For Dennis Robinson, now retired and living in Taradale, the task of simply driving his car on to one of the Cook Strait ferries can rattle his nerves slightly.

For it brings back memories of the Wahine disaster of 50 years ago.

The memories of April 10, 1968 have always been there but rarely emerged — except on anniversaries and when he has aimed his car at the drive-on ramp in the years since.

Read more: Wahine ferry passenger Sylvia Nathan's tale of survival
Young photographer snapped pictures on board the Wahine just two days after the boat sank


He had driven his car aboard the Wahine on that day, but he would not get to drive it off.

During the five decades since, every time he has returned to the ferry ramp it all came back.

"Oh I would think about it then," he said, adding the mere act of driving aboard, despite the many passed years, would unsettle the nerves.

He lost his car that day and could have also lost his life.

After the Wahine had struck the Barrett Reef and began to list over he saw fear, but he also witnessed the stoic resolve that it brought out in people, including himself as he later battled in the chilled waters for nearly an hour — hoping to be seen and picked up, which fortunately he was.

He had been thinking about heading to Wellington for the commemorative services today but decided against it.

"You just get on with things," he said in reflection.

Mr Robinson said one thing that had emerged, as the years had gone by, was that more people were beginning to talk about their experiences now, for it had been an event which rippled across the entire country.


The Wahine had been carrying 734 passengers and crew, and 51 lives were lost that day, with two others dying shortly after the event.

In his own words, this is Dennis Robinson's story.

"Fifty years ago today, I boarded the Wahine in Lyttelton for its trip to Wellington.

I was coming home from the RNZAF so also had my car on board, along with all my worldly and important belongings.

I had made the crossing on several occasions and always looked forward to it — this was my first trip on this ship and she looked really special too.

It became very rough in the early hours of the morning so I got dressed and tried to go up on deck – what a storm!

I can remember very clearly wondering how they could navigate in such conditions.

Went to see about arranging early breakfast but was just laughed at as "there is not a whole piece of crockery left on this ship".

I have never forgotten those words.

Very soon an unusual shudder came along with that awful sound – I knew immediately something was wrong but not how wrong it was to be.

Things progressed which have been well documented, but when we were all at muster stations I was really concerned at the steep list developing.

We did get updates, but if only everyone had been told how close to the land we were, then I am sure the general feeling would have been much more positive.

It was almost impossible to see more than a few metres with the seas and rain early on that morning.

In these situations you develop groups and support one another.

I met and became friendly with a woman who was from England and here to tour New Zealand.

She too had her car below, an almost brand new Sunbeam Rapier.

At the time I did not know much of her history, but she was the wife of an eminent New Zealand plastic surgeon who had helped so many fighter pilots and bomber crew with very bad burns from the last war.

She had heard so much about New Zealand from her late husband and wanted to tour here.

We both agreed to contact one another if we got out of this situation, which we both did, as she had told me to call her at the St George.

After the lifeboats were all gone, some of us younger men were asked to help get people off the ship.

This was very distressing, particularly with older people, as you had to promise them it was safer in the water and that they would be picked up quickly.

I can only hope this was so for those I convinced.

Even today, I still feel their fear about what they were being asked to do and remember them tightly holding my hand until they jumped.

When I left the ship I did a stupid thing by jumping in the middle and then had to make my way to the stern hand over hand against the hull, which was towering over me.

A frightening scenario as I was concerned she may have rolled, which did happen later.

I was a strong swimmer at the time but after almost an hour in the water was very cold.

what did upset me was seeing the newspaper boat moving around taking pictures. It did not appear to be looking for people and I am sure it saw me in the water.

I was very fortunate to be picked up by an engineer who refused to head to shore.

He was focused on finding others but I think I was the last.

After what seemed a long time using the hand propeller gear we came ashore late in the day at Seatoun, thence to the Railway Station after 6pm – yes my watch was still working!

I can also clearly remember talking with a young lady at the station bemoaning the loss of my car. She put it all in perspective when she told me her Dad had just picked up his new Mercedes from Cable Price in Christchurch and was bringing it home — but we were all there and safe.

I had dinner some years later with the Master of the Wahine (Captain Gordon Robertson) who was a good friend of my father.

They had both sailed together during the war and my father had the utmost respect for him.

I didn't tell him at the time that I was on his ship that day."