The Wahine's Master in command of the ship on 10 April 1968 was 57 year old Captain H G Robertson.
Hector Gordon Robertson was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 4 February 1911, the second of six children and his parents' oldest son. The name "Hector" was never used; he was always called Gordon by his wife Anne and by his brothers and sisters. To his seagoing colleagues, however, he was known as "H G" or "Hector Gordon", and is still remembered today by these names. Brought up initially in Westport and then in Lyttelton for most of his childhood, his was a seafaring family. Captain Robertson's father, Captain David Robertson, was a master mariner and originally from Perth in Scotland. Gordon Robertson first went to sea in 1927 at the age of 16 as a ship's boy aboard the Union Steam Ship Company's trans-Tasman passenger liner Moeraki. He was an ordinary seaman aboard the 4,505 ton Manuka, built in 1903 and sistership to the Moeraki, when she was wrecked off Long Point on the night of 16 December 1929 while on passage from Bluff to Dunedin.
After this Gordon Robertson worked aboard tramp steamers and freighters on the trade routes between New Zealand and Great Britain, getting the sea time he needed before obtaining his second mate's certificate at Southampton in 1933. Three years later he was back in New Zealand waters, having gone on to qualify for his certificate of competency as a first mate. He joined the Holm Shipping Company, one of the best known of the many shipping concerns that operated their fleets of little ships around New Zealand's coastal ports. Then on 19 August 1938 Gordon Robertson was appointed Third Officer of the Union Steam Ship Company's Waipahi, a 1,783 ton cargo steamer also working the coastal trades. He was 27 years old and the Waipahi was the very first of 64 Union Company vessels on which he was to serve.
He made a favourable impression with his new employers for on 8 January 1940, 17 months after joining the Union Steam Ship Company, Gordon Robertson was appointed Third Officer of the Rangatira on the Wellington-Lyttelton Steamer Express Service. Two months later, on 17 March 1940, he was transferred to the company's flagship, the 17,491 ton Aorangi on the trans-Pacific service between Auckland, Sydney, Honolulu and Vancouver. The Aorangi and the Rangatira, together with the 13,482 ton Awatea on the trans-Tasman service, were the Union Company's finest passenger ships of the day.
While he was serving aboard the Aorangi as Junior Third Officer, Gordon met Anne Marie Robertson, a Canadian passenger with the same surname who was travelling to Australia on holiday after completing a university degree in Honolulu. They were married in Sydney on 15 May 1940. Anne and Gordon Robertson lived in Petone and in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, throughout their 33½ years of married life. They had no children.
Gordon Robertson spent the war years as second officer then chief officer aboard a variety of Union Steam Ship Company freighters on the coastal, trans-Tasman and South Pacific Island trade routes. In January 1942, shortly before his 31st birthday, he passed the examination for his certificate of competency as master of a foreign-going ship. He needed to serve further time as a ship's officer before he would be eligible for his first command. In May-June 1945 he was Chief Officer of the 2,378 ton collier Wingatui when, in one of New Zealand's more remarkable epics of the sea, she was blown right around the North Island while trying to contend with adverse winds on a voyage in ballast from Wellington to Westport.
Following the Wingatui Gordon Robertson was appointed Chief Officer of another collier, the 2,563 ton Karepo. On 22 January 1946 the Karepo went ashore near Cape Foulwind on the West Coast of the South Island, while on passage from Auckland to Greymouth where she was to load coal. The ship was successfully refloated but with her forward hold heavily flooded. For three days Chief Officer Robertson led the fight to shore up the bulkhead separating the flooded hold from the remainder of the ship. The Karepo reached Wellington under her own power on 25 January where she was placed in the floating dock for repairs.
After going on to serve as Chief Officer on the Union Steam Ship Company's trans-Tasman liner Monowai then the Wellington-Lyttleton Express Steamer Hinemoa, Gordon Robertson was promoted to master on 15 May 1952. His first command was the 942 ton cargo vessel Kanna, loading at Wellington.
