Jim Wells was a 24-year-old butcher and volunteer lifeguard when the Ranui capsized in the Tauranga Harbour entrance, drowning 22 people. Now 93 and the oldest surviving lifeguard from that day, his memory of that day is as vivid as ever.

JUST off the base track around Mauao, not far from Jim Wells' Mount Maunganui apartment, is a plaque honouring 22 people who died in the 1950 Ranui disaster.

It's been some years since Wells has seen the plaque or the boat's engine block that's tucked amidst rocks nearby, on the water's edge. Making his way around the gravel path to the memorial isn't easy for the 93-year-old, unlike the day 69 years ago when he was one of the first on the scene.

These days, he's a little more stooped and a little slower around the house. A walker helps, however, and he's also found freedom on his mobility scooter, often popping down to the new Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service clubrooms or zipping around town.

Advertisement

While his body has slowed, his memory hasn't. Visions of that stormy grey day in December 1950, are still etched deep in his mind.

"It was pretty gory," he says, solemnly, from a leather armchair under the glow of a side lamp in the Pilot Bay apartment he shares with wife Mavis (88).

Wells or "Jimmy" as he's widely known, is the oldest surviving lifeguard to have helped with the Ranui - Tauranga's worst maritime disaster and one of the worst in New Zealand in the last century.

The 13m Kauri launch was returning to Tauranga with a party of campers and fishermen from Mayor Island when a freak wave smashed into the boat, over-turning it near North Rock. Nineteen holidaymakers and three crew drowned; only one person on board survived.

The event traumatised the beachside community and, even today, is a painful memory for those who lived through it.


Tauranga's darkest day

JIMMY Wells, clad in shorts, stepped out onto the footpath after a long day's work in the local butchery. It was nearly 6pm on December 28, 1950, and though the rain had eased through the day, strong, warm northerly winds hadn't.

As he prepared to head home, an emergency siren screamed out across the town. Instinctively, Jimmy sprinted to the surf club, where volunteer lifeguards rallied.

The group then ran around the Mauao base track and saw a man running towards them for help. It would turn out to be the only survivor - 19-year-old Phil 'Bluey' Smith, of Tauranga, who was on board the boat as a deckhand. A strong swimmer, Smith stayed afloat until a big swell took him over the close-in rocks and into the relative safety behind.

When lifeguards arrived at the scene, the scene was overwhelming. Wind-ravaged waves pummeled rocks, spray plumed everywhere, and the blue timber hull of the Ranui lay splintered and strewn along the rocky shore.

Mount Lifeguards in the mid-40s. Left to right are Jim Raymond, Graham Clarke, Reg Wells, Jock Carson, Les Malpas, Tom Magee, Joe Raymond, and Jim Wells. Photo / supplied
Mount Lifeguards in the mid-40s. Left to right are Jim Raymond, Graham Clarke, Reg Wells, Jock Carson, Les Malpas, Tom Magee, Joe Raymond, and Jim Wells. Photo / supplied

"The first body came in and landed on the rocks," Wells recalls. "We shot down to grab it and only just got a hold of it, when next thing, a big swell came in.

"The swells were about 10 feet high, and the weight of the water was amazing. A wall of water came over the top of us, and it just flattened us on the rock. You couldn't do a thing; you couldn't move. It was scary… bloody scary.

"When the wave sucked back again, that body was gone. We couldn't hang onto it," he says, grimly.

He and his crew soon pulled in another victim, taking him up onto the track and starting CPR until a doctor told them it was useless.

"They'd all drowned," Wells says. "There was no sign of anybody alive."

By midnight, more than a dozen bodies had been recovered. All rescuers could do was pull the bodies out of the rocks. It took a week for all 22 to surface.

"They stretched out over quite a length of the shoreline. Those that we didn't rescue from the rocks came up days after."

In 2015, Wells was part of a documentary series Descent from Disaster, which told the story of the Ranui. He recalled heartbroken loved ones keeping up a vigil for days afterwards, ringing the siren if they saw anything.

Wells was on patrol a few days after the wreck when something was spotted in the water.

"Unfortunately, it was the husband of one of the women who was watching, and that was devastating," he said. "It had a devastating effect (on lifeguards) really, because we hadn't had anything like that ever before and it really was a disaster. To lose that many people, there was a terrible time.

"Every time I used to go around the Mount for a walk, I'd look at that spot."

The beginning of surf lifesaving

WELLS' involvement with surf lifesaving began as a child.

He was born in Whitianga on January 1, 1926, one of five children to Mabel and Archie Wells.

