10 April 1968: "Wellington, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa. - ....... A change overnight to cooler southerlies, with gales developing in exposed areas; unsettled, with some long periods of rain, heavy locally." As with the meteorological information received aboard the Wahine, there is no indication here of the extreme weather about to unleash on Wellington.

Mr Luly the Wahine's Chief Officer had, as normal, taken over the watch on the bridge at 4 a.m. relieving the Second Officer Mr W T R Shanks. Fifteen minutes later Mr Luly saw the light on Cape Campbell 16.8 miles (27 km) away on the ship's port beam. Cape Campbell marks the beginning of Cook Strait at its south-eastern limit. Course was now altered to 358 degrees and engine revolutions were decreased from 188 to 170 per minute, giving a speed of 16.5 knots (30.5 kms per hr). This would place the Wahine off Wellington harbour entrance at the usual time of around 6.10 a.m. At 5 a.m. Mr Luly wrote in the bridge log: "strong SSW gale, rough sea, heavy southerly swell. Overcast, with continuous heavy rain, visibility moderate 6 (equivalent to five miles or 8 km). Vessel scending and rolling heavily at times. Wind SSW 40-50 knots" (74 - 92 kms per hr).”

Also at 5 a.m. Mr R J Lyver, the Wahine's Radio Officer, arrived on the bridge and, using the ship's VHF radio telephone, called Beacon Hill Signal Station. Operated at the time by the Wellington Harbour Board, the signal station is located on a hilltop above Breaker Bay overlooking the entrance to Wellington harbour. Staff on duty at the signal station advised Mr Lyver that winds inside the harbour entrance were southerly and blowing at 40 to 50 knots (74 - 92 kms per hr). At Pipitea Wharf near the Inter-Island Terminal the wind was up to 60 knots (111 kms per hr). A tug would be available to assist the ship in berthing, if needed.

Standing beside the Radio Officer, Mr Luly heard the signal station's report. It told him that conditions at the harbour entrance were no different from the middle of Cook Strait where the Wahine was. The weather also was consistent with the forecast received the night before. During the Chief Officer's watch the wind had increased only slightly, by no more than 5 knots (9.3 kms per hr), and at 5.30 a.m. was blowing at around 50 knots (92 kms per hr). Visibility remained good: at 5.50 a.m. the light on Baring Head, just south of the entrance, was clearly discernible to starboard even though it was raining heavily and the Wahine was some five miles (8 km) away.

All this meant there was nothing out of the ordinary about the gale in progress that morning as the Wahine came across Cook Strait. Understanding this is fundamental to appreciating why Captain Robertson and Mr Luly continued with entry into Wellington harbour. The seas were rough, the winds were high and it was pouring with rain. But this is normal for Cook Strait. Gales and storms are commonplace there and around the entrance to Wellington harbour. To quote from the New Zealand Pilot: "Cook Strait is particularly affected by the frequency and strength of north-westerly and south to south-easterly winds due to 'funneling' between the high land on both sides; these are the only violent winds but they give rise to the worst storms experienced in New Zealand waters, averaging about 25 a year."

What Mr Luly, 41 years old and a fully certified master mariner, was seeing from the bridge windows as the Wahine steamed towards the harbour entrance, was therefore not unusual in the slightest and no grounds whatsoever for surprise or dismay. It was typical of Cook Strait. Ship's masters routinely brought all manner of vessels into and out of Wellington habour in such weather, and they were fully expected to do so. Likewise, the forecasted gradual deterioration in wind and sea conditions was no cause for alarm. Winds of 50 knots (92 kms per hr) and more were frequently encountered on the Wellington-Lyttelton service. So often misleadingly referred to as a ferry, the Wahine was an ocean-going vessel designed specifically to operate in such conditions. Captain Robertson, who took over navigation of the ship after arriving on the bridge as usual at 5.50 a.m., had previously brought the Wahine in through the harbour entrance with winds gusting to 62 knots (115 kms per hr), entirely without trouble. He had done so countless times on many other ships during his long career. Answering questions during the Court of Inquiry about the significance of the forecast, Captain Robertson made this telling response: "We very often through the years received exactly the same information day in and day out (for the weather) around Wellington. Reaching gale force in Wellington is nothing."

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Railway Collection, F-148074-1/2

Archives New Zealand/Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga, Wellington Office (Alexander Turnbull Library, ½ 148074 F: (AAVK, W3493, F659/8))

Seafaring in Cook Strait. The rail ferry Aramoana heading out through the entrance to Wellington harbour for a crossing to Picton. The top photo was taken in 1964, the lower photo ten years later in 1974. The winds and seas on 10 April 1968 were much, much worse. Today's rail ferries do not operate in very rough sea conditions but in the 1960s and 1970s the Aramoana, the Wahine and all other vessels on the Cook Strait and the Wellington-Lyttelton services always did so and were fully expected to. Ships' masters who baulked at proceeding to sea in weather like that shown in the above photos, were not employed on these services. Only in extreme weather were sailings cancelled. This does not imply recklesssness, it means that ships' masters were expected to demonstrate all the necessary skills to take their ships to sea and into harbour in adverse weather. This in turn is because wild sea conditions are nothing unusual for Cook Strait. Understanding this is fundamental to understanding why Captain Robertson carried on with entry into Wellington harbour on the morning of 10 April 1968. Today we might be appalled at trying do come through the narrow harbour entrance in such huge waves and in darkness, but he was doing nothing out of the ordinary for that time.

During Mr Luly's watch the barometer in the Wahine's chartroom had registered a fall in atmospheric pressure, usually an indication of worsening weather. Both Captain Robertson and Mr Luly likewise did not view this as significant. In their experience on the Wellington-Lyttelton run and especially in Cook Strait with its complex pattern of currents and tidal streams, the barometer would often go up and down for no apparent reason at all.

Just before 6.10 a.m. the Wahine was directly off the entrance to Wellington harbour, steaming at 15.5 knots. Heavy rain had set in, decreasing visibility to between one and two miles, but Pencarrow Light had been sighted from the bridge away on the starboard bow. The wind was steady at between 40 to 50 knots (74 to 92 kms per hr), the same as it had been for the last hour. Again, none of this would have prompted Captain Robertson to suspect that anything was amiss. In all his years of navigating vessels in and out of Wellington he had never known weather conditions to alter markedly over the short 2.5 mile (4 km) distance separating Baring Head from Pencarrow Head. There was nothing causing him to doubt that it was safe to enter harbour.


The Cook Strait rail and vehicle ferry Aramoana with her fully enclosed bridge. Captain Robertson commanded this vessel for a total of 33½ months between June 1963 and December 1965, taking her across Cook Strait and into and out of Wellington harbour night and day in all weathers, entirely without mishap. Photo By Warwick W.G. Pryce. This photo is his copyright.

There is a significant body of opinion that maintains the Wahine's fully enclosed bridge was a key contributor to the events of 10 April 1968. Had Captain Robertson and Mr Luly been navigating the ship from a bridge with open wings, they would have been outside in the weather. Doing so may have helped them detect that the winds and seas were about to change radically. Perhaps there is some validity to this, though against it is whether a master mariner of Captain Robertson's length of experience would have been deceived in this way. He was entirely familiar with navigating in Cook Strait from inside a fully enclosed bridge, having done so for nearly three years as Master of the Aramoana. Also, the Wahine's bridge did not remain fully enclosed; shortly after taking control of the ship at 5.50 a.m. Captain Robertson slid open the centre bridge windows so that he could better pick up the lights at and inside the entrance to Wellington harbour. Ken MacLeod, the Wahine's helmsman that morning, remembers the amount of rain and sea water on the floor of the bridge from the open windows, and the prospect of his having to remove it all once the ship had berthed.

Barrett Reef, midground, on a calm September afternoon, looking out over the harbour entrance from Beacon Hill Signal Station. Pencarrow Head with its two lighthouses is at left, while Baring Head is in the far distance.

© Murray Robinson 2008

The captain in his day cabin

Captain Gordon Robertson seated at his desk in the master's day cabin aboard the rail ferry Aramoana, photographed by his wife Anne Robertson in 1965. Behind him is his radio set that he had with him on all the the ships he commanded. Captain Robertson used it to listen to daily weather forecasts from radio stations of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which ran all public radio and television in New Zealand in those times. This radio set was on his desk aboard the Wahine in April 1968; critics who to this day believe Captain Robertson ignored forecasted storm warnings might well reflect on this. Photo by Anne Robertson. This image is her copyright.

2. Why did Captain Robertson reduce the Wahine's speed as she came in through the harbour entrance, only to then lose steering control?

