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Photos by D G Robinson

Godfather and godson. Captain Gordon Robertson with Murray Robinson as a boy, from old family photos. The photo at left was taken in Captain Robertson's front garden in 1958. The photo at right is from October 1966 and shows Captain Robertson just before he took command of the Wahine.

Both photos © Murray Robinson 2008
Both photos have been kindly restored by Royce Flynn www.flynnexpress.co.nz September 2012.

This article, by Murray Robinson, was published in 2006 in "New Zealand Marine News" Vol 54 No 2. "New Zealand Marine News" is the quarterly journal of the New Zealand Ship and Marine Society Inc.

When I was seven weeks old I was baptized. Along with the priest coming at me through clouds of incense, jug in hand ready to douse my newborn head with cold water, this ceremony also involved the naming of Godparents. My Godfather was a sea captain with the Union Steam Ship Company. His name was Hector Gordon Robertson. “Hector” was never used; we always knew him as Gordon Robertson (or “Robbie” to his professional colleagues). Aged 44 he was, at the time, master of the 2,772 ton freighter Kaponga, a ship built for the carriage of timber that the Union Company had purchased in 1954. Captain Robertson was sent to London in December that year to bring the Kaponga out to New Zealand.

During my childhood I did not see a great deal of my Godfather for, as a ship’s master, he was nearly always away. He was a tall, good-looking man, modest and quietly spoken, not at all the gruff, yarn-spinning old salt one might expect of someone who’d been at sea since the age of 17. After gaining his third mate’s certificate in England, Captain Robertson’s first ship with the Union Company had been the coaster Waipahi, which he joined in August 1938. In 1945 he was Chief Officer of the collier Wingatui when she was famously blown around the North Island. Nine years later on the night of 24 April 1954, when in command of the Kokiri inbound for Wellington with a cargo of Westport coal, Captain Robertson rescued the crew of the coaster Hauiti after she struck rocks off the Brothers Islands in Cook Strait. Today however, Captain Robertson is remembered for his role as master of the Wellington-Lyttelton Express Steamer Wahine and the disaster of 10 April 1968.

There were two occasions when, as a boy, I was taken to visit my Godfather aboard the ships he commanded. The earlier of these was when he was master of the Aramoana, first of the Cook Strait rail ferries. I would have been no more than seven or eight years of age at the time. My father and I were on the bridge of the Aramoana as Captain Robertson navigated the ship along Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound, in-bound for Picton. The weather was fine and beautiful – high summer, and the Aramoana was filled with holiday-makers. The centre bridge windows in front of where Captain Robertson was standing had been opened; they hinged upwards to be secured against the deckhead. He was in his master's hat and uniform but minus his jacket because of the summer heat; he had his binoculars in his hands and he was wearing sunglasses; I particularly remember that. Aside from my father and I there were just two others on the bridge: an officer at the engine telegraphs and the helmsman at the wheel.

In his quiet voice Captain Robertson gave his helm orders: "Starboard five.....steady.....watch her.....'midships". There was no other talk. Occasionally he would walk across to either wing of the bridge. At one point, having observed small pleasure craft way ahead of the ship, my Godfather beckoned to me and indicated a large red button on a control panel under the open bridge windows. "Push that", he said. I did so and the Aramoana's siren high on her funnel roared out, warning the pleasure craft of our approach. "Hold it down" Captain Robertson told me, and the sound echoed and boomed around the sunlit, forested hills on either side of us.

The second occasion, which I remember much more clearly for I was several years older, began on Friday evening 8 March 1968 when my father and I travelled down to Lyttelton aboard the Wahine. My initial memory is the crowd of passengers in front of the purser’s bureau at the head of B Gangway, the pursers in their uniforms perspiring under bright lights as they sorted out final tickets prior to sailing time. Our cabin for the overnight voyage was on B Deck forward on the starboard side; two beds, a washbasin beneath a formica lid, and a window. We had only been there a short time when a tall, stockily-built officer with one gold ring on his sleeve filled the cabin doorway. “Captain’s compliments, sir,” he said to my father, “and would you please follow me.” He led us up stairs and along passages until, at the top of a final stairway, we stepped onto the bridge of the Wahine.

