The 10th of April 1968

The Wahine listing and being abandoned. The four sets of davit arms on her starboard side are in the lowered position and two lifeboats or life rafts can just be made out at left, heading away from the ship. Aft on A Deck, an inflated life raft is hooked onto one of the Wahine's four Schat single-arm davits and is secured outboard against the ship's side. No more than an hour after this photo was taken, the Wahine rolled over onto her starboard side. Captain Robertson was the last person to leave the ship, jumping into the sea from her stern when the Wahine was almost on her beam ends.

Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington New Zealand. Reference No F1149 (35mm) Frame 29

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

Barrett Reef (foreground) and the entrance to Wellington harbour, with Pencarrow Head and its two lighthouses at right. The camera is looking eastwards, with north on the left hand. The Wahine was moving right to left across the photo, between Pencarrow and the reef, as she came in through the harbour entrance on 10th April 1968. Cook Strait is at right, out of the photo. The entrance channel between Pencarrow and the reef has a width of approximately 1,000 metres; the Wahine was 134 metres long at her waterline.

Shortly before daybreak on the morning of Wednesday 10th of April 1968, the Wahine went aground on Barrett Reef in very severe weather, just inside the entrance to Wellington harbour. Aboard were 610 passengers, 123 crew and one stowaway, nearing the end of what had been a routine overnight voyage from Lyttelton. On the Wahine's vehicle decks were 75 cars, four trucks, 114 bags of mail and 24 Seafreighters. These were tarpaulin-covered pallets mounted on wheeled trailers and loaded with general cargo.

Hidden by the night, a huge rogue wave had, 27 minutes earlier, caught the Wahine when she was just to the north of Pencarrow Head. The wave rolled the ship Poseidon-like onto her starboard side. She had recovered only to then be overwhelmed by catastrophic winds and seas that, in less than a minute, had more than doubled to hurricane force. Again and again the Wahine's Master battled to turn her back out to open water in Cook Strait. He succeeded only to once more lose control of his ship as she was driven onto the rocks.

The Wahine was blown across Barrett Reef, regaining deep water at the reef's northern edge with her underwater hull extensively damaged and all steering and propulsion lost. Despite her injuries the Wahine miraculously remained upright and afloat. In an act of bravery that has never been recognised, her Chief Officer Mr R S Luly and Bosun Mr G H Hampson went out onto the Wahine's exposed foredeck in hurricane winds to let go the ship's anchors. For the rest of the morning as the storm worsened, she drifted stern-first on her anchors up the harbour in mountainous seas. She was close to the Fort Dorset shore, not under control and sheering from side to side through arcs of up to 130 degrees under the immense force of the wind.

Views of Barrett Reef

Barrett Reef, looking westwards from the deck of a passing ship. During the storm of 10 April 1968 the Wahine was driven across these rocks, from left to right, for a period of approximately 30 minutes.

© Murray Robinson 2008

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

The rocks of Barrett Reef with the beach of Breaker Bay below the saddle in the hills, centre right, and Point Dorset at far right. The red light buoy marks the southern edge of the reef. Diagonally above and at right of the light buoy, just protruding from the sea's surface, is Pinnacle Rock which the Wahine struck first as she went onto Barrett Reef at 6.41 am on 10 April 1968. The larger rock at right, with its curious square-angled indent, is Outer Rock. Huddart Parker's trans-Tasman liner Wanganella went aground on this rock while entering Wellington harbour in calm weather on the night of 19 January 1947.

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

A near-similar view of the reef but on a nicer day, also taken from a passing ship entering Wellington harbour. It was a near-identical light buoy to this newer one, anchored to the seabed, that Captain Robertson glimpsed through a break in the tumult just before the Wahine was driven aground on Pinnacle Rock. A massive buttress of greywacke, the top of Pinnacle Rock peaks innocuously above the sea diagonally at left from the light buoy.

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

Another view of Pinnacle Rock (left) and Outer Rock (right) at the southern end of Barrett Reef. On 4 May 1968 Royal New Zealand Navy divers found the Wahine's starboard propeller, tailshaft and shaft bracket lying on the seabed beside Pinnacle Rock, which lies some 35 feet north-west of Outer Rock. The broken tailshaft, roughly 20 feet in length, was orientated in a north-south direction with the propeller at its southern end. The near-continuous line of rocks running through the centre of the picture are those extending out from Palmer Head, on the western side of the harbour entrance. Chaffers Passage is the area of water between these rocks and both Pinnacle Rock and Outer Rock. It was on the west or Chaffers Passage side of Pinnacle Rock, at a depth of about 30 feet (9 metres), that the broken tailshaft was located. (See further down this page for an illustration of the Wahine's rudders, propellers and tailshafts).The divers on examining Pinnacle Rock found that its western side had been recently and heavily damaged from the top of the rock down to a depth of about 25 feet. All of this was the result of the Wahine's impact at 6.41 am on 10 April 1968.