Even more than the nonsense about ignoring the weather, Captain Robertson's decision to reduce speed continues to be asserted as the failure that led ultimately to the loss of the Wahine on 10 April 1968. If he had maintained full speed, so the argument goes, the Wahine would not have been driven off course as she came abreast of Barrett Reef. Reducing speed may indeed have been a mistake had Captain Robertson known the weather was about to change so dramatically. But he did not know this. At the moment when he gave the "half speed" order, the winds and seas were very rough but no different from conditions typical of Cook Strait and the harbour entrance. He was seeing and doing nothing out of the ordinary.

The Wahine's speed was reduced deliberately to assist her steering and improve her ability to hold her course. This was because in following winds and seas, she steered more easily and maintained her heading if speed was decreased. All ships have their individual handling and steering characteristics and during her short life the Wahine had proved difficult to keep on course when she was in winds and seas coming from astern. Conditions were the same as this on the morning of 10 April 1968. From around 5 a.m. the Wahine was yawing off course by as much as 10 degrees and her helmsman was having to continuously turn the wheel to bring the ship back to her correct heading. When advised of this, Mr Luly at around 5.45 a.m. further decreased the propeller revolutions from 170 to 165 a minute. The result was an improvement in the ship's steering. Her speed was now 15.5 knots (28.7 kms per hr).

When the Wahine, rolling and pitching in the heavy swell, was almost at Pencarrow Head and the start of the entrance channel, she once again began falling off her correct heading of 358 degrees. This was no place for anything less than full helm control, so in line with the Chief Officer's earlier actions Captain Robertson decided to reduce speed further. At 6.09 a.m. he ordered Mr Grahame Noblet, the Wahine's Third Officer who was manning the engine telegraphs, to ring "half ahead". This brought her speed down from 15.5 to about 10 knots (18.5 kms per hr). The wind at this time was holding steady from the south-south-west at about 50 knots and visibility in the teeming rain was approximately half a mile. It was just after this that, stepping back from the bridge windows to the radar console, Captain Robertson found the Wahine's single radar unit to be no longer operating correctly.

Pencarrow Heads
Pencarrow Head, marking the start of the entrance channel into Wellington harbour, with its two lighthouses. The light tower on the hill crest is New Zealand's oldest, having been first lit in January 1859. It was decommissioned 76 years later in 1935, replaced by the now automated light just above the beach.

© Murray Robinson 2008

The Wahine, her speed reduced, held her course for a few minutes but then, at around 6.12 a.m. with Pencarrow Head just astern and the Barrett Reef light broad on the port bow, she began once more to veer away from her heading. Ken MacLeod states that initially the ship went to port but he was able to correct this by applying full starboard wheel. But then she went right round to starboard until her bow was facing the Pencarrow shore, beam-on to the wind and seas. Captain Robertson and Mr Luly both later testified that she went to port in the direction of Barrett Reef, 30 degrees off her course, and stayed there. To straighten her up the Master ordered "full ahead" on the Wahine's engines with the wheel hard-to-starboard. The time was just after 6.13 a.m. The Wahine did not answer. Now the Master decided to go full astern on the starboard engine with the port engine full ahead and the wheel still hard-over to starboard. From where he was on the port wing of the bridge Captain Robertson turned towards Mr Noblet, standing behind him at the telegraphs. But before he could speak the engine orders the Wahine lurched suddenly, heavily and violently onto her starboard side. The great storm of 10 April 1968 had struck.

This roll to starboard was caused by a rogue wave estimated to have been at least 45 feet (13.7 metres) in height. It came unseen through the darkness and rain, striking the Wahine across her port quarter (the port side of her stern) and causing her to roll by as much as 47 degrees from the vertical. Bench seats, the emergency magnetic compass in its binnacle, and four timber liferafts all on C Deck at the Wahine's stern were torn from their fastenings by the wave's impact and thrown against the starboard rails.

Why did the Wahine go broadside to the wind and seas, to then be caught in this predicament when the storm hit her? Inside the narrow, funnel-like entrance channel, exposed directly to the south, the seas that morning would have been short and very steep. Plunging in and out of the water with the movement of the ship, the Wahine's twin rudders and screws would have had their effectiveness fatally diminished. As she veered from her heading, the high superstructure at her stern may have acted like a sail, catching the wind and pushing her round. “The ship took charge,” Captain Robertson was later to say in his succinct seaman's language.

Outer rock
© Photo by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

The sea area inside the entrance to Wellington Harbour, where the Wahine was struck by the storm of 10th April 1968 and driven onto Barrett Reef. In this photo a big southerly swell is running, typical of weather in Cook Strait and the harbour entrance. The top of Outer Rock, at the very southern edge of the reef, is in the centre of the picture while Pinnacle Rock is at right. Pinnacle Rock was the first the Wahine hit as she went onto the reef at 6.41 that morning. The light tower on the beach at Pencarrow Head is at top left, on the opposite side of the entrance channel about 1,000 metres to the east of Barrett Reef.

3. What was Captain Robertson trying to do in the period immediately before the Wahine went onto Barrett Reef?

This question has exercised the minds of many writers and commentators over the decades since 1968. Was he trying to get his ship back out to sea? Was he persisting instead with his attempt to get into harbour? Did he succeed in getting the Wahine back out into Cook Strait only to then try again to enter harbour?

When the Wahine rolled Captain Robertson was thrown across the bridge for a distance he later estimated at 74 feet (22.5 metres), striking the radar console then landing heavily in the starboard wing. Bruised and probably concussed, though he subsequently made no mention of this, the Master regained his feet but everything had changed. The bridge was trembling with the force of winds that, steady at 50 knots (92 kms per hr) a minute ago, had now accelerated to over 100 knots (185 kms per hr). It seemed to be coming from all directions. Visibility was nil, the air laden with spray and pounding rain. Opening the centre window, Captain Robertson put his head and shoulders out into the maelstrom, searching for a landmark or light that might tell him where they were in relation to Barrett Reef. He would later describe the wind as "just screaming" and the state of the sea as "atrocious," "a white froth, you could not face it, you could not even look at it.....I have never seen anything like it before."

For the next 26 minutes from 6.15 to 6.41 a.m. the Master tried repeatedly to turn the Wahine to port so as to bring her head to sea. Leaning out of the centre bridge window he issued a stream of helm and engine orders to Mr Luly, who was standing beside him. The Chief Officer relayed the orders, shouting above the roar of the wind, to Third Officer Noblet at the engine telegraphs and Quartermaster MacLeod at the helm. Double and triple rings were sent down on the telegraphs to the engine control platform in the main turbo-alternator room, demanding emergency full ahead and full astern as Captain Robertson sought to use the full 18,000 horse power of the Wahine's electric motors to force her round. Nearby on the starboard wing, Mr Shanks the Second Officer had been ordered to make any sighting he could in the darkness and rain to establish the ship's position.

"What's her heading? she answering? she coming round?" Time and time again Captain Robertson and Mr Luly called to Quartermaster MacLeod who had the compass repeater in front of him. It was to no avail. The Wahine lay broadside across winds of hurricane force in a cauldron of raging, tumbling white seas piling up on each other, walls of spray hundreds of feet high assaulting the ship. Along with his engines Captain Robertson tried to use the Wahine's bow thrusters to push her round. She remained out of control and overwhelmed by the storm, her bow coming to the south only to be constantly driven back again.

Wahine bridge
© Diagram prepared and contributed to this website by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

Looking down on the interior of the bridge of the Wahine during the minutes before she went onto Barrett Reef. The location of some of the bridge personnel changed during that time, but this graphic reflects where they mostly were. On the port and starboard wings (top and bottom) stand Able Seaman Finlayson and Second Officer Shanks, both having been ordered by Captain Robertson to watch for the light at the southern edge of the reef. They can see nothing in the oblivion of rain and darkness. Quartermaster MacLeod is at the steering wheel controlling the ship's twin rudders at her stern. Third Officer Noblet is at the engine telegraphs on the port wing control console. Next to him, Second Electrician Langbein is operating the side thruster controls. Beside Mr Langbein is the steering wheel for the Wahine's bow rudder while the object in front of the wheel is a timber floor mat. There is a near-identical control console located on the starboard wing beside Mr Shanks. Mr Lyver is in his radio office abaft the bridge. The Captain's Steward was on the bridge for a short period, spreading salt and placing lengths of carpet on the linoleum-covered deck to try and stop bridge personnel sliding about as the Wahine heaved and rolled in the storm.

Captain Robertson stands with his head and shoulders outside the opened centre bridge window. In the raging cacophony of wind, rain and spray he is trying to judge the seas so as to turn the Wahine. Beside him, Chief Officer Luly repeats Captain Robertson's helm and engine orders, yelling to make himself heard above the bedlam of the storm.

