Retrospective – The Wahine Disaster, 50 Years Later

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Ship Wahine capsizing in Wellington Harbour, 10 April 1968. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/35mm-01149-29-F

The sinking of the Lyttelton–Wellington ferry Wahine on 10 April 1968 was New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster. Fifty-one people lost their lives that day, another died several weeks later and a 53rd victim died in 1990 from injuries sustained in the wreck.

There were 734 passengers and crew on board. Storm warnings had been issued, but rough seas were nothing new in Cook Strait. As it turned out, the Wahine was about to sail into one of the worst storms ever recorded in New Zealand. The ship reached Cook Strait as tropical cyclone Giselle swept south and collided with a southerly front. The combination of warm tropical air and cold air dragged up from Antarctica produced exceptionally violent turbulence.

Aerial view of the inter-island ferry, Wahine, lying on her side in Wellington Harbour. Photograph taken 11 April 1968 by an Evening Post staff photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1968/1572/23-F

Would-be rescuers stood helplessly on the beach at Seatoun as the Wahine succumbed to one of the worst storms recorded in New Zealand history. It seemed impossible that so many lives could be lost so close to shore. Although the main cause of the accident was the atrocious weather conditions, the subsequent inquest also acknowledged that errors of judgement had been made both on board the ferry and on shore.

The Wahine’s demise also marked a coming of age for television news broadcasting in New Zealand as images of the disaster were beamed into the nation’s living rooms. The footage was later screened around the world as the international media spotlight focused on Wellington.

Speaking at a Wellington waterfront memorial Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern paid tribute to the 53 people who died during the Wahine disaster, the 683 survivors, their families and their rescuers. Ardern said even after 50 years in some ways the disaster came to define generations and what it meant to be a New Zealander.

“Acts of courage cast a light on one of our darkest days,” Ardern said. The inter-island ferry, travelling from Lyttelton to Wellington, hit Barrett Reef in Wellington Harbour on the morning of April 10, 1968, and sank hours later near Steeple Rock.

Ardern said Eastbourne and Seatoun communities helped survivors ashore and looked after them before they got further care from police and civil defence.

 

Wahine survivor Annetta Cowie looks at wreaths with husband Ross Cowie at Muritai School.
ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF Wahine survivor Annetta Cowie looks at wreaths with husband Ross Cowie at Muritai School.

Ardern added, “The legacy of the Wahine is one of sadness for the lives lost, but also one of gratitude to the rescuers. The Wahine disaster is one of the six major disasters of the century that affected New Zealand and our history. The tragedies of the influenza pandemic, Hawkes Bay earthquake, Tangiwai railway disaster, Erebus disaster, Canterbury earthquake and Wahine disaster all had a significant impact on our country. Recognising events, such as the Wahine tragedy, ensures New Zealanders are aware of our history. It’s important that we learn from these tragedies and continue to build our resilience as a country.”

 

Maritime NZ Acting Director, Stephanie Winson, said the tragedy in Wellington harbour 50 years ago helped change international maritime safety conventions and standards.

She stated, “Ships in New Zealand, including our Cook Strait ferries, coastal traders and the many overseas ships that visit our country are all safer, in part, because of what happened to the Wahine. New Zealand is part of a global maritime system where countries learn from and support each other to make shipping safer. What happens in one country is shared internationally, can change how ships are designed and operated, and then benefits that country and others. Lessons from a maritime disaster like the sinking of the Wahine can go on to save lives around the world.”

Since 1968, there have been many changes including in how ships are designed and operated, crew training, and how New Zealand is organised to respond to a maritime disaster.

Ship design and construction has changed to make vessels more stable, stronger and able to survive more damage if there is an incident.

Before a ship can sail, its voyage planning must now include specific alternatives for what the ship will do if it cannot continue as expected, for emergencies and what steps to take if something unexpected happens.

“We cannot create a “zero risk” maritime industry,” Ms Winson said. “By their nature, the sea and weather are changeable and powerful and will always pose at least some risk to shipping.

“However, what we can do, and are doing, as part of our global maritime system is reduce risk by building better ships, developing better ways of operating ships and managing crews, improving training, and having well-coordinated response when there is an emergency.”

References: Maritime New Zealand, NZ History, stuff.co.nz, Radio NZ

Sea News Feature, April 10