Captain Robertson commanded 17 ships over the next 14 years until his appointment as Master of the Wahine on 31 October 1966. Throughout the 1950s he was master of a succession of cargo vessels and colliers most notably the 3,543 ton Komata, first of a number of freighters built for the Union Steam Ship Company after World War Two for moving export cargoes to Australia. Captain Robertson commanded the Komata for a total of 37 months. On 25 April 1954, while Master of the 2,470 ton Kokiri shipping West Coast coal to Wellington, Captain Robertson rescued the crew of the small motor coaster Hauiti, which had sunk after striking rocks near the Bothers Islands in Cook Strait. The following year his employers flew him to London to take command of the newly purchased Kaponga and bring her back to New Zealand. The Kaponga ex- Woodland was a 2,772 ton freighter designed specially for carrying timber.
The first passenger ship that Captain Robertson commanded was the veteran Tamahine, predecessor of the Cook Strait rail ferries on the Wellington-Picton service. He was appointed her Master on 27 April 1960, aged, 49, but had been aboard the Tamahine only a month when he was found to have cancer. A kidney was removed and Captain Robertson was placed on sick leave. But he made a complete recovery and after three months was back at sea again, taking command of the 3,363 ton cargo vessel Waiana at Tauranga on 23 August 1960.
Two years later, on 25 September 1962, Captain Robertson was appointed one of two masters of the new Cook Strait rail ferry Aramoana, just seven weeks after she had entered service as replacement for the Tamahine. First of the rail ferries, the 4,343 ton Aramoana made two return sailing every day across Cook Strait, each master alternating with the other for one return voyage. At the time the only rail ferry operating across Cook Strait, the Aramoana was the pioneer on this route and her schedule was a demanding one. Captain Robertson's appointment reflected the very high standing in which he was held by the Union Steam Ship Company both as a ship handler and navigator, and also as an administrator able to deal with the often highly militant labour unions. He served as Master of the Aramoana for just over three years until 29 November 1965.
On 1 December 1965, two days after leaving the Aramoana, Captain Robertson joined the liner Hinemoa on the Wellington-Lyttelton Steamer Express Service. Then four months later, on 19 April 1966, he was promoted to command the Maori, partner to the Hinemoa on the Steamer Express and newly converted to roll-on roll-off operations. He was her master until mid-October 1966 when Captain Robertson began two weeks of familiarisation aboard the Wahine, which had entered service on 1 August that year replacing the Hinemoa. Numerous problems had been experienced with the Wahine during her first months, especially with her high pressure steam plant. Rumours had spread around the Wellington and Lyttelton waterfronts that the Wahine was dangerous and defective, and would have to be returned to Scotland for new engines. Newspaper reports fed this public disquiet, such that the Union Steam Ship Company needed a master for the Wahine who would put an end to all these troubles and turn their new ship into a success. Their man for the job was Captain Robertson. Much publicity accompanied his taking over the Wahine. At 8 p.m. on Monday 31 October 1966 the Wahine left Wellington for Lyttelton under Captain Robertson's command for the very first time. Aged 55, he was now the Union Steam Ship Company's senior master. He had taken ships in and out of Wellington harbour and across Cook Strait hundreds of times by day and by night in all weathers, and his record was entirely without mishap.
People who have gone through a sudden and very traumatic experience afterwards suffer a characteristic pattern of reactions: disbelief, short-term memory loss, fretfulness, exhaustion, sleeplessness. It was thus for Captain Robertson on and after 10 April 1968 as the full realisation set in that the Wahine was lost and 51 of his passengers and crew had died. After being rescued from the sea by a fishing boat and landed at Seatoun wharf, Captain Robertson was driven to his home in the suburb of Maungaraki on the western hills of Lower Hutt. His wife Anne recalled his arriving at the door around 5.30 pm, bare-foot and soaking-wet in his captain's uniform. Once into dry clothes he sat by the radio, listening for reports that everybody from the Wahine had been safely brought ashore. But instead of this he heard that bodies had been found on the Pencarrow coast. One of them was reported to be wearing the uniform of a ship's officer. Appalled at this news, Captain Robertson now began telephoning everybody he knew within the Union Steam Ship Company and the Wellington Harbour Board who might give him more information. But nothing could be confirmed. On the 7.30 pm television news he and Anne watched footage shot that afternoon from Seatoun beach of the Wahine slowly rolling over and sinking, and of lifeboats filled with passengers. "There's been serious loss of life" said the television news reader. "It's known at least 40 are dead, but this figure could be much higher", Captain Robertson did not sleep that night.