The Wahine's bridge was equipped only with a magnetic compass; the ship had no gyro compass. Magnetic compasses rapidly lose effectiveness in any conditions where the ship is swinging or rolling heavily. The availability of a gyro compass would have made a critical difference to Captain Robertson and his officers in their efforts to pinpoint where the ship was. This is because a gyro compass would have been linked to the radar to give a stabilised north-up display on the radar screen. With a magnetic compass this was not possible; had the Wahine's radar remained operative, the display on the screen would have been very blurred as the ship's head changed rapidly. Also, a gyro compass is much steadier and would have made the manual steering of the ship easier. Had a gyro compass been fitted aboard the Wahine, there would have been repeater compasses on the bridge wings and at the forward windows of the bridge, allowing the Master and his officers to monitor the ship's heading much more effectively.

Full Astern painting
Painting entitled "Full Astern" by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

The moment the light at the southern end of Barrett Reef is sighted through the all-enveloping rain and darkness. Captain Robertson immediately orders "full astern" on the Wahine's engines.

Then at about 6.28 a.m. the Master succeeded in regaining control of his ship, turning her to port so that she was now headed south in the direction of Cook Strait and the open sea. In the blinding rain Barrett Reef could not be seen from the bridge, but in the narrow entrance channel this turn to port meant the Wahine was very close to the reef's eastern edge. Captain Robertson knew from his seaman's instincts that the rocks must be nearby but visibility remained absolutely nil. Slowly, punching her way into the face of monstrous winds and seas, the Wahine continued south along the reef's flank. Around 6.36 a.m. a flashing orange light emerged through the torrents of rain, right in front of the ship. It was the light buoy marking the southern extremity of Barrett Reef. This light was the very first landmark of any description sighted from the bridge since the storm had overwhelmed the ship 22 minutes earlier. Now came a last desperate rush of telegraph and helm orders, the Wahine's thrusters and motors at absolute full power and the wheel hard over to port. She refused to answer.

As if in mockery of his frantic efforts the torrential rain parted briefly and Captain Robertson, his officers and lookouts saw the black, wave-swept jaws of Barrett Reef. Rocks were ahead of the ship then along her starboard side and astern of her. She was being blown sideways down onto them; there was no escape. Captain Robertson later described it as the worst moment of his life. After ordering all water-tight doors closed he told Mr Luly to have Mr Lyver, the Radio Officer, send an SOS distress call. The Wahine struck on her starboard quarter at 6.41 a.m., the impact breaking off the starboard propeller, the shaft bracket and 20 feet (6 metres) of the starboard tail shaft. The starboard rudder was bent and crushed up into the ship. For a few minutes the port propeller continued turning until the port motor shorted out as the propulsion motor room filled with water.

Barrett Reef Buoy The Barrett Reef Light Buoy, lifted out of the water by the floating crane Hikitia.

Buoy on dock
© Photo by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

The same Barrett Reef Light Buoy, removed from the sea and lying in its side in the Port of Wellington. This photo gives a good indication of the size of this structure.

Having brought the Wahine's head to sea, with Barrett Reef now astern of him and the comparative safety of Cook Strait right in front, should Captain Robertson just have kept going when the light buoy at the southern end of Barrett Reef was sighted? The answer to this, with the luxury of hindsight, is "possibly yes". But we need to see it from Captain Robertson's perspective at that moment in time: deafened by the wind, soaked to the skin, caught in avalanche-like seas, the bridge of the Wahine shuddering and rocking like a see-saw, utter loss of visibility in the narrow entrance channel with absolutely nothing seen for 22 minutes. Then the flashing light of the reef buoy suddenly appears right in front of the ship. A split-second decision is needed; there is no time for review of options. The instinct of any competent seaman when an object is suddenly observed in front of a ship is immediately to use helm and engines to turn away. This is what Captain Robertson did. Unfortunately, control of the Wahine was then lost once again.

The alternative of ignoring the light buoy and keeping the engines at full ahead might have been the correct decision for Captain Robertson and the Wahine, but equally it might also have proved disastrous. If the Wahine's bow had collided with the light buoy as she went past, damage to the ship's hull would have been minimal and of no significance compared to the peril she and the 734 people aboard her were in. But the light buoy was fixed in place to the seabed by heavy steel cables. In the storm, the light buoy was being tossed around violently and there was every possibility that these cables may have snagged the Wahine's twin rudders and twin propellers. Fouling cables around her rudders or propellers in this way would have been catastrophic; all steering and drive would instantly have been lost.

The reef inflicted massive damage on the Wahine's underwater hull. Stabbed, battered and ripped, no part the ship's bottom was spared as she was forced slowly northwards over the rocks. On 16-17 April 1968 a Royal New Zealand Navy diving team inspected the ship. One of the divers described the multiple lacerations to the Wahine's hull as "like a huge file (that) just cut bits out of it. One of the holes was about a hundred feet long.....and one hole you could drive a car through." The destruction was so widespread that, had the Wahine survived, it is conceivable that repairing her many have proved either technically unfeasible or too expensive.

The copyright ownership of this photo is not known. If the rightful owner would like to email this website, ownership will be acknowledged in full.

This photo, taken while the Wahine was in the Wellington Floating Dock for her annual survey and refit in April 1967, shows her portside rudder and propeller with its tailshaft (at left of the propeller) and bracket (just behind the propeller, securing the tailshaft to the hull). The starboard propeller at right and the starboard rudder (out of the picture) were identical. When the Wahine struck Barrett Reef the starboard tailshaft, bracket and propeller, rotating at full speed astern, were completely broken off by the impact with the rocks and fell to the seabed. The starboard rudder was twisted and driven upwards into the ship by the same impact.


The Evening Post

This diagram, split in two for clarity, was published on the front page of Wellington's Evening Post newspaper on 11 July 1968. It shows the Wahine lying on her starboard side on the harbour floor, almost half-buried in sands and gravels. The damage from Barrett Reef that was visible to Royal New Zealand Navy divers examining the wreck, has been recorded on the diagram. The worst damage was located on the starboard or lower side of the Wahine's hull but this could not be seen because of the gravel (grey shaded area) that had built up against the hull. The diagram thus only gives a partial indication of the mauling the Wahine received.

The numbers denote the many splits, holes, dents and cracks in the hull steel extending over the full length of the Wahine:

1. hole 2 feet in diameter
2. hole 4 feet in diameter
2A dents and splits over a 12 x 6 feet area
3. split in hull 3 feet long
4. hole 4 feet in diameter
5. hole 6 x 4 feet in size
6. vertical crack 8 feet long
7. dents and cracks over a 15 x 10 feet area
8. diagonal crack 15 feet long
9. hole 6 x 4 feet in size
10. split 8 feet long
10A hole 4 x 1 feet in size
11. hole 10 by 8 feet in size
12. hole 8 x 7 feet in size
14. very large hole, 20 feet long, width unknown
14A dented area 4 x 3 feet
15. split 15 feet long
15A triangular-shaped split, 1 foot in size
16. hole 4 x 3 feet in size
17. hole 4 x 2 feet in size
18. hole 6 x 6 feet in size around the starboard rudder post
19. bent and broken remains of starboard propeller shaft
20-23 and 29 extensive holing where propeller shaft bracket has sheared off
24. bending, splitting and crushing of starboard rudder
25. port rudder intact
26-28 port propeller intact but two propeller blade tips slightly damaged

Point Dorset with Barrett Reef in the background, right. It was towards these rocks that the Wahine drifted after leaving Barrett Reef.

© Murray Robinson 2008

Why did the Wahine go broadside to the wind and seas, to then be caught in this predicament when the storm hit her? Inside the narrow, funnel-like entrance channel, exposed directly to the south, the seas that morning would have been short and very steep. Plunging in and out of the water with the movement of the ship, the Wahine's twin rudders and screws would have had their effectiveness fatally diminished. As she veered from her heading, the high superstructure at her stern may have acted like a sail, catching the wind and pushing her round. "The ship took charge," Captain Robertson was later to say in his succinct seaman's language.

The rocks of Point Dorset, with Breaker Bay in the foreground, looking east across the entrance channel of Wellington harbour towards the Pencarrow coast. Taken from Beacon Hill Signal Station.

© Murray Robinson 2008

4. Why did Captain Robertson send radio messages saying that the flooding aboard the Wahine was under control when it was not? What was he doing all that morning on the bridge of the Wahine; why didn't he go below and see for himself the flooding on her vehicle deck?

After coming off Barrett Reef and with all steering and propulsion gone, the Wahine was blown across Chaffers Passage towards Point Dorset, sheering on her anchor cables in steep, short, breaking seas through arcs of up to 130 degrees. Radio messages from the ship conveyed the gravity of her situation: "Slowly drifting on Point Dorset. I think she will be ashore next swing." and "Drifting towards Fort Dorset, will be ashore in a minute." At approximately 8.30 a.m., with the ship now very close to the huge white surf breaking and exploding across the rocks of Point Dorset, Captain Robertson ordered the Wahine's Chief Engineer, Mr Herbert Wareing, to evacuate all personnel from the ship's boiler and turbo-alternator rooms.

