Dominion Post

The day the Wahine went down

New Zealand’s worst shipwreck took place 56 years ago this month. On April 10, 1968, the interislander ferry Wahine hit a reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour with 735 people on board. Among the passengers were the hungover members of the Lincoln College cricket team on their way to a tournament in Palmerston North. The wicketkeeper, Peter Jerram, describes what happened next in his new book, The Team That Hit the Rocks.

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Side-on to the weather now, Wahine began to roll more and more; and as the tug disappeared off into the gloom outside after noon, the list to starboard became impossible to ignore. At first, we weren’t alarmed. We’d been through the worst of it, we thought. In a light-hearted vein, some of the team even began to use their ties as plum bobs to measure the angle. John Wauchop grabbed a half full Coca-Cola bottle and used it as a plumbline. “The result was quite alarming!”

An older passenger fell out of a chair as the list became extreme. My teammate Digger McCulloch called, “You wouldn’t have fallen out if you had your seatbelt on!” I remember that poor man. He was mortified, and scared, and he shot a furious look at Digger, while someone else said, “Be quiet!”

Then another seat and occupant went over at the low point of another roll. The situation was deteriorating rapidly. Outside it looked as if the fury of the hurricane might have been just a bit less violent, but the ship was in her last throes.

At this stage we saw a group of three seamen outside on the port deck trying to use a large plank to break through the window to our lounge. My thoughts at this stage were, Bloody hell, this is getting serious. Alarmed, yet fascinated, we watched as they tried three times, bashing this very substantial piece of wood against the window, which didn’t budge. They put it down and vanished from view.

Why are they doing that? Do they think we’re going to be trapped in here? What’s happening?

Older passengers around us began to voice their concerns as the list became steeper with every roll. Some passengers were “getting slightly hysterical”, in John Wauchop’s words. “Some women had their shoes on and were having trouble standing, but most had taken them off.”

[chapter break]

At a time we now know to be 1.25pm, without any warning, the bells began to ring continuously and the public address system burst into life. “We are about to abandon ship. All persons are to proceed to the starboard side of the ship, the starboard side being the right-hand side facing the front.” The words came from Purser Clare.

These were the most chilling words of my life. In the saloon, everyone was on their feet, making a very tight mass of terrified passengers. There was what I can only describe as a stampede as a mass of humanity pushed, bolted, shouted, heading for a way out. Our team stayed huddled together where we’d been sitting. My first impression was, this ship is going to roll over, and we are stuck inside, with only two small doors to get out.

The Wahine was driven onto Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour by one of New Zealand’s worst-ever storms. Because the ship quickly listed to one side, only four of the ship’s eight lifeboats could be launched.

I’m stuck here, trapped. How the hell do I get out? I can’t stand this feeling of helplessness. I’ve got to survive, I’m not ready to die.

I wasn’t the only one who had this thought. As the crowd stampeded towards the one door giving access to the starboard deck, our team was swamped by the mass of terrified souls. It was bedlam, dozens of people pushing, jostling, shouting, some screaming, all fearful and desperate to get out.

I felt trapped, unable to go anywhere. Kerry Armstrong, our team captain, called us together, and I will never forget his words: “Right you guys, we’re staying together, and we’re staying here!”

What? You’re joking, Kerry. We’ve got to get out of here. His words went against all my instincts, and a wave of panic swept over me. My scalp crawled and I could see only one way out. I think I climbed over a table and headed up the steep floor towards the port-side door. My mates were forgotten; in that moment I thought only of self-preservation.

A few others were going the same way, in full flight mode.

Halfway to the port door a girl of perhaps 15 stood frozen to the spot, screaming and terrified. The sight of her shook some sense into me. “Come on,” I said to her. “That’s not going to help you. Come with me and we’ll get out of here.”

She held my hand and we went out of the door, into a companionway, then turned hard left to go through another door onto the deck. There were a few others doing the same thing, but no cram, no melee as was happening down to starboard.

The scene on deck was incredible, horrendous. My first impression was of the view astern. There in the very rough grey seas many bright orange lifejackets, with their human cargo, were already floating behind the ship, being carried rapidly by the current and wind.

Quite a number of people had already jumped off the ship and were being swept away, even before the lifeboats were lowered.

This is enormous, big time. I’m witnessing and part of a full-blown emergency. What a scene for a camera!

I really did have that thought. I had been developing an interest in photography the previous year, when I’d been working on a farm in Southland, and I could see and feel the drama of the moment. I will forever see the horror of that moment in full colour in my mind: grey sea in turmoil, grey sky, driving rain, orange jackets, humans in peril.

Near our current location on the port side, a small group of crewmen was inflating and trying to launch liferafts. One raft hung from a davit at head height as I hurried past, buffeted by the wind. Three men were trying to push it out, against the howling southerly wind and the slope of the sinking ship. A woman threw her baby into the liferaft, and I thought, holy hell, how will that survive? I can only hope that she recovered that small person, because they had no chance of launching from that side. I didn’t wait to find out; the crew had the woman in hand.