Newspaper and TV reporters soon found him, for his address and phone number were listed in the Wellington telephone directory. From late afternoon on 11 April the telephone calls had become so numerous that Anne Robertson stopped answering them. By now Captain Robertson knew that a large number of passengers and crew from the Wahine had died, perhaps up to 200 according to some sources, but precise details could not yet be established as bodies were still being recovered. He now began the sombre task of preparing a formal report, but Captain Robertson found he could remember little of the detail of events. Full recall came slowly back to him over the following days and weeks.
In the meantime Captain Robertson sat in a chair in his lounge room overlooking the northern end of Wellington harbour, struggling to come to terms with it all and refusing to see a doctor. A quiet, modest, unassuming man of lifelong Christian conviction, the deaths of so many people in the sea wounded him very deeply, inconsolably. It was a sorrow he would carry for the rest of his life. On Sunday 14 April 1968, four days following the disaster, the world had its first glimpse into his private nightmare. The Dominion Sunday Times newspaper published a front page story from an interview Captain Robertson had given the previous day. "MY JOB IS FINISHED' SAYS CAPTAIN" read the headline, alongside a photo of the Wahine lying on her side. "Captain Robertson looked ashen and drawn." "I'll never take a passenger ship to sea again." "I haven't slept since Wednesday (10 April)." "I simply can't find any room in my mind for anything except the agony of people who have lost wives, husbands and children to the sea from my ship."
On Saturday afternoon 13 April Captain Robertson drove to Khandallah in Wellington where he attended the funeral of the 21 year old assistant purser from the Wahine, who had drowned in the sea. The television cameras were there. By now, letters had started to arrive from a public sharply divided between those expressing sympathy and those who attributed the disaster to him. There was no media training or corporate PR departments in those days. Captain Robertson, who had spent all his working life since the age of 17 on ships away at sea, was on his own.
On Sunday afternoon 14 April Anne Robertson finished typing a report that her husband had written, addressed to the General Manager of the Union Steam Ship Company and describing the events that had led to the sinking. On 18 April 1968 Captain Robertson made a full deposition on oath before the Superintendent of Merchantile Marine in Wellington. All the Wahine's officers and many of her crew similarly made sworn statements before the Superintendent of Merchantile Marine who, under the New Zealand Shipping and Seamen Act 1952, was responsible for conducting a preliminary inquiry into the Wahine's loss. This was the start of the judicial process now gathering momentum in the wake of the disaster.
On 26 April 1968 the Superintendent of Merchantile Marine submitted his findings to the Minister of Marine. He recommended to the Minister that a full, formal court of inquiry be held. Six days later on 2 May the Minister of Marine, Hon W J Scott, signed the documents that formally established the Court of Inquiry, doing so using powers granted to him under the Shipping and Seamen Act 1952. Amongst other tasks, the Court was to examine the conduct of the Wahine's Master and officers and, should negligence be found, either suspend or cancel their certificates of competency. Captain Robertson was charged under the Shipping and Seamen Act 1952 with failing to control the Wahine prior to her grounding on Barrett Reef, failing to ascertain the true extent of damage to the ship, failing to control and remove the flood water, failing to provide satisfactory radio reports to the authorities on shore, and failing to forewarn his passengers for abandoning the ship.
The Court of Inquiry (which will be discussed in full in a new website page now under preparation) got underway on 25 June 1968 and lasted until 1 August. Captain Robertson was a key witness. The inquiry was conducted on an adversarial basis, with learned counsel appearing for the Minister of Marine, in whose name the charges against Captain Robertson had been laid, and defence counsel representing him and his officers. Captain Robertson found the experience very difficult and very stressful to the point where, fatally as it later proved, he resumed smoking after having quit eight years previously. The court solicitors cross-examining Captain Robertson and seeking to prove the charges against him, had never worked or trained at sea. They had no professional knowledge of how ocean-going ships are controlled and navigated in bad weather. Yet by their arguments and their submissions to the magistrate hearing the inquiry, they had the power to destroy his career. The court room itself, with its measured, orderly tones, was a world away from the bridge of the Wahine and the storm of 10 April 1968.
