Arahina and Captain Newey

© Ian Farquhar Collection. Gratefully acknowledged to Ian Farquhar and not to be reproduced without his prior permission


The prodigious efforts by the hand-full of Police officers and volunteers on the Pencarrow shore were just part of the rescue story on the eastern side of Wellington harbour. Close offshore, a fleet of small craft toiled among the rocks and waves, plucking survivors out of the sea. Foremost among them was the pilot launch Arahina, commanded by Captain Doug Newey. In a display of courage and skill matching the finest traditions of the sea, Captain Newey time and time again took the Arahina up to survivors who were about to be hurled against rocks or into the tumbling surf. Fifty-five people were rescued in this way from near-certain death. Afterwards, no official recognition was given to Captain Newey, nor has his story ever been accorded the prominence it deserves in the collective memory of 10 April 1968.

The Arahina was one of two pilot launches owned by the Wellington Harbour Board at the time of the Wahine Disaster. She was a very good sea boat, deep-draught, strongly constructed and able to handle all types of weather. Nineteen metres in length and of 36 gross tonnage, the Arahina was built in Auckland in 1925 of native kauri timber. Her engines comprised one 150 hp Fairbanks-Morse five cylinder diesel coupled to a single propeller, plus a smaller auxiliary engine. Because no gearbox was fitted, the diesel had to be stopped whenever the Arahina moved from ahead to astern. It was then restarted in the opposite direction by a shot of compressed air. For this purpose, compressed air storage bottles were kept topped up by the auxiliary engine. The Arahina's engineer on 10 April 1968 was Mr Jock Cain.

That afternoon the Arahina left her wharf at 12.45pm with a large pump and hose sections onboard, which Captain Newey had been ordered to take out to the Wahine. The pump gear belonged to the Wellington Fire Brigade and accompanying it aboard the Arahina were the Wellington Fire Chief, two firemen and two Police officers. Neither the Arahina nor the Wahine were equipped with derricks or cranes, and just how the pump gear was to be transferred to the Wahine in the still very heavy seas was not made clear to Captain Newey. But as the Arahina "turned the corner" off Point Halswell and the listing Wahine came into view, it became obvious that the pump would not be required. The Wahine was being abandoned and Captain Newey was advised on VHF radio by Captain John Brown, Master of the pilot launch Tiakina, to hasten across to the eastern side of the harbour and save life.

In the sea off the Pencarrow coast Captain Newey found large numbers of lifejacketed swimmers who had been carried across the harbour from the Wahine. Steep breaking waves up to 30 feet high were running along the coast and exploding across the many outcrops of black rock just offshore. Captain Newey remembers seeing a yacht rearing up on the crest of a wave, its rigging and bowsprit torn away. The swimmers were being swept into this tumult where they would be smashed against the rocks, snagged in beds of kelp or drowned in the surf. Among them were the occupants of Wahine's overturned accident boat which had been under the command of Third Officer Grahame Noblet.

Captain Newey manoeuvred the Arahina alongside many of these swimmers, the firemen and Police officers hauling them aboard one-by-one using ropes and a cargo net rigged over the launch's starboard side. Doing so required Captain Newey to hold the Arahina in position despite the towering waves and the rocks very close-by. He did this by quartering the seas - working the helm to keep the Arahina with her stern at a 45 degree angle to the waves. Survivors were all around the Arahina, desperate for rescue. Each time she went astern or ahead to get them, the launch's engine had to be stopped then restarted by compressed air, which soon became depleted. So close inshore did the Arahina go that Captain Newey felt her touch bottom at least once.

On being pulled aboard, the survivors were immediately sent below decks to the Arahina's cabin, where they would find warmth and also help preserve the launch's stability as the numbers aboard her grew. Once this accommodation was fully occupied, survivors were placed in the launch's wheelhouse. The Arahina engineer counted 55 of them in total. Included was Third Officer Grahame Noblet, Senior Assistant Purser Ray Ferenczy, her Bosun Harry Hampson and also Ken MacLeod, the Wahine's helmsman that morning. All had found themselves floating adrift in the very cold, treacherous waters of Wellington Harbour after the Wahine had been abandoned. There is no question that most if not all these passengers and crew members owe their lives to the skill and bravery of Captain Newey. Saturated from spray coming in through the front window of the wheelhouse, which he kept open for better visibility, Captain Newey also had to contend with steering problems from the Arahina's rudder having been bent 23 degrees off the centre-line by a heavy sea. In addition, the launch's auxiliary engine began over-heating from the constant work of replenishing the compressed air bottles.

Captain Newey took the Arahina across to Seatoun Wharf where all 55 survivors were landed safely at around 3 pm. They were immediately taken by bus to Wellington Railway Station, which was being used as a collection centre for survivors. Without respite, the Arahina set off again for Pencarrow where she continued searching the seas for anybody still to be found. No further survivors were located. At 7.10 pm Captain Newey finally brought the Arahina back alongside her berth in Wellington harbour.

Despite he and his small crew made up largely of volunteers having saved 55 lives, Captain Newey was not called to give evidence at the Court of Inquiry, and no mention was made of the Arahina in the Report of the Court. Even the section of the Report entitled "Gallantry" contains nothing about the Arahina. Subsequent anniversary events, publications and TV documentaries have all but forgotten the contribution made by Captain Newey and the Arahina. In 1969 Wellington's Chief Fire Officer, who was on the Arahina, received an award but he was the only one. For his magnificent work in saving so many lives, the honour denied Captain Newey is indeed a sad reflection on how the Wahine Disaster has been chronicled.

Captain Douglas Newey died at his home in Paraparaumu, New Zealand on Monday 20 July 2009 following a stroke. He was in his 90th year.

Copyright © 2009 Murray Robinson


TEV Wahine Transcript of Court of Inquiry, 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)

Shipbuilding and Shipping Record, 4 August 1966

N H Brewer A Century of Style

Martin Cahill

I J Farquhar Union Fleet

A A Kirk Fair Winds and Rough Seas

M Lambert & J Hartley The Wahine Disaster

G McLauchlan (Ed) The Line that Dared

Vic Young

Ray Ferenczy

Captain Doug Newey

Captain John Brown

Kay McCormick

Auckland Star, Evening Post and Dominion newspapers.

May 2008 edition, Issue 132, "Navy Today" newsletter, Royal New Zealand Navy