But somehow she evaded this fresh catastrophe and did not go aground on Point Dorset. Her survival seemed nothing short of a miracle. Once the Wahine, continuing her slow drift, was north of Point Dorset and away from this danger, the radio messages sent by Captain Robertson understandably convey a tone of relief and optimism. From this distance they seem entirely misplaced in light of what was to happen later that day. When considering his radio messages we must, however, try to visualise what was going through Captain Robertson's mind at that moment in time, mid-morning on 10th April 1968. He knew better than anyone that he and the other 733 people aboard the Wahine had just escaped near-certain death twice over. The Wahine should have broken her keel, come apart and sank after the punishment she had taken on Barrett Reef or otherwise she should, in those colossal winds and seas, have been smashed to pieces on Point Dorset. Hundreds if not all of her passengers and crew would have drowned. It was with a profound sense of astonishment and deliverance that Captain Robertson ordered the messages now transmitted from the ship:

Around 9.37 a.m. the Wellington Harbour Master (Captain R E Suckling) was advised by Captain Robertson that the Wahine was "not touching (the rocks) at all. No danger of sinking." A few minutes later at 9.40 a.m., the Wahine radioed: "Dragging (on anchors) very slowly. All under control." At 10.12 a.m., also by VHF radio telephone, came "Flood control in hand." Then at 11.01 a.m.: "Master advises we are quite safe and about to make fast to a tug."

Captain Robertson worded these messages this way because at the time, he genuinely considered the Wahine was not in any imminent danger of sinking. His failure to also tell to authorities on shore about the water on the Wahine's main vehicle deck, proved later to be a critical error of judgement. From the reports of his officers, particularly the Chief Officer who was responsible for damage control, the Master decided that the extent of flooding on the main vehicle deck was not sufficient to be of concern. Mr Wareing, the Wahine's Chief Engineer, shared this view; he was worried about the flooding but not alarmed, believing it to be of manageable proportions.

In his defence it must be said that at no stage did Captain Robertson either downgrade or revoke the SOS emergency declared in his 6.41 and 7.02 a.m. radio signals. This remained in force throughout the day.

There were no computers or instruments on the Wahine's bridge that could tell her Master how the ship's draught and stability had changed as the result of the flooding in her lower compartments and on her main vehicle deck. For this Captain Robertson relied on the feel of the ship beneath his feet. The Wahine was rolling moderately, between five and eight degrees, and each time she came readily upright without hesitation. This did not change in the slightest as the morning went on. Captain Robertson calculated from this that although the ship was badly holed and there was widespread flooding, the Wahine had retained enough stability so that there was no immediate prospect of her sinking.

His assessment was later confirmed by Captain D W Galloway, Wellington Deputy Harbour Master and Second Pilot, who at 12.15 p.m. succeeded in getting aboard the Wahine from the pilot launch Tiakina. Captain Galloway would later tell the Court of Inquiry that the Wahine "felt all right to me" when he boarded her. He described the ship's motion as a "nice, easy roll with a (5 degree) list on it," and that she "kept coming back" to the vertical every time in seas he estimated at 12 midday to be some 15 feet (4.5 metres) high.

The rugged coast beside Fort Dorset along which the Wahine drifted during the height of the storm. Steeple Rock in the background, mid-left of the picture.

© Murray Robinson 2008

Also at the Court of Inquiry it was alleged that the Master of the Wahine had stood "paralysed into inaction" on the bridge of his ship, "benumbed" by the "disaster" of earlier that morning. Of all the criticism levelled at Captain Robertson, this one brought him the greatest pain. Standing on either wing of the bridge, he spent much of the morning constantly observing points on the ship's hull just above the waterline. There was no other way of determining how low the ship was in the water and whether her draught and trim were changing. From this the Master calculated that the Wahine's draught was approximately 22 feet (6.7 metres), an increase of some five feet (1.5 metres), and that she was not sinking further.

His conclusion was reflected in the tenor of the radio messages sent ashore. All morning Captain Robertson continued to monitor the ship's draught in this way, watching for any change. Meanwhile the wind increased in ferocity, reaching its height between 10 and 11 a.m. - the severest weather ever recorded in New Zealand up to that time. Gusts of up to 123 knots (228 kms per hr) shook the bridge while the rain thundered unceasingly at the windows. Although he had never before met a storm as violent as this, from his long experience of Cook Strait and Wellington harbour Captain Robertson knew that the storm would most probably be of short duration. Having reached their peak, the winds and seas would quickly abate. Changes in the weather normally coincided with the turning of the tides; high tide in Wellington harbour that day would be at 2 p.m. This was only a few hours away. Captain Robertson's plan was to ride out the storm until that time when, correctly as it proved, the storm would die away to no more than a light gale. Once that happened the tug Tapuhi, sheltering in Worser Bay, would be able to reach the Wahine and get a towing wire aboard. "I was confident," Captain Robertson later wrote, "that we could be towed into the relatively sheltered waters of Worser Bay where all the passengers could be landed safely."

vehicle deck
© Vic Young. Gratefully acknowledged to Vic Young and not to be reproduced without his permission. (see the link to Vic's website)

The tug Tapuhi, photographed in 1967. On 10 April 1968 under the command of Captain A R Olsson, this gallant little ship fought to reach the Wahine and take her in tow. In the raging seas and with consummate seamanship, Captain Olsson manoeuvred the Tapuhi close under the Wahine's stern where Chief Officer Luly used a line-throwing gun to get a messenger line across to the tug. A 4.5 inch towing wire was then passed back to the Wahine. Because flooding on the main vehicle deck had shorted out the switchboard supplying electricity to the winches on the Wahine's aft mooring decks, this towing wire had to be hauled manually through the sea and up onto the Wahine's stern. This was done by the Wahine's seamen. Just before midday, with the towing wire made fast, the Tapuhi went slowly ahead on her engines to take up the strain and begin the tow. Her courageous effort and that of the Wahine's seamen proved in vain. The wire was too small and the Tapuhi too light for such a difficult task. Tossed about in waves up to 17 feet high, as soon as the weight of the crippled ship came onto the towing wire it snapped at the bollards on the Wahine's stern. The broken wire was jettisoned and immediately the Tapuhi retired to the shelter of Worser Bay to prepare for a second tow attempt. It was not to be. When the Wahine was abandoned the Tapuhi rescued 174 of the ship's 634 passengers and crew, landing them safely at the Inter-Island Wharf in Wellington. Powered by triple expansion steam engines, the Tapuhi was built at Aberdeen, Scotland in 1945. Captain Robertson's younger brother Neil was one of the Tapuhi's seamen on 10 April 1968. Assisting Captain Olsson on the tug's bridge that day was Captain C M Sword, the Wellington Harbour Board's Third Pilot.

On the main vehicle deck Chief Engineer Wareing was in charge of flood control along with Mr Luly, the Wahine's tireless Chief Officer. There was no need for Captain Robertson personally to go there either to inspect or direct operations. Sixty-one year old Mr Wareing was immensely experienced and the most senior chief engineer in the Union Steam Ship Company's fleet. Captain Robertson was fully justified in accepting the reports about the flood situation that Mr Wareing himself was bringing to the Master. With his ship in the predicament she was, it would have been completely unthinkable to Captain Robertson that he leave the bridge at any time that morning.

Even if the Master had more fully understood the lethal threat from the water on the vehicle deck, there was another much more urgent concern that required his attention on the bridge. This was the Wahine's anchor cables.

When the anchors were let go during the half-hour the Wahine was on Barrett Reef, the cables could not be stopped from running out to their full extent. They paid out so rapidly that the brake linings of the windlass caught fire and were burnt out; from his position on the bridge Ken MacLeod saw sparks flying up from the foredeck where the windlass was located. Without engines or steering, and with no ship in Wellington or nearby that could reach her, the Wahine was utterly dependant on her anchors and cables holding together.

Run out to between 700 and 800 feet (213 - 243 metres) nearly twice the ship's length (488 feet or 148.97 metres overall), the cables were under the most terrific strain as the Wahine sheered from side to side before the storm's onslaught. Had either cable parted, the other could not have held the ship on its own. With her anchors gone, the ship would have been carried across to the Pencarrow coast on the opposite side of the harbour and wrecked probably somewhere along the desolate, rocky shoreline south of Camp Bay. Few of the Wahine's complement would have got ashore alive. Captain Robertson was fully aware that there was a real possibility of one or both cables breaking at any moment.

The Wahine's hull was low in the water at the stern; if she touched bottom as she sheered back and forth into the shallow waters north of Point Dorset, the impact would crunch bulkheads and tank tops already weakened and under enormous pressure from flooding. The result similarly would bring about a new and immediate crisis. Captain Robertson could not leave the bridge and did not do so until around 12.35 p.m. when, with Captain Galloway relieving him, the Master hastened below to the main vehicle deck.