On 1 August 1968 the Court of Inquiry announced its findings. No cause had been shown why either Captain Robertson or the Wahine's Chief Officer Mr (later Captain) R S Luly, should have their certificates suspended or cancelled. It was a huge relief for Captain Robertson. He paid tribute to his wife Anne, who in the face of all the controversy and all the media attention had determinedly stood by him and given him the strength to face his accusors. With the inquiry over, Captain Robertson began nine weeks of annual leave which he spent at his home in Maungaraki.
Captain Robertson returned to sea at the start of October 1968, flying to Tauranga to take command of the Union Steam Ship Company's cargo vessel Kowhai. On 13 December the written report of the Court of Inquiry, having earlier been tabled in the Parliament of New Zealand, was made public by the Minister of Marine. Any happiness that Captain Robertson may have derived from getting back to sea was now extinguished. The report confirmed that neither the Wahine's Master nor Chief Officer were guilty of any wrongful act or default in causing the loss of the Wahine and 51 lives, but it noted "certain serious omissions or errors of judgement", which because they occurred in conditions of exceptional difficulty and danger, "did not amount to wrongful acts or defaults as charged."
At the rear of the report was a 16 page annex written by three of the four nautical assessors whose function had been to provide the magistrate conducting the inquiry with expert seafaring and ship construction advice. They had insisted on it being published, and in this annex they disagreed strongly with the findings of the court. Two of the assessors were master mariners; ships' captains and therefore Captain Robertson's peers. Of all people, it was from them that he believed he could expect some understanding of the problems and predicament he had faced on the Wahine's bridge during the morning of 10 April 1968. What the assessors said, and why they did so, will be discussed in a new page to this website now under preparation. But in summary, they found Captain Robertson to be guilty of all the charges laid against him, and that he had been wrong or negligent in most if not all the key decisions he had made.
Captain Robertson was dumbfounded by what they had to say. To him, their remarks were so far from the conditions he had faced on 10 April 1968, and so at variance with the main findings of the report, that he wondered bitterly what the assessors' real motives could have been in their hammering him so totally. It was a question he was never able to answer. Condemnation from two of his seafaring peers sitting in judgement on him, and published for all the world to read, was another immense blow on top of so many other immense blows. To them and to the critics who, four decades later, still believe he caused the loss of the Wahine and the deaths of 51 people, Captain Robertson's rebuttal was simple: "You weren't there, you weren't on the bridge of the Wahine that morning, you didn't experience or witness any of what we had to contend with."
He never captained a passenger ship again. In the five years remaining to him Captain Robertson was master of nine Union Steam Ship Company cargo ships, most notably the Kawerau (3,698/1955) for 17 months from 27 January 1969. Command of roll-on roll-off ships in the Union Company's cargo fleet was offered to him but he declined. In the early 1970s the finest non-roll on-roll off ships in the fleet were the four vessels of the Ngakuta (Nga) Class. Captain Robertson was appointed master of three of them. His very last ship was the Ngapara (4,575/1966) which he commanded from 29 April until 11 June 1973 when he was forced to retire because of ill health.
Captain Robertson had intended, once he retired from the sea, to write a book giving his account of what occurred on 10 April 1968 as he saw it. A deeply compassionate man, the loss of the Wahine and so many lives weighed much more heavily on him than he ever disclosed. Except for sick leave following kidney removal in 1960, he had not taken a day off sick in his entire life. After the Wahine the cancer returned. In addition he developed heart trouble, suffering mild heart attacks in November 1971 and October 1972. In between ship commands he spent lengthy periods recuperating at home. Captain Robertson never had the opportunity to write his book, dying in Lower Hutt on 4 December 1973 aged just 62.