Police officers help Wahine survivors out of one the two lifeboats that landed at Seatoun. A third lifeboat reached Eastbourne, while the fourth was swamped after launch and its occupants cast into the water, consigned to swimming ashore.

Leading my young companion, I headed to the aft end of A deck, where the deck continued around, past the still-locked doors from the saloon we’d been in. We were looking for a place to jump off, but there was still B deck below us, and then the expanse of C deck (where the crewmen with the line to the tug had been working) extending another 30 feet or so below that to where the stern dropped over into the sea. No way to get over there for us.

I watched in amazement as a large life raft, fully inflated, came past on edge, like a huge wheel rolling over the surface of the sea, out of control in the howling wind. It disappeared into the murk and gloom. More evidence of violent chaos.

We came to the end of the aft deck and turned left again, now heading for’ard on the starboard side, a full deck above where people were getting into lifeboats or jumping off. We awaited our turn to drop down some stairs to B deck. There it was chaos: hundreds of passengers and crew all had the same idea—let’s get off this thing. There was some organisation thanks to large ropes which the crew had had the forethought to run down the deck to the edge. Four columns of terrified passengers were sitting on the steel deck holding onto these ropes and sliding down to the rail, tightly packed one behind another. Three lifeboats were hanging from the davits; the for’ard one had gone. At this stage in the confusion and jumble of people, I lost contact with the girl I’d been helping. My foremost thought was to get off this ship and into the sea.

If and when this thing rolls over, I’m going to be trapped under it. If I can get into the sea and as far away as possible, I might not get sucked down with it.

I could see a bit of a gap further forward on the deck, or thought I could. I might be able to get off there. But how to get there?

Wreckage, including a life raft, cast onto on Eastbourne beach by the force of the storm and the efforts of survivors.

The deck was crammed with desperate passengers, all like me trying to get off. It was bedlam, with just a bit of order in the boats. They were being properly lowered and manned by crewmen, and others were trying to direct passengers into them.

All this in the middle of indescribable chaos. I climbed over one, two, three, four lines of people sitting and hanging onto the ropes, looking for a way over the side further forward on B deck. But at the forward point I came up against a locked steel door. Trapped. I turned and retraced my steps, climbing over the lines as carefully as I could in the desperate situation. I saw Keith Lees, a player from the Otago side whom I’d known from my school days, in a very full lifeboat that was being lowered, and I thought, lucky bugger, as the boat disappeared.

I clambered as far aft on B deck as I could and got to the rail. I looked over, desperate. A drop of perhaps two to three metres. I didn’t hesitate. I climbed over the rail and jumped.

[chapter break]

I have hazy memories of what happened next. I don’t remember hitting the water, just surfacing and striking out. The fear of being sucked down with the ship overrode other thoughts, and despite the bulky lifejacket I kicked and swam as hard as I could with no idea of direction, just away from the ship. After possibly five, at most ten minutes I became aware of a lifeboat coming near me. I had seen this boat being lowered earlier. It was the aft-most, the number four boat as I found out much later. There were two or three men leaning over, holding hands out towards me, and I grabbed the first I could.

Getting me out of the water with my heavy wet clothes took a fair struggle, but with a few hands joining in, and the big swell lifting me up, I was tumbled over the side and onto the other passengers. The lifeboat was packed, with nowhere to put my feet, and several passengers were working the cranking mechanism (powering the boat) which ran in series down the centre of the boat, so I had to keep out of their way. I looked at the gunwale near the stern where I was pulled in, and thought, I can sit up there.

But there were other people still in the water, and as our skipper steered us as close to them as he could in the conditions, I helped pull a couple in.

I feel safe in a small boat. I’ve been doing this all my life and it’s going to be okay. Still bloody rough, though, and I need to be somewhere I can get off if this thing turns over.

But I still feel pretty crook, just want to get my feet on dry land now…

One very large older woman was a problem. She was heavy, and two or three of us tried to drag her in but couldn’t. I leant over and grabbed her by some clothing below her backside and heaved, while the others pulled her arms. It was horribly undignified for her as her voluminous bloomers were pulled tight into her backside, but it was the momentum we needed, and she tumbled unceremoniously upside down into the boat. Even in the pretty dire circumstances I was embarrassed for her, but she gave me a weak smile and whispered, “Thank you.”

Our boat was skippered by Tom Dartford, a quartermaster and able seaman. He was squeezed into the steering position at the stern, and I sat next to him, high on the port gunwale, although the heavily loaded boat had very little freeboard.