Photo by Mrs Edith Beck

The Wahine's anchor cables, brought ashore from the wreck and landed on the Taranaki Street Wharf in Wellington, where they were consigned for scrap. Note the shellfish at left that have been cleaned from the cable links. It was the strength of these cables that saved the Wahine and those aboard her from total disaster on the morning of 10 April 1968. Parts of the Wahine can be seen in the background. The large wharf shed behind them is where Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand now stands.

5. Why did Captain Robertson have reassuring messages broadcast to the ship's passengers, never warning them of the likelihood of their having to evacuate the ship?

Much criticism was subsequently made about the manner in which passengers had listened to regular broadcasts over the Wahine's public address speakers, telling them that all was well and that they were safe. Around 12.50 p.m., coinciding with the Master's return to the bridge, the previously very slight list began to worsen. By 1 p.m. the midpoint of the list was around the 15 degree mark. For the moment the Wahine heeled no further. Announcements confirmed that the Wahine was listing but assured passengers the ship was in no danger. On the bridge Captain Robertson and Captain Galloway were waiting anxiously for the tug Tapuhi to return to the ship for a second tow attempt.

The Wahine's Master was a seaman of the old school. Foremost when dealing with passengers in any crisis was the maintenance of calm and order. Passengers were to be kept informed but also reassured; nothing was to be said that might trigger alarm or anxiety. No sea-going master mariner of Captain Robertson's generation would have disagreed with this. The Purser Mr B A Clare, who was making announcements every half-hour, was not deceiving his listeners; he and the Wahine's officers and crew were totally and genuinely confident that, after having escaped Barrett Reef and Point Dorset, the Wahine would be all right. Regularly before making his announcements the Purser visited the bridge where he was told by the Master that the Wahine was not in immediate danger. The reassurance Mr Clare was emphasizing came direct from Captain Robertson.

Not only did the Master and his officers think that lifeboats and life rafts would not be needed, there was no point in forewarning passengers about their use anyway. Evacuation of the ship was impossible in the wind and sea conditions that besieged the Wahine right up until the time when "abandon ship" was ordered. Even if they had made it down the ship's sides and away from her, the lifeboats would have been swamped and destroyed. Crowded into the Wahine's public rooms and forbidden to remove their lifejackets, passengers could see for themselves through the windows how terrible the storm was. Any announcements or briefings about going out on deck in such conditions to board open lifeboats or life rafts would only have spread fear and tension amongst hundreds of people young and old, packed closely together.

6. What was Captain Robertson hoping to achieve when he requested the tug Tapuhi to attempt towing the Wahine, shortly after 11 am? Surely it was a pointless exercise; he must have known the Tapuhi lacked the draught and the engine power to get the heavily water-logged Wahine under control as she sheered about, and that it would be impossible to shorten his anchor cables and get the Wahine's anchors up?

Many passengers at the large windows of the Wahine's general lounge on A Deck, aft in the ship, saw the tug Tapuhi and the towing wire that, for barely ten minutes, linked the two vessels. Survivors afterwards commented on how useless it seemed; the Tapuhi was herself having the greatest difficulty weathering the very heavy seas while her 4.5 inch (0.1 metre) wide steel towing wire looked no bigger than cotton thread, breaking almost as soon as tension was placed on it. Captain Robertson knew that the tow most likely would not succeed; he was well aware of the Tapuhi's limitations. But in the complete absence of anything better, it was worth a try. At the very least, Captain Robertson hoped the Tapuhi with her towing wire might hold the Wahine's stern and stop her wild sheering movement. This would lessen greatly the risk of the Wahine drifting into shallow water and hitting more rocks or the sea floor - the very thing that happened at 12.30 p.m. If the tug could do that until high tide at 2 p.m., when he expected the storm to rapidly die away (as it did) the port of Wellington's other tug, Taioma, might then be available and would double the towing effort.

Perhaps during all this it might have crossed Captain Robertson's mind Wellington's utter lack of preparedness for responding to a ship disabled and in distress in heavy weather. For 40 years up until 1947 the Terawhiti, a big, powerful, ocean-going salvage tug owned by the Union Steam Ship Company, had been based in Wellington. Having a tug with her capabilities was essential; every day passenger liners, cargo vessels, oil tankers, warships and ferries linking the North and South Islands of New Zealand came and went through the narrow entrance channel, past Barrett Reef. The Wellington Harbour Board had long debated the need for replacement tugs but in 1968 they still had just the 23 year old Tapuhi and the 24 year old Taioma, both of them harbour tugs not designed for the task the Tapuhi was called upon to perform on 10th April 1968. The Taioma could not move from her wharf; her boilers were cold and steam had to be raised in them, a task that, even with her boilers being forced, would take six to seven hours until around 2 p.m.

Once the Taioma eventually reached the Wahine, Captain Robertson planned to have the tug come under the Wahine's bow so that with the Tapuhi controlling her stern, the ship would then be held fore and aft. He would next endeavour to move the Wahine round into the shelter of Worser Bay, just a short distance away, by slipping one and then both the anchor cables. Passengers and non-essential crew would then be disembarked in the ship's eight lifeboats and landed at Seatoun Wharf. With this done, a decision could be made either to beach the Wahine in shallow water or move her immediately to the floating dock. All of this became irrelevant after 12.30 p.m. when the Wahine's list, steady at no more than 5 degrees throughout the morning, began quickly increasing.

© Photo by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

Steeple Rock at left, with Steeple Beacon on the right and Seatoun Wharf in the background above the beacon. Seatoun beach, where lifeboats S1 and S2 landed, runs from right to left across the centre of the photo with the township of Seatoun behind it, reaching up into the surrounding hills. This photo was taken from a passing ship in 2009 but the scene remains near-exactly as it was in 1968. The bow of the Wahine was at this same position, pointing towards Steeple Rock, when she was abandoned. The view shows how reassuringly close she was to land. Yet perversely, perniciously, so many of her people were carried away from the rescuers lining this shore, out into the harbour and across to the deserted, wave-thrashed, annihilating coast of Pencarrow.

7. Why after having survived so much during the morning, with the storm dying away and when the worst seemed to be over, did the Wahine roll over and sink?

Around 12.30 p.m. the Wahine, still drifting up the harbour on her anchors, touched the sea floor near Steeple Rock, just off the eastern end of Seatoun Beach. The impact was very slight, no more than a nudge; Captain Robertson later described it as a single, gentle "bump". His strategy of carefully nursing his badly damaged ship while waiting for the storm to abate, would very likely have succeeded but for this. It was the fatal blow. Somewhere up forward a bulkhead or tank top, already under enormous strain from the flooding, gave way as a result of the impact. More water entered the ship, changing her fore-and-aft trim so that she went deeper by the bow. Up until that point the fore part of the Wahine's main vehicle deck, known as the forward garage, had been dry. Water now ran into it from the flooded aft end of the main vehicle deck. Roughly 80% of the entire main vehicle deck was now covered with water, its depth no more than a few inches in the forward garage and up to three feet on the starboard side at the main vehicle deck's aft end.

Inside garage
Inside the upper garage of the Wahine's main vehicle deck, showing a good representation of the makes of cars on New Zealand's roads in the 1960s. Among them a Morris 1100 at left, an HR Holden at right and a Ford Cortina between the two groups of people. Note the fire sprinklers above the cars but the absence of anything that looks like a flood-water drain on the deck around and underneath them. Note also the great size and strength of the steel beams above the cars.

Photograph by Gladys M Goodall for the Felicity Card Co Ltd.

Through a process known as Free Surface Effect this water, moving freely about, destroyed what was left of the Wahine's stability. She increasingly began to hang on each roll to starboard, no longer coming fully upright. Mr Shanks the Second Officer had been directed to watch the inclinometer above the chart table; at about 1 p.m. he told the Master that the Wahine was listing to starboard "between five and 22 degrees". For the moment she did not heel further. The mid-point of this list was approximately 15 degrees off the vertical.

Then suddenly, just before 1.25 p.m., the Wahine went over to 25 degrees. Up until then the Wahine's Master, his senior officers and Captain Galloway had still been confident she would be alright. Now everything changed; it was imperative to get the passengers off. Caught by the easterly set of the out-flowing tide, the Wahine at about 1.15 or 1.20 p.m. began turning on her anchors. Slowly the ship swung round until her bow was facing Steeple Rock and her stern lay towards the northern end of Camp Bay, across the harbour on the Pencarrow shore. The tide held her there, broadside to the wind and seas with her port side facing the harbour entrance. Once in this position, the Wahine ceased her sheering movement for the first time since leaving Barrett Reef six hours earlier. The ship instead began a slow, sluggish rolling motion, dipping her starboard rails lower and lower.

The Wahine's change in heading meant that her starboard side was now sheltered from the weather. On the bridge Captain Robertson saw his opportunity and made the decision. At 1.25 p.m. alarm bells suddenly began ringing throughout the ship. The voice of the Wahine's Purser came over the speakers: "We are abandoning ship. Would all passengers proceed to the starboard side of B Deck. The starboard side is the right hand side facing the front of the ship”. Passengers who had spent hour after hour sitting and waiting now found themselves caught up in all the haste and drama of a full-scale abandonment.

