Cecil Noel Doig's smile beams, his eyes filled with life and happiness, and his hand lovingly resting on his wife's back.

His personality almost jumps out of the photo frame. He was caring, almost to his detriment - always giving a helping hand to those in need.

He was a husband, father, brother ...

But his life was cut short on April 10, 1968, when the Lyttelton to Wellington ferry, Wahine struck the Barrett Reef at 6.41am.

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Cecil Doig with his wife, Ruby Doig in a family photo taken prior to the Wahine disaster. Photo/supplied.
Cecil Doig with his wife, Ruby Doig in a family photo taken prior to the Wahine disaster. Photo/supplied.

The 75-year-old was returning to his hometown of Hastings with his wife, Ruby, after a two-month holiday in the South Island. They had attended son Barry's inauguration into the Church as a Presbyterian Minister in Invercargill.

But things took a tragic turn for the worse.

"He died as he lived," it is reported people said at the time.

And that he did. In the hours prior; Cecil, seated on the deck, comforted children by telling them stories and cheering them up and also tended to the injured.

A clipping of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.
A clipping of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.

It was the biggest storm to hit New Zealand in recorded history and still is to this day. It was categorised as a force 5 storm, with winds reported of more than 200km.

Tropical Cyclone Giselle swept south and collided with an intense low pressure system coming north up the South Island, exactly as the Wahine reached the narrow funnel of the harbour entrance.

The combination of warm tropical air and cold air dragged up from Antarctica produced exceptionally violent turbulence.

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Hundreds of kilometres away, another son, Trevor, heard of the tragedy unfolding in Wellington, and along with his brother, Alan, they raced to the aid of their parents.

"On the day, I was in touch with the police and at about 11 o'clock they said you had better go to Wellington and take some warm clothes to bring them home because they may well be getting wet."

They arrived in Wellington just after 6 o'clock after what had been a "terrible drive". They believed both of their parents had died - only to find out almost 18 hours later their mother was in fact alive.

"It was a harrowing time."

A clipping of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.
A clipping of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.

The moment the then 29-year-old found out his beloved father had been taken from them is etched in his memory.

"We were just overwhelmed. We were told very coldly in a Government building; Cecil Doig deceased. Body at the mortuary. Ruby Doig missing, presumed drowned. Next please."

"Everyone loses their parents, but in a shipwreck it is just more emotive," Trevor says.

"Just the magnitude and the scale of the thing ... It is the sadness of it."

It took 30 years before he opened the newspaper of the time - the suddenness of the loss was too much in the years prior. It took another 10 years before he went back to the place that claimed his father's life.

A snippet of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.
A snippet of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.

Now 79, Trevor, his wife Lyn, and their two nieces went to Wellington for the 50th commemorations of the disaster.

"It was emotional but it was a great time to be with other people and share the same emotions and same history."

Lyn Doig, with her husband Trevor Doig read stories published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.
Lyn Doig, with her husband Trevor Doig read stories published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.

The Doig family was among 500 people at Muritai School in Eastbourne, where many of the survivors in 1968 were brought to receive shelter and food.

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

As part of the anniversary, the Interislander ferry Aratere sailed past the Eastbourne service sounding its horn at the exact time the ship foundered and a wreath was thrown from the deck.

A fleet of about 40 ships also sailed around Wellington Harbour at noon, including some of the vessels involved in the rescue.

Trevor's late sister, Valerie Smith, was instrumental in the ship's 18m-high forward mast being placed at Korohiwa Bay.

In an eerie echo of half a century ago, bad weather affected the services.

"It was rather reminiscent of 1968 except about a quarter as bad. Can you imagine what it was like 50 years ago?"

Trevor says "the question is should they have been there?" all those years ago.

"It still touches raw nerves. There were lots of mistakes made."

An inquiry concluded there were errors of judgment, but the captain was not charged.

"It was a dreadful day in New Zealand's history and there are still a lot of people who are very bruised emotionally, and it is fair to say that there is still a lot of anger around that no one was ever made accountable."


It is understood his parents were among the last 60 people to leave the ship. Ruby was thrown into the water, while Cecil was put into a lifeboat because his legs were frail. However the lifeboat turned over; swamped by the huge seas.

"You have to understand it was just chaos and in that chaos they got separated.

"The people on the beach at Eastbourne saved my mother's life," Trevor adds.

His mother was 65 at the time and lived for a further 18 years.

"It certainly changed her forever," Trevor said.

She was the mother of seven children; two daughters and five sons, whom she looked after.

A clipping of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.
A clipping of a story published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune after the Wahine disaster in 1968. Photo/Duncan Brown.

Born in Australia, Cecil came to New Zealand as a young man and landed with the New Zealand forces at Gallipoli.

He was intensely interested in the welfare of Gallipoli veterans and was secretary of the Gallipoli Veterans' Association and took a leading part in prolonged efforts to have a Gallipoli Medallion struck and distributed.

For many years Cecil was a carpenter at Tomoana freezing works until his retirement. He was an elder of St John's Presbyterian Church, Mahora.

Of special interest to him was St John Ambulance both in active work and in study of the history of the order.

He was considered one of the most knowledgeable district lecturers on the order, and he also took his full share of active duty.

It is arguably this that led his son Trevor to become a yachtie, sailing countless miles, including through the Cook Strait.

"There was always a saying; if in doubt, stay out."

Looking back on his father's life and the event that changed his family forever, Trevor said, "You can't get over it, but you try to move on the best you can".