Water soon began entering the Wahine's main vehicle deck from flooded lower compartments, coming up through doors and ventilation trunks that were not water-tight. Herculean efforts were made by the ship's engineers to counter this but by late morning when an attempt was made to tow her, the Wahine was well down by the stern. Shortly after midday she touched bottom off Steeple Rock and began listing to starboard.

.The passengers had spent the morning in their lifejackets, assembled and waiting in the Wahine's public rooms. Now, as the ship heeled over, they were ordered into lifeboats and life rafts. Many of these were carried across Wellington harbour to the rugged shores of Eastbourne and Pencarrow. It was here that most of the 51 fatalities occurred.

At about 2 p.m. the Wahine lay over on her starboard side and sank to the harbour floor, just off the Wellington suburb of Seatoun. Partially submerged and exposed to the winter storms, she could not be refloated and was broken up where she lay.

Much of the controversy about the Wahine had its beginnings with the Report of the Court of Inquiry into her loss, published in November 1968. The report cleared the Wahine's Master, Captain H G Robertson and his Chief Officer of wrongful acts, finding however that they had made serious errors of judgement under conditions of great difficulty. But three of the Court's four nautical and engineering assessors, whose role was to assist and advise the judge hearing the inquiry, dissented from this. In a detailed 15 page appendix to the report, they were much more sharply critical. So instead of the inquiry bringing full and final answers, the reasons for the Wahine's loss and in particular the actions or lack of them on the part of Captain Robertson, have remained shrouded in uncertainty.

Even now, four decades later, it still seems incredible, unbelievable that such a tragedy could occur. The Wahine was not in trouble far away off some remote, inaccessible, uninhabited shore; she was inside Wellington harbour and only a few kilometres from downtown Wellington City, Capital of New Zealand. The ship was near-new, fully operational, fully manned, on time, on her proper course and correctly loaded. There were two highly experienced, fully certified master mariners on her bridge: Captain Robertson and Chief Officer Luly. She had survived a mauling on Barrett Reef and had then just as miraculously avoided going ashore on Point Dorset. For many hours, despite her injuries and as the storm worsened, the Wahine remained defiantly afloat and upright. Then, with the weather rapidly moderating and when her prospects should have been largely in the clear, the Wahine slowly, quietly rolled over and sank. At the time of her abandonment and sinking the Wahine was scarcely half a kilometre from the wide beach and residential streets of Seatoun. Yet 51 people died in the sea.

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This is most probably the very last photo ever taken of the Wahine prior to 10th of April 1968. It shows her berthed at the Lyttelton Inter-Island Terminal on Tuesday afternoon, 9th April 1968. The stern door is closed, which means that vehicles and Seafreighter trailers from the previous night have all been disembarked, with loading of cars for the coming night's voyage yet to commence. The seats at the Wahine's stern just above the green hull were all swept from their mountings when the ship was hit by the rogue wave the following morning. Large aft-facing windows above these seats are those of the B Deck passenger cafeteria. The A Deck passenger lounge is above the cafeteria.

As is the case with all traumatic events that involve major loss of life, the narrative of the Wahine is a complex one filled many layers of detail all of which must be studied in order to gain a full understanding of what happened. But if we were to compress it all down into an EXECUTIVE SUMMARY, these are the key points:

  • The Wahine had been inspected and certified by the Marine Department of the Government of New Zealand as fully compliant with all maritime laws and safety requirements in force in 1966, 1967 and 1968. This included what had been provided on the ship by way of lifejackets deemed suitable for children.
  • Wellington, a major commercial port, was not equipped with modern salvage tugs able to go to the assistance of an ocean-going ship disabled and in distress in heavy weather.
  • On the morning of 10 April 1968 the Wahine was on time, on her correct course, fully manned and fully operational in all respects as she approached Wellington Harbour. There were two fully certified master mariners on her bridge: Captain Gordon Robertson and Chief Officer (second-in-command) Rod Luly.
  • The weather in Cook Strait was bad: heavy seas, reduced visibility and gale southerly winds holding at 50 knots (92.6 kms per hour). But this was nothing out of the ordinary for Cook Strait and the Wahine was built to operate in such conditions. The weather was in line with official 24 hour forecasts received aboard the Wahine.
  • Today the "Interislander" Cook Strait rail ferries do not sail in very rough weather. This was not the case in 1968. The Union Steam Ship Company (owner of the Wahine) required its masters to take their ships to sea in all but the very worst storms, and to show ability and determination when handling their ships in such conditions. Masters deemed not to have these attributes were replaced.
  • Captain Robertson reduced the Wahine's speed to improve steering as she began her passage through the harbour entrance channel. This was entirely normal procedure. When he gave this order he did not know that the weather was about to change dramatically.
  • The Wahine was hit entirely without warning and close to Barrett Reef by the most extreme winds and seas ever recorded in Wellington. In less than a minute the wind strength went from 50 to 100 knots (92 to 185 kms per hour) - hurricane force - overwhelming the ship.
  • As the result of the Wahine grounding on Barrett Reef, all steering and propulsion was lost and compartments in the bottom of the ship below the main vehicle deck were extensively flooded.
  • The Wahine was not designed to remain afloat with the quantities of flood water inside her, but throughout the morning of 10th April 1968 she remained stable, intact, upright and not sinking further. This, combined with her anchors holding and her escaping destruction on Barrett Reef and then on Point Dorset, led Captain Robertson his senior officers to conclude that she would survive her ordeal.
  • Water entered the Wahine's main vehicle deck from the flooded lower compartments at her stern, through internal doors and ventilation shafts that were not watertight. There was no drainage and no pumping equipment on the main vehicle deck for removing this water. It gradually built up during the course of the morning despite prodigious efforts by the Wahine's crew to stop it.
  • Captain Robertson and his senior officers under-estimated the huge danger to the Wahine's stability from this water accumulating on her main vehicle deck. It was not reported to the authorities on shore. These were errors of judgement on Captain Robertson's part.
  • At no time did Captain Robertson cancel or downgrade the SOS emergency he had declared in his radio message when the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef at 6.41 am. This was, in 1968, the highest level of maritime emergency and it remained in force throughout the day.
  • Drifting out of control, as she had been all morning since leaving Barrett Reef, the Wahine touched the harbour floor at around 12.30 pm. This caused her to sink deeper by the bow, which in turn caused the flood water on the main vehicle deck to run into the ship's forward garage, which until then had remained dry. By a process known as Free Surface Effect this water, moving freely over a much larger area, destroyed what remained of the Wahine's stability so that she could no longer stay upright. The ship began listing and after some two hours rolled over onto her starboard side.
  • Up until 12.30 pm and although heavily damaged, the Wahine had given no indication that she would sink. Her Master and officers were fully confident she would be alright especially as the storm dwindled away. Then, in the space of less than an hour, the Wahine rapidly had to be abandoned as her list grew. This sudden, catastrophic turn of events came as the most profound shock, one that devastated Captain Robertson and, along with the Annex to the Report of the Court of Inquiry, hastened the end of his life.
  • The Wahine was lying very close to Seatoun Beach when she was abandoned, but because of the strong outflowing tide many life rafts and swimmers were carried out into the harbour and across to the totally inhospitable Pencarrow shore. Forty seven of the 51 fatalities occurred here. The outflowing tide was completely unforeseen.
  • The Wahine's lifeboats could not have been loaded with passengers and successfully launched at any time prior to the moment when 'abandon ship' was ordered, because the heavy breaking seas running along the sides of the ship would have quickly swamped and overturned them. Hundreds would have drowned as a result.

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The tug Toia, sistership to the Kupe, showing off the great power and manoeuvrability of her twin 2,700 horse power English Electric diesel engines driving German-made Voith-Schneider "water tractor" units under her hull. Had she and her sister-ship been in existence at Wellington on 10 April 1968, the Wahine and 51 lives would not have been lost.

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

Captain Gordon Robertson later described the moment when Barrett Reef appeared suddenly out of the darkness and raging storm as the worst-ever in his life. The time was 6.41 on the morning of 10 April 1968. For around 26 minutes the Wahine's master had been fighting enormous winds and seas to try and turn his ship back out into Cook Strait. Visibility remained nil until the orange flashing light from the Barrett Reef light buoy was seen, directly in front of the ship. Then, from the starboard wing of the Wahine's bridge where Second Officer William Shanks was stationed, came the cry "rocks astern!" Seconds later, as Captain Robertson reached the windows of the starboard wing, the rocks could be seen almost right alongside the ship, huge waves bursting across them. The painting shows the Wahine, her bow facing south-west, her engines trying to drive her astern at their full 18,000 horse power, as she is carried broadside onto the reef's southern edge.


TEV Wahine Transcript, 1968

Statements, affidavits and exhibits placed before the Court of Inquiry (held by Archives New Zealand)

NZ Government TEV Wahine; Report of Court and Annex Thereto, November 1968

Union Steam Ship Company archives, Wellington Museum of City and Sea

Private papers of Captain H G Robertson

Conversations with Anne Robertson (Captain Robertson's wife) Noeleen Knott (Captain Robertson' sister) and Ken MacLeod (helmsman on the bridge of the Wahine during 10 April 1968)

Auckland Star, Evening Post and Dominion newspapers.