The list increased quickly while the boats and life rafts were being launched. By approximately 2.30 p.m., some 30 minutes after the last passengers had left the ship, the Wahine was right over on her side with the starboard wing of her bridge in the sea. In this position she settled onto the harbour floor in water 41 feet (12.5 metres) deep at her bow and 48 feet (14.6 metres) at her stern.

Captain Robertson was the last very person to leave the Wahine, jumping into the sea from the ship's stern just before she sank.


The Wahine just after she rolled onto her starboard side. She is still afloat and about to sink to the harbour floor a few metres below her. Heavy seas are breaking across the ship's port bow. From a photograph found with Captain Robertson's personal papers.

Photo by Mrs Edith Beck

Steeple Rock at left with Steeple light on its concrete tower mounted on the seabed, at right. Between them is the Cook Strait rail ferry Arahura. The wreck of the Wahine was located just off the starboard side of the Arahura at the point where she is in this photo. The eastern end of Seatoun beach is in the foreground.

8. The Wahine was so close to the shore, inside Wellington harbour with all its resources to hand, so why did so many people die?

The fatalities occurred because of what happened to wind and sea conditions on Wellington harbour as the Wahine was abandoned. Forty-five passengers and six members of the ship's crew died - seven per cent of the Wahine's total complement of 734. Ninety three per cent survived. Nobody died aboard the Wahine; everybody was evacuated from the ship though many suffered injuries and trauma. Of the total of 51 deaths, all except one were found by the Wellington Coroner to have died from drowning. The one exception had suffered cardiac arrest while in the sea. Three children under the age of 10 lost their lives. The youngest victim was aged two, the oldest 80.

People in Wellington City, the Hutt Valley and Eastbourne were astonished at how rapidly the storm departed. It was still bitterly cold but by 2 p.m. the southerly wind and rain had gone completely. Any relief felt by the authorities in Wellington at the weather's dramatic improvement was soon cut short. Up until 2 p.m. local radio had featured news principally about the damage and disruption on shore. The Wahine had been a lesser story; news reports described her as anchored in the harbour with a tug in attendance, waiting for the storm to pass until it was safe for her to berth.


The rocky, bleak shores of the Pencarrow coast. Looking south towards Wellington harbour entrance at right.

© Murray Robinson 2008

Then from 2 p.m. news bulletins carried the first reports that passengers from the Wahine were leaving the ship in her lifeboats. With the rain's departure the Wahine was now, for the first time, clearly visible from the Seatoun foreshore and from nearby Worser Bay. She was anchored just off Steeple Rock, lying broadside to the entrance channel with her bow towards the eastern end of Seatoun beach. To the handful of policemen, reporters and onlookers gathered there, it was clearly evident that things were going seriously wrong. The Wahine was listing at an alarming angle, lifeboats and life rafts were heading away from the ship and many people could be seen in the water around her.

The news came like a thunderbolt to Police and emergency services hoping for some respite after the intense pressure they had been under during the last eight hours, dealing with the effects of the storm in Wellington city and the Hutt Valley. Police commanders now learned that a major shipwreck involving several hundred people was taking place out on the harbour, and that without delay they would have to mount a full-scale rescue operation both at Seatoun and at Eastbourne, on the opposite side of the harbour. At 1.30 p.m. Police officers at Seatoun and Beacon Hill Signal Station notified the Wellington Central Police control room by radio that the Wahine was being abandoned. Immediately Police, ambulances and Union Steam Ship Company staff began converging on the Seatoun beach area. The same radio message was overheard by the Lower Hutt Police Station. All available officers from Lower Hutt quickly set off by Army trucks for Burdon's Gate, the point just south of Eastbourne where the narrow, winding road to Pencarrow begins.

Meanwhile, word travelled swiftly along the Wellington waterfront. The Wahine was in trouble off Steeple Rock and the Harbour Master had directed all vessels capable of doing so to proceed to her assistance. The response was immediate. Along with the rail ferry Aramoana, from 1.30 p.m. a succession of coastal vessels and fishing boats left the wharves. At 1.35 p.m. the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve's motor launch HMNZS Manga got underway from her berth at Waterloo Quay, along with the pilot launch Arahina. Motorised lifeboats were sent from ships berthed in the port. Many private launch and yacht owners also followed on their own initiative.

wahine lifeboat
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Dominion Post Collection, EP/1968/1576/.F

This is Wahine lifeboat S4, aft-most of the ship's starboard-side lifeboats, disembarking her passengers after landing on Seatoun Beach. Rescuers are hauling the fully loaded lifeboat further up the sand while others assist those coming ashore. S4 was under the command of Mr T R Dartford, one of the Wahine's quartermasters, and had some 100 occupants aboard, 30 of whom had been pulled from the sea after the lifeboat left the Wahine. Initially she was caught by the tide and pushed out into the middle of the harbour, but was then taken in tow by the pilot launch Tiakina. The Tiakina's master was Captain John Brown.

Lifeboat S2 also made landfall at Seatoun, coming alongside the wharf there. S2 had some 70 occupants aboard and was under the command of Mr P W Bennett, the Wahine's Fourth Engineer. Lifeboat S3 was carried across the harbour to the eastern shoreline where her commander, Able Seaman Terry Victory, very skillfully landed the boat on Muritai Beach. S1, the Wahine's starboard-side accident boat, was not so fortunate, being capsized by the waves off the Pencarrow shore when her diesel motor was swamped. All her occupants were thrown into the sea and many became casualties. S1 was under the command of the Wahine's Third Officer, Mr Grahame Noblet.

The occupants of the first lifeboats and life rafts to leave the Wahine soon found that, instead of being able to make for Seatoun beach, they were being carried in a south-east direction, away from the ship and out into the harbour. Soon the surface of the sea was dotted with the heads of swimmers who had jumped from the ship expecting no difficulty in reaching the nearby shore, only to be swept away from land. Although sea conditions had moderated, there was a heavy, lumpy swell running in the harbour. Many people were thrown into the sea when life rafts capsized and when lifeboat S1, the accident boat under the command of Mr Noblet, the Wahine's Third Officer, was swamped and overturned by the waves.

Although they were cold, wet, seasick and terrified, those who reached the shore aboard the Wahine's three big lifeboats numbered S2, S3 and S4 were the most fortunate of all the Wahine's 734 passengers and crew. For the others, the ordeal confronting them was dreadful in the extreme. The storm that had raged throughout the morning had driven a huge quantity of additional water into the harbour. Now, with the southerly winds gone and the tide out-flowing, this water began flooding back down the habour to the open sea, taking people from the Wahine with it. The result was swimmers and life rafts scattered over a distance of two miles along the Pencarrow coast, from Camp Bay as far south as Hinds Point. This was totally unforeseen. Captain Robertson and Chief Officer Luly had expected the evacuation of the ship to be a relatively quick and straight-forward task of moving the Wahine's passengers the very short distance to Seatoun Beach. Likewise, the Wahine's closeness to Seatoun meant that the hurried response to the ship's abandoning had, logically, been focused there. It was not expected that the heavy out-flow of the tide would take so many across to Pencarrow.

Pencarrow coast
© Photo by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

The Pencarrow Coast, looking south to Hinds Point with Pencarrow Light in the far distance. Thirty per cent of the Wahine's total complement of passengers and crew struggled ashore here, walking, crawling or being pulled out of seas many times larger than those shown in this photo.

Along this coast, barren, rock-strewn and exposed, a steep tumbling sea was running. Passengers and crew from the Wahine began coming ashore from around 2.15 p.m. They continued doing so for the next three hours, most landing between Hinds Point and the southern end of Camp Bay. Some 223 people made it through the monstrous surf and past the barriers of inshore rock. Thankful as they must have been to escape the from sea with their lives, the surroundings that greeted them could not have been more desolate. Unlike the huge assemblage of rescuers and vehicles on hand at Seatoun, there was no shelter from the cold, no transport, no medical attention and pitifully few people to help them. Slips, logs and wash-outs blocking the road meant that for the first few hours the only assistance consisted of two Landrovers and a small number of Police officers together with volunteers from nearby Eastbourne. Much of the life-saving work was done by two young Police constables based at the Lower Hutt Police Station, who were the first to reach Pencarrow. Time and time again on seeing orange lifejackets, they waded into the surf among the rocks to drag survivors up the beach. A quick word of reassurance then back into the waves to pull the next survivor to safety. Many were hypothermic, some were very badly injured, others so traumatized that they attempted to climb the scrub-covered hills at the head of the beach in their desperation to escape the waves. Neither constable subsequently was given any recognition for the uncounted lives they saved.