I was 12 years old and never in all my boyhood did I behold a place more fascinating, more spellbinding. Except for numerous illuminated dials and controls, the bridge was in darkness. I remember how enormous it seemed. The bridge had a polished linoleum floor and was fully enclosed, measuring 24 metres (79 feet) from the outboard edge of the port wing across to the starboard wing. The wide sweep of windows gave a full panoramic view over the harbour and the host of city lights. Behind the wheel a shadowy figure stood motionless while nearby, the officer who’d escorted us from our cabin took up his position in front of the engine telegraphs on the port wing.

Captain Robertson came towards us out of the darkness as we arrived. I was too short to see over the lower edge of the bridge windows so my Godfather turned to the officer at the telegraphs. “Get him a stool”, he said. The officer vanished into the chartroom at the rear of the bridge, returning just as swiftly with a stool for me to stand on. Now I could see right up to the Wahine’s foredeck where seamen waited beside the mooring lines. Below me on the Wahine’s forward observation deck passengers were moving around; I remember some turned to look up at me. Just before 8 p.m. a man with three rings on his sleeve - the Wahine’s Chief Officer - arrived on the bridge. He conferred for a few seconds with Captain Robertson who then walked across to the port wing. “Standby on the engines” he said, and the telegraphs rang out.

The Master leaned out through the open windows. “Single up moorings fore and aft”. “Single up moorings fore and aft, sir,” the Chief Officer repeated, picking up a telephone near where I stood. “Let go the spring” ordered Captain Robertson, then “let go fore and aft”. “All clear sir,” came the reply, and Captain Robertson turned to the officer at the telegraphs. “Half ahead both engines”. Suddenly and soundlessly the Wahine began to glide forward.

Captain Robertson now came over to my father, who was standing behind me. I remember his exact words: “One thing I like about this ship, she’s so quiet!” As the Wahine’s stern cleared the end of the wharf there came a chorus of orders and voices: “Full ahead on both engines,” said the Master. “Full ahead both engines” repeated the officer at the telegraphs, and the bells sounded again. “Helm hard-a-port.” “Helm hard-a-port, sir” from the quartermaster at the wheel. In front of me the Wahine’s bow turned as she answered her twin rudders. “Midships!” called my Godfather, standing just a few metres from me. “Midships aye sir” replied the quartermaster, and the Wahine stopped turning. I could not have been more impressed.

Off to starboard a big passenger ship was being manoeuvred away from the Overseas Passenger Terminal to follow us down the harbour. Captain Robertson told us she was the Chandris liner Queen Frederica. Once we were out past the harbour entrance we watched as the Queen Frederica, a mass of lights, turned away to the west out into the Tasman Sea. At this point Captain Robertson invited my father and I to join him for supper in his cabin.

The master’s quarters aboard the Wahine were located immediately below the bridge. On the starboard side was his day cabin while to port was a sleeping cabin and bathroom. Captain Robertson’s day cabin was the very best in size and comfort. Forward on its starboard side was a large curved desk made of dark varnished timber; it faced outwards into the centre of the cabin. In front of the desk was a suite of lounge chairs in yellow fabric. The floor had blue patterned carpet and on the side of the desk against the bulkhead was Captain Robertson’s old valve radio in its wood cabinet. This radio had accompanied him on all his ships. There was also a large sideboard and bookcase on the port side of the room.

Captain's deck
(c) Martin Cahill. Gratefully acknowledged to Martin Cahill and not to be reproduced without his prior permission.

A steward arrived with tea and coffee but I don’t remember if he brought anything for me. By this time the Wahine was well out into Cook Strait, pitching up and down, and I was rapidly losing all interest in my surroundings. Unfortunately I had not inherited my father’s immunity from seasickness. Captain Robertson was a very keen gardener and beside the couch where I was sitting, a large green rubber plant was vibrating and shaking with the Wahine’s movement. My father chatted with Captain Robertson, seated behind his desk. They were New Zealanders of the same generation; my father aged 61 was four years older than Captain Robertson. The clearest memory I have of my Godfather is of him smiling happily, delighted in talking about and showing off his magnificent ship. By March 1968 he’d been in command of the Wahine for 17 months but his pride and pleasure in her had not diminished. Still almost brand-new, the 8,944 ton Wahine had been in service on the Wellington-Lyttelton run for 19 months.