Archie was a commercial fisherman and the family moved from Whitianga to Mount Maunganui in 1933 so that the Wells siblings could progress onto secondary education.

They travelled to the Mount on Archie's fishing boat; the oozing fumes from the benzene-powered engine making 7-year-old Jimmy queasy.

They arrived at the Pilot Bay jetty, then walked to their new home in Grace Avenue.

The children attended Mount Maunganui Primary; later catching a ferry to Tauranga and walking to Tauranga District High School - selectively following the paths lined with fruit trees.

The Wells siblings joined the surf club as nippers and Wells stayed as a club member until 1955 when he bought his own business.

When the war started in 1939, many senior surf club members headed overseas, with juniors taking over patrols. Back then there were no IRBs, just paddle boards, and the clubhouse was a prefab hut, appropriated from the east coast railway, close to the site that the Lifeguard Service occupies today.

Wells' brother Stuart became a bomber pilot and was killed in north Germany in 1942 at 21. Wells Avenue in Mount Maunganui is named after him.
His young surviving brother Jimmy recalls the first decade or so of living in Mount Maunganui was tough.

"We used to try and substitute the food for the table," Wells says. "Fish and rabbits - the Mount was covered in rabbits. Pipis and shrimps and all sorts."
Those skills have been honed over the course of his life; he's since become an avid duck shooter, deerstalker, pig hunter and fisherman.

The Mount Maunganui Midgets Surf Lifesaving team in the summer of 1938/39. From left, Charlie Summers, Tom Magee (club captain), Colin Carlton, Gordon Hardy, Jock Carson, Jim Wells, Jim (Bully) Raymond, Graham Clarke, and Reg Wells. Photo / supplied
The Mount Maunganui Midgets Surf Lifesaving team in the summer of 1938/39. From left, Charlie Summers, Tom Magee (club captain), Colin Carlton, Gordon Hardy, Jock Carson, Jim Wells, Jim (Bully) Raymond, Graham Clarke, and Reg Wells. Photo / supplied

The good years

Aa a teen, he had a Saturday job delivering meat on his bicycle for Mavis' uncle Tom - a butcher. Under Tom's watchful eye, he later became his apprentice.

Mavis, who grew up on her family's sheep farm in Gisborne, had plans to become a karitane nurse until the day she visited her uncle at the Mount and met "the butcher boy". She's never left the beach since.

They married in Whakatane in 1951 and had two daughters, Lynda and Robyn - Robyn died of cancer at 58 - who've given them grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

They've been married nearly 68 years, with good-humoured Mavis joking: "I always say the first 60 are the worst."

They operated their own business, Midway Butchery, on Maunganui Road from 1959 to 1990.

Many of their clients were wharfies and "good eaters" and the Wells relished the heyday of butchers having precedence over supermarkets.

These days, they still buy their meat from Col's Butchery & Deli. Wells' preference is roast pork, and then a good cut of rump, porterhouse and scotch fillet.

Each day it's fine, he travels down to the beach on his mobility scooter traversing a regular route to the boardwalk. He has friends of the same vintage that meet up while taking in the water view.

Jim with friend and former lifeguard Charlie Summers, and Mavis Wells. Photo / Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media
Jim with friend and former lifeguard Charlie Summers, and Mavis Wells. Photo / Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

After his morning jaunt, he comes home for a hot lunch and a beer - usually a Ranfurly - in the conservatory. At night, he has two glasses of "medicinal" red.

He loves rugby and is an avid reader. "I'm great Wilbur Smith man," he says.

The Mount has changed drastically over the years and the Wells have ridden through both its hard times and successes, while enjoying the magic beach-side lifestyle.

After they retired in 1990, the pair would walk up Mauao every morning at 6.30am, while they also bought a campervan and spent time in the South Island tramping, trout fishing and panning for gold.

"I expect everybody says this, but we think we lived in the best years," Mavis adds. "After the war, things looked up and there was a lot more jobs. We went from depression years to the good years."

The good years had arrived by 1950, when people had enough money to holiday at the beach and the placid pace of life began to speed up in the Mount. But the Ranui tragedy rocked a lot of people and cast a pall over the town for a good few years.

Wells says he'd like to relive those years again... but just not December 28, 1950.

Until his last breath, that's one day he could do without.


Ranui sinking
• Carrying 23 people when it sank in the entrance to Tauranga Harbour on December 28, 1950.
• A freak wave, amid stormy conditions, overturned the boat after it had crossed the harbour bar while returning from a fishing trip to Mayor Island.
• Deckhand Phil "Bluey'' Smith was the only survivor.
• The 13m boat was built from kauri and had only been in service for a few weeks.