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When the Wahine sailed from Lyttelton Harbour on the evening of April 9th, 1968, none of the passengers or crew had any idea of what lay ahead. The sky was overcast, and there was a slight breeze, but the weather did not seem too bad nor the sea very rough. There was some talk of cyclone Giselle, but that seemed much to far north to affect their passage.

The Wahine was a fine 9000 ton vessel, which had been built in Scotland less than two years previously. In addition to her cargo, mostly cars, she was carrying six hundred passengers and a crew of one hundred and twenty-five.

During the night the southerly wind increased steadily and the seas began to build up from the south. By the time the Wahine approached Wellington Harbour the winds were galeforce and huge waves lifted the vessel from astern, pounding her down again. At times her propellers were completely out of the water. It had become a very uncomfortable journey for the passengers, many of whom were seasick.

At 6.10am the Wahine came opposite Pencarrow Head at the harbour entrance. The wind was not gusting up to 160 kilometres (100 miles) an hour; spray and sleet made visibility poor; and high seas buffeted the ship.

Suddenly a massive wave caught the ship and tore her to port, heading her in the direction of Barretts Reef. Captain Robertson fought desperately to control his ship, but another monstrous wave struck, throwing him across the bridge and causing havoc among the passengers below.

The ship was now completely off its course; the radar had failed; and visibility was almost nil. Captain Robertson decided that the safest course was to try to head the ship back out of the harbour. But it was too late.

At 6.40am the Wahine was driven, stern first, onto the jagged rocks of Barretts Reef.

Most of the passengers in the cabins below were unaware of the battle that was taking place between the ship and the raging storm. In the lounges little could be seen through the spray-lashed windows. On man who had braved the deck reported seeing rocks. Others felt the bumping and grinding of the ship on the reef, but to many it was indistinguishable from the general battering they were receiving.

The ships engines shuddered to a stop and alarm bells began to ring: short-long, short-long. The following announcement came over the public address system: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are aground on Barretts Reef. There is no immediate danger. Please proceed to your cabins, collect your life jackets, and report to your mustering stations."

There were cries of despair among some of the passengers. Movement in the congested companionways was difficult as the ship pitched and rolled violently, but there was no real panic. Gradually they made their way up to the crowded lounges and assembly points.

Captain Robertson took stock of the situation. The huge southerly seas eventually pushed the Wahine beyond the reef, and the anchors were dropped to prevent the ship drifting too quickly. Four of the ship's underwater compartments were flooded, but the pumps were working and there was no immediate danger of the ship sinking. Any attempt to abandon ship in the wild conditions at the harbour mouth would have been disastrous. Captain Robertson decided to wait for the storm to abate or for a tug to tow them to safer waters.

For the next few hours the Wahine continued to drift slowly down the entrance of Wellington Harbour. The storm grew even more furious. Shrieking wind and spray lashed the ship and mountainous waves broke over her. At one stage it seemed she might be driven ashore at Point Dorset, but fortunately she just slipped past.

Gradually the passengers became less anxious. The immediate danger seemed to have passed. The sea was still terribly rough, and the ship was being pounded by huge waves, but they hoped it would only be a matter of time before conditions improved and they would be towed to safety. The stewards served tea and sandwiches, and in one of the lounges the passengers began singing 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore'.

Shortly after 11am the tug Tapuhi appeared and managed to get a line to the ship. She began towing the Wahine from the stern but after ten minutes the line broke and it proved impossible to attach it again. The Wahine was now listing to starboard, and somehow the deputy harbourmaster, Captain Galloway, managed to leap from the pitching pilot launch and clamber up a ladder dangling from the ship's starboard side.

By 1.00pm the wind had dropped and the skies had cleared a little, although the seas remained extremely heavy. The ebbing tide swung the Wahine side-on to the wind providing some shelter on the starboard side. At the same time her list to starboard increased noticeably. The time to abandon ship had arrived.

At 1.15pm the bells rang and the order to abandon the ship was given. Passengers were told to proceed to the starboard side of the vessel. Alarm and confusion broke out among the passengers. Many had felt they were safe and had even taken off their life jackets. Others were uncertain which side was starboard and made their way to the high side of the ship from which no boats could be launched.

The decks were wet and slippery and the starboard list so great that many passengers slipped across the decks, sliding into the walls and rails on the opposite side.

Gradually the Wahine's four lifeboats were filled with passengers and launched from the ship's side. One was driven across the harbour and capsized before landing on the eastern side. The others landed safely on the beach near Seatoun, where people waited to help them. Many survivors were wrapped in blankets and taken to the railway station where they were eventually met by friends and relatives.

Life rafts were launched into the turbulent seas, where they tossed uncontrollably. Some of these were taken in tow by the lifeboats or some of the pleasure craft that had bravely ventured out in the wild conditions to offer help. Others drifted across the harbour to be finally driven up onto the barren eastern shore.

For many of the passengers that were neither boats nor rafts available, and they were forced to jump into the sea with only their life jackets for support. Some of these people were picked up by launches or pulled into the boats or life rafts, but others were left to the mercy of the sea and swept across the harbour by the ebbing tide.

It was mainly these people, carried to the surf-pounding eastern shore, who lost their lives. Some were drowned or died of exposure. Other reached the coast only to be dashed against the rocks by the pounding surf.

Captain Robertson and Captain Galloway were the last to leave the ship. After checking that no one else was on board, they dived from the side of the ship, now almost level with the sea. Eventually they were picked up by a launch, and, as the captains looked back, they saw the great ship hauled over on its side.

There many heroes on 'Wahine Day'. Some of the passengers and crew helped others when in danger themselves or gave up places in the life boats so that others might be saved. Many people on shore showed great courage and initiative. They launched small craft to rescue survivors from the sea, and many plunged into the surf themselves to help drag them to safety. Others provided comfort and medical attention when the survivors arrived ashore.

Wahine Day has a special place in the memories of the people of Wellington. It was the day when the city was lashed by its worst storm ever, and it was the day when the whole community focused on the fate of the Wahine and its passengers and crew.

author: Kevin Boon

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