Seafarers who served aboard the same ships as Captain Robertson remember him as a gentleman: tall, unfailingly polite, quietly spoken, unassuming, an exceptional seaman and leader. He did not have the gruff, bullying, slack, eccentric or unpleasant mannerisms that characterised many other ships' masters from that time. His ability to place a ship alongside the wharf with the minimum of helm and engine orders, regardless of wind and sea conditions, is still recalled with admiration by men who watched him do this. Others recall the mentoring and support Captain Robertson gave them when they were dealing with the all-too-common industrial troubles among crew members aboard their ships. He was always carefully and correctly dressed, and his ships were run accordingly; one of his former chief officers described him as "pernickety" in the way he went about his job.
Master mariner David Mills joined the Cook Strait rail ferry Aramoana in February 1963 when Captain Robertson was one of two men in command of this ship. The other, senior to Captain Robertson, was Captain J E (Eric) Peake. Each master alternated with the other for one round voyage across to Picton and back. Captain Robertson was "the finest ship handler I ever saw," recalls David Mills. "He could berth the 4,160 ton Aramoana like parking a car. Being Third Mate meant I was on the bridge when he was manoeuvring the ship, and I watched him do this many times. I never sailed with a finer ship's master. He was a pure gentleman, he had a ready smile, I never saw him flustered or rude to anyone, even when we were caught in very severe cross winds while coming in to berth at Picton or Wellington. I once asked Captain Robertson while we were in the Marlborough Sounds, in-bound for Picton one pitch-black winter's night, how he knew where precisely the ship was. "I can tell by the outlines of the passing hills," was his reply." David Mills rose to be Chief Officer of the rail ferries Aramoana and Aranui before moving to other ships.
Gerry Quaid sailed as an assistant purser on the Aramoana under Captain Robertson. He too recalls Captain Robertson's "legendary" skills at judging speeds, distances and wind conditions when manoeuvring the Aramoana alongside or away from the inter-island terminals. Fourth Engineer in the Aramoana's engine room was Ray Nunns. He and his fellow engineers always knew when Captain Robertson was in command on the bridge: "Other masters gave three times the number of engine orders to get her stern-first into the berth. He was so good at it that we used to write the engine orders in the log book before he gave them, knowing precisely what they'd be. Then, as these exact same orders came down from the bridge on the telegraphs, we simply entered in the timings as they were received!"
Captain Lawrie Collins was the first member of the Union Steam Ship Company's cadet training scheme, which operated between 1952 and 1986, to be promoted to the rank of ship's master. Like Captain Robertson, his first command was the coastal vessel Kanna. In January 2010, not quite two years before his death, Captain Collins recalled having lunch with Captain Robertson at Lyttelton on Tuesday 9 April 1968, the day before the Wahine was lost. He was master of the Karetu at the time. Aged in his early 30s, Captain Collins was much younger and had far fewer years at sea than many of the seamen and union delegates aboard this and other ships he commanded. The maritime trade unions in those days were particularly strong and vociferous. Hoping to catch him out, some of these older hands would refuse certain types of work or demand more pay and time off, quoting obscure regulations and precedents or threatening industrial action.
On these occasions, when his ship was berthed at Lyttelton or Wellington, Captain Collins remembered going to see Captain Robertson to seek his advice. It was always readily given. Captain Robertson would tell his younger colleague what to do and what to say in response to the union delegates, all of it in accordance with complex rates of pay and rules of work negotiated between the ship owners and the unions. Every seaman, steward, cook and engine room rating had to belong to a union in those times in order to get work at sea, and Captain Robertson was particularly known for his ability to command respect from difficult and truculent union members aboard his ships.
Another old Union Steam Ship Company veteran who sailed with Captain Robertson was on duty in the Kawerau's engine room the first time he brought this vessel into Wellington after he was appointed her Master following the Wahine's loss. Out at the entrance to Wellington Harbour Captain Robertson telephoned the engine starting platform and said that he'd be reducing speed to "slow ahead" as the ship went past "that wreck" (the Wahine) and then he would increase speed back to full ahead – about 11 knots. This duly happened but then the ship, which was coming in to berth at Wellington, seemed to be at "full ahead" for an unusually long time. Suddenly, "stop engines" and then "finished with engines" was rung down on the telegraphs, from the bridge. Perplexed, the Kawerau's Chief Engineer, who was not familiar with Captain Robertson, ordered one of his junior engineers to go up on deck and find out where they were. The engineer hurried back to report "street lights everywhere.” The ship had come alongside and tied up without anyone in the engine room realising, and with no other engine orders apart from “stop” having been given.