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Photo acknowledged to Glasgow City Archives

The bridge of the Wahine, seen from the ship's forward observation deck. The base of the Wahine's foremast is at lower left. The two small windows under the bridge at right were those for Captain Robertson's sleeping cabin, while the two windows at left were his day cabin.

Next morning my father rose early and went back to the bridge for the Wahine’s arrival in Lyttelton harbour. I did not accompany him. The ship had continued her pitching motion throughout the night so I stayed where I was. When he returned to our cabin after the Wahine had berthed, my father told me that Captain Robertson had invited us to join him for breakfast in the officers’ dining saloon.

This was, I learned much later, a rare privilege and the only time I have ever “dined at the Captain’s table”. The honour was, however, all too brief. A steward placed in front of me a bowl containing either preserved or stewed fruit. I remember it was brown in colour and although the Wahine was alongside the wharf I immediately began to feel sick again. My father cautioned me not to start vomiting in front of the assembled officers eating their breakfasts and so I excused myself and went out on deck.

It was Saturday 9 March 1968, a fine, sunny autumn morning in Lyttelton. I sat on one of the bench seats outside the passenger smoke room, under the keels of the starboard lifeboats. In just 32 days’ time these same boats would be launched in earnest. After an interval I saw Captain Robertson in his full uniform walking towards me. When he reached where I was sitting he stopped and asked if I was all right. “I feel sick,” I answered in a quavering voice. My Godparents did not have children of their own and thus Captain Robertson was not someone possessed of a natural rapport towards 12 year olds. Without further word he turned and resumed his walk, heading aft along B Deck.

Late that afternoon my father and I reboarded the Wahine after visiting Christchurch. We were again in a small cabin - two beds, a washbasin and a window. But, as with the night before, we had only been there briefly when a crew member appeared in the cabin doorway. This time it was a steward. He told my father that, with the Captain’s compliments, we had been upgraded. The steward led us to a much larger two berth cabin further aft, inboard of the Wahine’s C Deck lower promenade. It had its own private bathroom, a special luxury in those days. I like to think that perhaps Captain Robertson had indeed taken pity on his seasick godson for the cabin was right at the centre of the ship and that night I slept without trouble.

I remember standing at the aft-facing windows on the port wing of the Wahine’s bridge that evening, looking up at the ship’s red flood-lit funnel as she passed Godley Head, outbound from Lyttelton. The same officer at the telegraphs was standing beside me, having once again fetched a stool from the chartroom for me to stand on. In my memory I can see Captain Robertson walking almost jauntily across the bridge to stand beside the helmsman as the Wahine steamed into Wellington’s inner harbour next morning. He raised his arm to point out a landmark on shore, telling the helmsman to steer for it. After 40 years of seafaring he was, in his own way, relishing this big, beautiful ship and the joy of commanding her. It was Sunday 10 March 1968 and his happiness would end in exactly one month’s time.

Not quite six years later in January 1974 I made a daylight sailing to Lyttelton aboard the Rangatira. Captain Robertson was dead and the Wahine gone. Standing on the Rangatira’s forward observation deck, I looked up at the bridge windows as she went out through Wellington Heads. At one of the windows was Captain A F McIntyre, the Rangatira’s master, and next to him was a group of visitors to the bridge. Amongst them I could see the face of a young boy. I imagine that maybe he too was standing on a stool fetched for him by the officer at the telegraphs.

My Godmother’s name was Anne Robertson. She survived my Godfather by nearly 20 years and died 13 days after the 25th anniversary of the Wahine Disaster was commemorated in Wellington. A Canadian by birth, she was a remarkable person in her own right, but that is another story. During visits to her home in 1980s she showed me the box, carefully lined with wallpaper, in which my Godfather had kept his records and papers about the Wahine and her loss. He considered that the Court of Inquiry had not fully set forth the events of 10 April 1968 as he saw them. It had been his intention to write his account in a book, answering his critics, once he’d retired from the sea.

But that also is another story.

Copyright © 2008 Murray Robinson www.thewahine.co.nz

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