All the survivors were wet, cold and tired, most were barefoot and had lost clothing. Their injuries ranged from knocks and bruises to fractured limbs; many people who had been in the water or on upturned life rafts were suffering from exposure. Facing them was a slow, painful trek on foot for as much as two miles. The Pencarrow road was bleak, windswept and treacherous, its surface littered with rubble and running with mud. Especially for those without shoes it must have been the most gruelling of forced marches. Around them as they walked could be seen the flotsam and tragedy of shipwreck. Landrovers crawled and bumped their way past, heaped with injured, unconscious and dying. Rescuers had lit driftwood fires beside the road to try and sustain others waiting for transport. Most terrible of all, bodies lay in full view on the beach or next to the road, sprawled and dishevelled. There was no time to worry about them as the desperate efforts went on to save as many as possible from the sea's clutches.

The dirt road that stretches along the Pencarrow coast at the base of steep, scrub-covered hills. Hundreds of survivors from the Wahine made their way along this road after coming ashore. Seatoun and the cliffs of Fort Dorset, where the Wahine sank, are in the distance at right, across the harbour.

© Murray Robinson 2008

Forty seven people lost their lives along the Pencarrow coast that afternoon. They drowned in the surf, were thrown against the rocks or, having gained the shore, perished from hypothermia. Rescuers would later tell of venturing as far as they dared into the gigantic seas, trying to grab exhausted swimmers only to have the undertow sweep them out of reach. Some were plucked from the sea on the very edge of death then had to be left while their rescuers went back for others. Without warmth or medical attention they died where they lay. Of the 47 fatalities an estimated 12 reached land alive only to succumb either on the beach or on their way to hospital.

Just offshore, a rescue fleet of fishing boats, little ships and private launches was combing the eastern side of the harbour, pulling survivors from the water. They were under the direction of Captain Galloway the Deputy Habour Master, who was aboard HMNZS Manga. Rescued from the sea himself after jumping from the Wahine, he had realised what was happening and immediately taken command of operations off the Pencarrow coast. The tug Tapuhi arrived at the Inter-Island Wharf in Wellington around 3.15 p.m. with 174 survivors - nearly one quarter of the Wahine's entire complement of passengers and crew - packed aboard after having rescued them from the sea at Pencarrow. As soon as they had been disembarked the Tapuhi returned to Pencarrow where the search for survivors continued well into the night.

Photo by Kay McCormick

This photo was taken by Kay McCormick, a Wahine survivor, on Thursday 10 April 2008 exactly 40 years after the Wahine Disaster. It shows one of the beaches on the Pencarrow coast where many survivors landed from the sea. Ahead of them was a long, punishing walk of up to two miles in arctic-like temperatures and mostly in bare feet. The older of the two Pencarrow lighthouses can be seen on the hilltop at left. By 10 April 1968 nineteen year old Kay McCormick had almost completed her training as a registered nurse. She spent that morning standing in the vestibule area forward of the Wahine's Smoke Room on B Deck, helping children and seasick passengers use the toilets located there. When the Wahine was abandoned Miss McCormick joined a long queue of passengers out on the freezing, tilting decks waiting to embark in the life rafts. When her turn came the B Deck rails, over which she climbed, were level with the sea. The listing Wahine seemed to tower directly over her 25 person life raft, threatening to roll on top of it. Removing her shoes Kay McCormick dropped into the sea, kicking with her feet to propel the life raft away from the ship. There were many examples like this of bravery and selflessness from among the Wahine's passengers, crew and their rescuers, very few of which were ever acknowledged.

Photo by Kay McCormick

Rocks at Pencarrow, taken on the 40th anniversary of the Wahine Disaster, 10 April 2008.

MV Aramoana. Painting in ink and acrylics by Murray Robinson, 2007
Captain Robertson was Master of the Aramoana for almost three years from September 1962.

Copyright (c) painting by Murray Robinson

On 10 April 1968 the largest of all the rescue vessels that responded when the Wahine was abandoned, was the Cook Strait rail ferry Aramoana. Commanded by Captain A Dodds, the Aramoana had been on stand-by throughout the morning and left the Cook Strait Ferry Terminal at full speed at 1.36 p.m.. When she reached the Wahine her two motor lifeboats were launched to assist people in the sea. Both boats, one under the command of the Aramoana's Chief Officer Mr C E Graham, and the other commanded by Third Officer Mr J King, headed across to the Pencarrow side of the harbour. Aboard Mr King's boat was the Aramoana's Assistant Purser Gerry Quaid and her Fourth Engineer Ray Nunns. Both boats were lost in the very heavy seas; Mr King's boat was capsized after rescuing just two survivors including passenger Shirley Hick, and Mr Graham's boat went ashore after having been swamped. The report Mr Graham gave of the scene on the Pencarrow shore, where he landed, depicts graphically the condition of the survivors there: "I can only compare it with descriptions I have read of people fleeing from the Blitzkrieg of the last War. Vacant faces, staring eyes and utterly exhausted."

The above painting of the Aramoana shows her with the red, black and white funnel logo she wore later in her career. In 1968 the New Zealand Railways shield was mounted on her funnel.

9. Why were the many coastal vessels and pleasure craft in Wellington harbour not told earlier to go to the Wahine, so that people in the sea could have been rescued before they were swept across the harbour to Pencarrow?

From 1.30 p.m. many small boats and ships left immediately for the area off Steeple Rock in response to the Harbour Master's request for all vessels to assist those aboard the Wahine. Their departure took place at the same time as the start of the evacuation of the ship, so that there was a considerable interval until these rescue vessels arrived. The first did not get there until just after 2 p.m., by which time the Wahine had been fully abandoned and many of her passengers were in the sea.

Although conditions had moderated, out beyond Point Halswell the armada of little rescue craft was soon battling the heavy, lumpy swell in the harbour's main channel. From around 1.20 p.m. the storm that had raged throughout the morning quickly disappeared, a light north-westerly gale springing up in its place. But prior to then, sea conditions on the harbour had remained far too extreme for small boats. The 232 ton, 112 feet (34 metres) long Tapuhi, trying to get close to the Wahine's stern just after 1 p.m. so as to reconnect her towing wire, had experienced the greatest difficulty holding her position in the mountainous seas. The rescue vessels could not have been directed to leave any earlier without the lives of their crews being put at very significant risk.

Wahine the day after sinking
Painting entitled "Wahine the Day After" by Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

Had there been full visibility for divers in the seas around the Wahine after she sank, this is what they would have seen: the ship lying on the harbour floor with her port side above water. Clouds of silt and leaking fuel oil from the ship made undersea visibility near to zero, but Martin Cahill's painting vividly captures how the Wahine must have looked immediately following the disaster.

10. What did the Union Steam Ship Company, owner and operator of the Wahine, do to provide support and assistance?

By 1968 Captain Robertson had worked for the Union Steam Ship Company for nearly three decades. Loyalty to his employer forbade him from any public statement about the role the company played on 10 April 1968, a role that, with hindsight, can be described as less than proactive. "More could have been done" was the verdict of the Court of Inquiry when remarking on the company's performance that day.

The Head Office and operational nerve-centre of the Union Steam Ship Company was, in 1968, located on Customhouse Quay in Wellington City, just a few miles from where the Wahine was. During that morning the company could hear the radio transmissions to and from the ship, but because of a fault with their radio equipment, head office staff could make no direct contact with Captain Robertson, even by radio telephone. Little effort seems to have been made to get round this problem, despite the gravity of the situation. The head office knew the Wahine had been aground on Barrett Reef, that she was holed, badly flooded and without engine power, held only by her anchors in the most severe weather, and that there were 734 people aboard. Not yet two years in service, the near-new Wahine was, at the time, the Union Steam Ship Company's finest ship. The company's apparent lack of interest in what was happening to her seems quite astonishing. Key questions such as "what is your draught?", "are any of your passengers or crew injured?" and "is there water on your vehicle deck?" were never asked. A quick check of the builder's plans for the Wahine, of which the head office had a full set, would soon have refreshed the company's technical personnel about the non-water-tight doors and ventilation shafts leading up to the main vehicle deck from flooded compartments below. Knowing this, it should then have been logical to check with Captain Robertson that he was also aware of it, and whether he understood the priority for curbing the water entering the Wahine's main vehicle deck. This was not done.

The company's answer to this was that Captain Robertson was their man on the spot. He was the company's senior master, he was in command of the Wahine, and if he needed to report any specific problem or seek any specific advice, he would do so. Radio messages from the ship were, instead, assuring them that all was well. In the meantime, it was preferable not to distract Captain Robertson with questions that might interfere or suggest he did not have their full confidence. There is some validity in this, but the seafarers among the company's head office personnel must have appreciated the tremendous pressure and difficulty Captain Robertson was under and, in these circumstances, the likelihood for mistakes. A few carefully chosen questions would soon have confirmed whether or not the Wahine was truly in no danger, as her Master was reporting. But nothing was said and not one request for more information was made by the Union Steam Ship Company to Captain Robertson throughout that morning or early afternoon.