Ken MacLeod the Wahine's helmsman who was on the bridge throughout the morning of 10 April 1968, tells of one incident which illustrates the type of person Captain Robertson was. One day at Lyttelton, Ken and another seaman had been given the job of painting the underside of the Wahine's starboard bridge wing. After a while the other seaman walked off and didn't return, leaving Ken on his own working from painting trestles directly opposite one of the windows to Captain Robertson's day cabin.
Noticing this, Captain Robertson came out on deck and asked Ken where the other seaman had gone. "I don't know, Captain" relied Ken. "He went off and hasn't come back". The Master turned and walked away. Most other ship's captains wouldn't have bothered themselves in the slightest with the plight of a lowly seaman left by a lazy colleague to finish the job on his own. But after about ten minutes the missing seaman returned, accompanied by the Wahine's Bosun. The seaman was told to resume work and not to stop. Captain Robertson, a seaman himself for the first years of his career at sea, had gone down to the seamen's mess room aft on the Wahine, roused out the Bosun and ordered him to find the missing seaman and put him back to work.
Ken MacLeod observed all that took place on the Wahine's bridge throughout 10 April 1968. He recalls that Captain Robertson stayed fully in command at all times, listening to reports from his officers and giving orders in the same calm, precise manner, never once becoming agitated despite the enormous load he was under. Ray Ferenczy, who was the Wahine's Senior Assistant Purser, went on the bridge several times to deliver messages and obtain information. He remembers a calm, orderly, professional atmosphere despite the tremendous racket from the storm and the hurricane winds. The bridge, he also recalls, was very cold and its floor slippery with rain from the open bridge windows.
Then as now, for a master mariner the loss of his or her ship is the most profoundly devastating of experiences. Few of them recover, despite outwardly striving to get on with life. Not only did Captain Robertson know he had lost the finest vessel he had ever commanded, but there was the additional trauma of so many deaths. He lived for less than six years after the Wahine's sinking. Five months after he died, Captain Robertson's wife Anne wrote the following in a letter to Kay McCormick, one of the survivors: "The anguish he bore over the Wahine was more than most are called upon to endure in this life."
One of the master mariners who has emailed this website says: "In 1968, ship strandings and founderings were not the rare events they are today. The collier Kaitawa had gone down with all hands only two years earlier and the coaster Maranui was lost just a couple of months after the Wahine. While these were very different ships to the Wahine, they had the same bridge technology: unstabilised radars and magnetic compasses that rapidly lose effectiveness in any conditions where the ship is swinging or rolling heavily, and they had the same weather forecasting services at their disposal. Ships in those days were so much more vulnerable to adverse sea conditions. Accidents will still happen, but statistically less often. No matter who the master was on the bridge of the Wahine that morning in April 1968, he was never going to save that ship. Then, once the Wahine had struck Barrett Reef, Captain Robertson's decisions made in the agony of the moment clearly saved many lives. He had nothing to be ashamed of but that is never going to be understood by those who have not made the effort to really consider the events in the context of the time."
(With thanks to Captain John Clarke)
Jack Churchouse, who lived from 1936 to 1993, was a master mariner who knew Cook Strait and the Port of Wellington as well as anyone else. He was the founding curator of the Wellington Harbour Board's Maritime Museum. In September 1981, writing in the Wellington Harbour Beacon newspaper, Jack Churchouse recalled the wind and sea conditions on the morning of 10 April 1968. The death toll of 51 was, he said ”extra-ordinarily light in the circumstances.” The reason it was so light is solely because of Captain Robertson.
Explanatory note: "ton" or "tons" means gross register tonnage, which is a measure of a ship's internal capacity (not of her weight). One ton is equivalent to 100 cubic feet capacity.