For Horowhenua woman Shirley Hick, it's hard to believe that it is nearly 50 years since the ferry Wahine sank, inflicting a tragic toll on her family and many others.

"I think about it every day. I live it every day," said Shirley, who is still at the same address in Shannon where she resided when she set out on her fateful family journey to Christchurch and back.

Shirley sailed from Wellington to Lyttelton on Wahine with four of her children to take son Peter, 7, to the School for the Deaf at Sumner.

On the return voyage, the ship never made it to its berth in Wellington. Wahine capsized and sank in the entrance to Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968, after being hit by the ferocious winds and enormous waves of ex-tropical cyclone Giselle, one of New Zealand's worst storms.

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Alma Hick, 3, (right) drowned after leaving the sinking Wahine. Gordon Hick, 1, was disabled and died of his injuries in 1990.
Alma Hick, 3, (right) drowned after leaving the sinking Wahine. Gordon Hick, 1, was disabled and died of his injuries in 1990.

Shirley's 3-year-old daughter Alma drowned. Son Gordon - who turned 1 on the day of the disaster - stopped breathing when a wave washed him off the chest of the steward who had taken him off the ship. He was later revived, but had suffered serious, crippling brain damage. He died of his injuries 22 years later.

At the start of the harbour's entrance channel, the ship had veered left off course and wouldn't respond to rudder or engine changes. Now vulnerable, it was hit on the back left quarter by a huge wave which rolled it so violently to the right that the master, Captain Gordon Robertson, was thrown the full length of the bridge and others were tossed about.

The radar set had failed, Robertson was disoriented and he spent the next half hour running the engines forwards, backward and in opposite directions to try to turn the ship and head back out to the relative safety of Cook Strait.

But at 6.41am crisis turned to disaster when Wahine was thrown by the wind and waves onto Barrett Reef. The right propeller and its tail-shaft snapped off, water flooded in and within minutes the other, left engine had failed.

The ship dragged along the eastern side of the reef, suffering more hull damage. The anchors were dropped and the ferry drifted slowly north into the harbour.

Water leaked from below, building up on the main vehicle deck. The ship began listing to the right and at about 1.20pm, after the list had suddenly worsened, Robertson ordered the abandonment of the ship.

Most of the 734 people on board got ashore safely on lifeboats, liferafts or in one of the many other boats that helped in the rescue, plucking people out of the sea. But 51 died at the time and two, including Gordon, died later of their injuries.

"Blonde, beautiful Alma - she was a darling," 78-year-old Shirley told the Chronicle.

She was washed across to the far side of the harbour from where Wahine sank near Steeple Rock. Shirley later learned Alma had been put into a liferaft or lifeboat.

Her son David, 6, was put in a liferaft and survived.

Shirley said that when she saw Gordon in Wellington Hospital she was angry that he hadn't been allowed to die and that she hadn't been asked about his being revived.

Wahine passenger Gordon Hick suffered brain damage as a baby after he stopped breathing when floating in Wellington Harbour. Severely disabled, he survived until 1990 when he died of his injuries.
Wahine passenger Gordon Hick suffered brain damage as a baby after he stopped breathing when floating in Wellington Harbour. Severely disabled, he survived until 1990 when he died of his injuries.

"I hit the roof. When somebody has been dead for more than a minute, they lose control of pretty well everything in their body.

"To make Gordie breathe and come back to life - my exact words were, 'What the f*** have you done there'. I said, 'That is my baby. You should have asked permission'. And their reply was, 'Oh, we had to save a life'."

Gordon couldn't talk, walk or feed himself. But Shirley, who insisted on caring for Gordon at home, said he had a good life.

"I made sure he did. I just loved him and so did the other kids. He was very happy. To me it was a wonderful thing to think that I had kept him alive for all those years."

Wahine ran aground on Barrett Reef, drifted north along the entrance to Wellington Harbour and capsized and sank near Steeple Rock. Map / topomap.co.nz
Wahine ran aground on Barrett Reef, drifted north along the entrance to Wellington Harbour and capsized and sank near Steeple Rock. Map / topomap.co.nz

Visit nzherald.co.nz for the full online presentation about the Wahine tragedy and the pain that lives on for survivors and those who lost loved ones 50 years ago.