Shipwrecks have always been part of Northland's history but one of the worst in living memory was the Capitaine Bougainville, 40 years ago today. This story is compiled from the Advocate's archives by Lindy Laird.

An engine room fire and atrocious weather claimed the freighter Capitaine Bougainville on September 3, 1975.

Thirty years later the ghosts of its 16 victims were laid to rest in a moving ceremony on a headland near Whananaki, where a monument bears the names of the 12 crew and four passengers who died.

A similar commemoration is planned for the 40th anniversary.

The ship's captain, Frenchman Jean-Raymond Thomas - who lost his New Zealand wife Philippa, infant daughter and two step-children - said at the 30th anniversary that the chance to farewell his family at the site of the tragedy would help him age peacefully.

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"For me it was an emotional day, but it was a kind of emotion that will help a man of my age to become an old man nicely, in serenity," he said.

Captain Thomas at the 30th anniversary commemorations. PHOTO / MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
Captain Thomas at the 30th anniversary commemorations. PHOTO / MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

The day of the disaster, a day after the ship left Auckland, dawned to an easterly storm and a 12m swell.

The Noumea-registered 3614-tonne cargo vessel, carrying a crew of 29 and eight passengers, was en route from Auckland, taking meat and dairy products to Sydney when fire broke out in the engine room, directly below the lifeboats.

Captain Thomas headed for what he hoped was safety, and anchored two miles (3.2km) off Whananaki but, by this time, the smoke was so dense the ship had to be abandoned.
The captain made that call at 3.40am.

Mountainous seas, a 40-knot wind and a powerful current made launching the lifeboats perilous.

Some people drowned when their lifeboats capsized, others succumbed to cold.

The victims were from Fiji, France, Britain, the Philippines and New Zealand, including the captain's family.

In time-honoured tradition, Captain Thomas was the last person off the stricken ship.
"The lifeboat was turned over 10 or a dozen times before we drifted near the beach. Each time someone lost their grip.

"My children were washed away, one by one. I was supporting my wife on the keel but at about daylight she died from the cold and exposure and I lost my grip on her," he told reporters at the time.

THE TRAGEDY of that night still lives deep in the heart of the coastal community, the courageous people who risked their own lives to rescue survivors and recover bodies, and the shipping company which owned the Noumea-registered vessel.

Lloyd Harris, a young Whangarei constable at the time, was part of the police search and rescue team.

The squad was mobilised early that morning after getting a call that a vessel was on fire off Sandy Bay, and its crew and passengers had abandoned ship.

Along with police communications staff Janette Johns and Maria Cowin, he was one of the organisers of the 30th commemoration in 2005.

Back then he told the Advocate that one of the small details he remembers from the huge event is the police car number - "1056, a terrible old bloody Holden, terrible radio reception", and the mess it made on the driveway of the property that was to become the SAR (search and rescue) headquarters on the day.

Earlier the SAR team had arrived by police car at the southern end of Sandy Bay and, from a high point, could see the burning ship drifting north despite being anchored.

The team also headed north, pulling into Don Pullman's farm. Knowing they could get to the coast quicker overland, Mr Pullman, Mr Harris and Constable Ralph Davis took off in a tractor, in the dark. At the coast Mr Pullman went one way to search while the police officers joined their colleagues at another spot.

Survivors came ashore at three points, some having been in the water for hours. Most had been tipped out of two lifeboats and one raft.

Captain Thomas continued to master ships on Pacific New Zealand runs, sounding his ship's horn every time he passed the spot the tragedy occurred.

THE CAPITAINE Bougainville lives on in Whangarei, its electric bell sounding before every performance at the theatre named after the ship.

That bell, a life ring and oars sit on the wall of the 350-seat theatre built with the ill-fated ship's salvage fees, donated to the Forum North Trust Board by the Northland Harbour Board.

The ship's bell rings before every performance at the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre in Forum North. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
The ship's bell rings before every performance at the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre in Forum North. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

The ship was still ablaze two days after the fatal fire, when a harbour board tug towed it to the Marsden Point wharf. Holes had to be cut into the red-hot sides so fire fighting machinery could douse the fire. The ship was then towed to dock at Whangarei Port.

Insurers assessed the wreck as a "constructive total loss" and it was scrapped.

Benoit Marcenac, the current managing director of Sofrana Unilines, which owned the Capitaine, is planning "a gathering" at the coastal monument for the 40th ceremony.
"I have read a lot about the tragedy and, indeed, realised how the region got affected,,' Mr Marcenac said.

"It won't be easy as the last ceremony isn't that long ago and might be seen as the one which healed past wounds [but] I am sure we'll put something together.

"I feel I need to do that as a tribute to the 16 victims of this tragedy and to all seafarers, also to remind us that sea transport remains an adventure."

Mr Marcenac said he hoped Captain Thomas would attend the yet to be finalised ceremony on Saturday, September 5.

The Capitaine Bougainville shared more than just a French connection with the Rainbow Warrior. Memorials to both stand on Northland headlands.

Both ships were built in 1955 and came to grief in New Zealand waters - the Warrior bombed by French saboteurs in 1985, the Capitaine destroyed by a fire that started when a snapped piston hurtled across the engine room into a fuel line during a terrible storm.