Dartford later estimated that he had 70 on board when he left the ship, and picked up at least another 20, so there must have been close to a hundred in total. After a few minutes our boat came close to a liferaft, only half inflated. There were five or six people in it, all looking a bit desperate. They threw a line to our boat, and we began to tow them. I still had no idea where land was, but Tom Dartford seemed to.

Someone shouted, “Wahine’s going over,” and so she was.

An inquiry into the wreck found that water in the vehicle deck had caused the ferry to list to starboard. Then the rush of passengers to the lifeboats on that side of the ship caused the total loss of stability. The inquiry also determined that an earlier order to evacuate wouldn’t have saved more lives: the captain had correctly determined that the storm was too fierce for people to reach shore.

We all stopped and watched the death of the big ferry, perhaps 250 metres away. She went slowly, then faster, and finally rolled onto her starboard side and the funnel disappeared into the sea, sending up a huge shower of dirty brown steam and causing a big surging wave. We waited for the ship to disappear beneath the waves, just as we’d seen in the movies, but it didn’t happen. It settled like a giant beached whale almost to horizontal, and for the first time it dawned on all of us that it was on the bottom. It was almost an anticlimax, sort of, I want my money back.

But we were still in a fair predicament ourselves. We needed to get to shore, 100 cold wet and very anxious people, in a crowded 30-foot boat, still fearing for our lives. Our skipper ordered us to start cranking again and we moved forward under our own propulsion. The seas were still big and menacing, but the wind, had it dropped a bit? It seemed like it.

We’d only just got going when the pilot boat Tiakina loomed out of the murk. It seemed solid and secure. She pulled alongside and one of their crew shouted, “We’re going to tow you.”

Police officer Ray Ruane holds an unidentified young survivor of the shipwreck. Behind him, wearing lifejackets, are survivors Gregory Mackenzie and Diane Parnell.

They threw a line to the people at the bow of the lifeboat, and within a couple of minutes we were being towed at a fair clip. The spray caused by the extra speed in the tangled sea was impressive, and within a few minutes I was very cold, sitting wet and exposed on the gunwale. I thought hard about getting back into the sea, which seemed likely to be warmer. It was worse for the people in the liferaft, who were being swamped. The raft was almost being pushed under and those in it were soaked, struggling to get air. They started shouting to stop, and somehow the signal got to the pilot, who stopped.

By now we could see the shore at Seatoun, and the pilot boat wallowed to windward of us as they took off the towline from our bow. But then I clearly saw the towline, still hanging over the stern, tighten and jam. It was caught around one of the pilot boat’s propellors. Another emergency.

The big boat stopped, out of action, but it was immediately to weather of our lifeboat, and as the crew tried desperately to free it, the bigger boat began bearing down on our lifeboat, threatening to crush us, and again I looked for an escape route.

This bloody thing is about to land on top of us. I reckon I might be able to gauge when to jump and get out of the way. But I don’t like our chances.

Pilot John Brown was in charge of Tiakina, and he was fully aware of the danger. Just as we were only moments from disaster, with a couple of shouted orders he went full ahead both engines.

I saw the jammed line tighten even more, crushing a toe rail at the aft end of the big boat; then, strained beyond its natural strength, it broke apart, freeing the prop, and the pilot boat disappeared. Crisis averted.

We could now see the shore of Seatoun, where big rolling seas were breaking on the beach. Our skipper told us to keep cranking to keep speed up, and also told everyone to get out as soon as we hit the beach. Even with all the drama it was fascinating feeling the big boat surf in, expertly steered stern-on to the breakers, with white boiling waves crashing alongside. The danger lay in turning side-on in the surf and rolling the lifeboat.

[chapter break]

The boat hit the sand, and everyone leapt into the sea, only knee-deep at the bow. When it was my turn it was deeper, almost waist deep back there, but the wave receded and I was up to my knees. There seemed to be helpers everywhere in the confused flight of our passengers; policemen were evident and various unknown helpers.

There are two published newspaper photos of me getting to shore, one of which I only found in 2022. The first shows me jumping into the sea from the stern of the boat, only a few others still aboard. The second was a surprise. It shows me wading through the surf carrying someone looking like a woman. When I saw it, I was confused. It was definitely me, but I had to dredge my memory to recall the incident. I think that someone may have said, ‘Help me,’ or possibly someone else said, ‘Can you give this person a hand,’ but I’m really unclear, and I don’t remember what I did with my fellow survivor when I reached the beach. My only memory is struggling up the sand towards the road, and being intercepted, still on the sand, by Lawrie Bryant, who had been a schooltime friend of my sister and was now a reporter for Radio NZBC. Bryant said to me, ‘Hello Pete, just wait there a minute while I make this report,’ as he spoke into a microphone, but I was too cold to wait, and moved as fast as I could towards a waiting bus and climbed aboard. I was safe.

Excerpted with permission from The Team That Hit the Rocks by Peter Jerram, published in April 2024 by Bateman Books.

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