Just prior to 12 midday an attempt was made by the company to get their freighter Katea (Captain F Kelner) berthed at Pipitea Wharf in Wellington, out to the Wahine to try and assist with towing her. Compared to the tug Tapuhi the 3,790 ton Katea was a much bigger vessel with a deeper draught and more powerful diesel engines. She conceivably may have made a difference but the plan was soon aborted. With 60 knot winds blowing in the inner harbour it proved impossible to shift the Katea from her berth. There is no record of any attempt having been made to use the radio facilities aboard the Katea to establish direct communications with the Wahine.

11. What significance did the failure of the Wahine's radar have?

The answer to this is: none. Doubts still linger as to what really happened to the Wahine's radar as she came through the harbour entrance on the morning of 10 April 1968. Did the radar genuinely fail? Or was it mistakenly (or conveniently) believed to have failed, and then switched off? Would the radar have saved the Wahine from Barrett Reef had it remained operable?

The Wahine was equipped with one radar unit, a British-made Kelvin Hughes High Performance Marine Radar Type 14/12. The rotating scanner was located on a platform high up on the ship's foremast, in front of the bridge. Inside the Wahine's bridge, the display screen and controls for the radar were mounted on a pedestal about two metres to the right of the steering wheel. The radar had a maximum range of 24 miles (38.6 kms). There was no separate, backup radar although this was not unusual at the time aboard merchant ships.

vehicle deck
Photo acknowledged to Glasgow City Archives

A close-up of the Wahine showing the radar scanner on her foremast. The large flag flying from the halyards above the Wahine's bridge is that of Fairfields (Glasgow) Ltd, the Wahine's builders. This photo was taken in the Firth of Clyde late in May 1966 and is one of a series recording the very first occasion when the Wahine steamed out to the open sea, just after she had been completed. The purpose of this short voyage was to carry out sea trials; the flag denotes she is still in the hands of her builders.

Throughout the overnight voyage from Lyttelton and the early morning crossing of Cook Strait, the Wahine's radar had been switched on and functioning normally. In darkness just after 6.10 a.m., as the Wahine steamed past the flashing light on Pencarrow Head, the rain became heavier and visibility dropped to half a mile. Captain Robertson stepped back from the bridge windows to confirm his ship's position on the radar screen. He had done so a number of times since taking over control of the ship twenty minutes earlier. Normally Captain Robertson would have expected the screen, dimly illuminated in orange, to show the coastline of the harbour entrance ahead of the ship and the navigation beacons inside the harbour, on which the Wahine was lined up. But this time the screen was different. The PPI, or present position indicator, was not reading correctly and for some reason the entire picture on the screen seemed to have gone upside down.

For a few seconds Captain Robertson manipulated the radar controls but, when he could not restore the screen's normal picture, he left it and crossed to the port wing of the bridge. He did not switch the radar off. Loss of the radar was a nuisance but not a setback; Captain Robertson could navigate and determine the ship's position just as capably without it. For him and for seafarers of his generation, radar was an aid to navigation only; they did not depend on it and radar was never regarded as a substitute for the eyes, judgement and knowledge of masters and watch-keeping officers. Theirs was an era when ships had none of the computerised technology that features on ships' bridges today. Automatic navigation tracking systems, global positioning systems, electronic chart display information systems, integrated bridge systems......nothing of this had been invented in 1968. Instead, it was the human skills and seamanship of the master and his officers by which ships were guided.

After the storm had struck, both Second Officer Shanks and then Chief Officer Luly tried to get the radar screen functioning again. From the bridge windows Mr Luly could see that the radar scanner on its platform high up the foremast was still rotating. He could also see that the foremast itself was shaking violently with the movement of the ship and the impact of the wind. Crossing to the passageway at the rear of the bridge that led to the radio office, Mr Luly called out to the Radio Officer, Mr Lyver, telling him to come and check the radar and see if he could put it right. This was at about 6.20 a.m.

Mr Lyver was responsible for all the Wahine's telecommunications equipment, including the radar. When he came onto the bridge Mr Lyver found the picture on the radar screen very murky and confused. After trying without success to identify and fix the problem, at around 6.28 a.m. Mr Lyver told the Chief Officer that there was nothing he could do. He continued to watch the screen. At approximately 6.45 a.m. when there was still no improvement, Mr Lyver switched the radar off. Later it was determined that the radar had failed firstly because water from the torrential rain had leaked into the scanner equipment on the foremast. Secondly, the scanner's normal rotation had been disrupted by the force of the wind and the excessive shaking and vibration of the foremast. The radar simply had been overcome by the wall of rain and spray through which it could neither transmit nor receive signals. Even if it had functioned normally, conditions that morning after the storm struck were so extreme that Captain Robertson would have distrusted any information the radar screen gave him. An unstabilised radar, such as the one aboard the Wahine, rapidly loses effectiveness in any conditions where the ship is swinging or rolling heavily. Without a gyro compass to stabilise the radar as the Wahine swung out of control, the picture on the screen would very likely have been indecipherable (see Question & Answer 3).

The radar had failed once before during the Wahine's short life. In July 1966 while the ship was on her delivery voyage from Scotland, water had leaked into the scanner mechanism on the foremast during a heavy rain storm. The leak was soon repaired but this early malfunction showed that, located near the top of the foremast, the scanner was particularly exposed to winds and weather. Had the Wahine survived, the radar scanner would in all likelihood have been shifted to a lower position, maybe adjacent to the master compass platform above the bridge.

12. Why didn't Captain Robertson order all the lifeboats filled with passengers and lowered before the Wahine heeled over to the point where the four port-side lifeboats could no longer be used?

Loading and then launching the Wahine's lifeboats at any time up until just before 'abandon ship' was ordered at 1.25 p.m. would have resulted in their being either swamped, overturned or flung against the Wahine's hull by the heavy breaking seas running along the sides of the ship. Added to this, the Wahine's uncontrolled movement from side to side as she drifted on her anchors would have made launching the boats even more hazardous. Hundreds would certainly have drowned in the sea as a result. It was only from about 1.20 p.m. when the Wahine stopped her sheering movement for the first time since coming off Barrett Reef, and when a sheltered lee formed along her starboard side, that it became possible to put lifeboats into the water. By that stage her list meant it was no longer possible to lower the port-side lifeboats.

13. How far over did the Wahine roll when hit by the rogue wave at approximately 6.14 am on the morning of 10th April 1968?

Crew members inside the Wahine's smoking room on B Deck later recalled having seen water spraying in through the sliding panels of the smoking room's starboard side windows. On this basis, and taking into account the Wahine's centre of gravity, it can be calculated that the ship rolled at least 47 degrees. The wave must have been some 45 feet (13.7 metres) in height to incline the vessel to that extent, and for seawater to reach the B deck windows. She would have taken three seconds to make the roll, stayed there for two seconds, then taken a further 12 seconds to come back upright. (These figures are acknowledged to Richard Dunn.)

When she rolled, Captain Robertson was catapulted almost the entire width of the bridge, flying through the air from where he was standing in the bridge's port wing, striking the radar console before landing in the starboard wing. He later estimated the distance he was airborne as 74 feet. Quartermaster Ken MacLeod, who was at the Wahine's steering wheel, recalled hanging on to the spokes of the wheel with his feet in the air as she titled. Everybody else on the bridge was launched on the starboard wing along with Captain Robertson. On C Deck at the Wahine's stern, the wave uprooted the binnacle that housed the ship's emergency magnetic compass, and carried away bench seats secured to the deck as well as the tarpaulin cover to a large opening directly over the after end of the main vehicle deck. This opening, known as the tonnage hatch, was 96 square feet (8.9 square metres) in area.

Tranquil day

Tranquil day
Images are by Richard Dunn and are gratefully acknowledged to him. They are (C) Richard Dunn and not to be reproduced without his permission.

Tranquil day
© Photo by Murray Robinson.

A view taken on a tranquil summer's day showing where the drama of Wednesday afternoon 10th April 1968 played out. The camera is looking eastwards towards the hills of Pencarrow in the middle distance. At right is the township of Seatoun, with Seatoun beach and wharf. Worser Bay is in the foreground. Dark-forested hills visible immediately above Seatoun are those of Fort Dorset, named for an army encampment once located there. The entrance channel to Wellington Harbour curves away to the right from the centre of the picture. Steeple Rock sits prominently in the sea off the far end of Seatoun beach. Captain Robertson's plan was to wait until the storm peaked and began abating, then have the tugs Tapuhi and Taioma tow the Wahine round into Worser Bay and beach her in shallow water there. His plan had a good chance of success particularly in view of the Wahine's resilience in the face of all she had endured that morning. But everything changed when, sheering on her anchors, she struck the seabed somewhere just to the right of Steeple Rock.

Copyright © 2008 Murray Robinson

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