FOUR Whangarei men who were shipwrecked in Rarotonga by  a tsunami in 1960 felt its magnitude more than most.
Selwyn Matheson says he was a "nautical bum" in those days, taking off with his sailing buddies for exotic Pacific isles when the mood took them.
"Just cruising. We used to go up there every year in the late '50s, early '60s," he says.
Matheson describes May 22, 1960, as "one night to remember, in particular".
Matheson, the co-owner of the 9.2-metre Kehua, Peter Ashcroft, and crew Don Beer and John Pettit had arrived in the dark hours of a Saturday night at the port of Avatiu - "it's harbour in those days was just a gut in the coral".
The voyage had already been a nightmare.
Caught between two violent weather fronts, the  yacht had battled for 10 days of the 20-day voyage, dragging warps and tyres in storm-force conditions.
At Avatiu two other yachts - the Nina, also out of Whangarei, and the larger United States-registered Tahiti - were also waiting to enter the port.
In the religious Cook Islands, there were no radio broadcasts on a Sunday, and no one working on the shore. That saved lives when  a huge wave hit around 9.30am.
"We had absolutely no warning," Matheson recalls. "If you were sitting in a dinghy out on the ocean you wouldn't know a tidal wave had passed beneath you.
"What happens near land is that the sea sucks out, then there's a pause. We heard this kind of bubbling noise from the sea out behind the reef ... Then you hear it coming. It rushes in, pauses, and sucks back out, taking everything with it."
The yachts and their anchors withstood the first couple of waves. When the water receded, the men abandoned ship and ran for shore, and higher ground.
Eventually the yachts' anchors broke away and they were knocked around together in the rapidly  rising and falling tide. The Kehua's mast caught up with the other two yachts' rigging and snapped. She  also  ended up with a damaged bowsprit and mizzen mast, torn mainsail and a genoa wrapped and tangled under her. The other yachts were also damaged and left unseaworthy.
Kiwi ingenuity would get those vessels back on to the ocean but the job would last months.
"We decided we'd have to build a slipway and a shipyard," Matheson said.
The Kiwis went on the scrounge, borrowed a Public Works Department front-end loader and whatever else they could, shaped, shifted and lugged coral, purloined railway iron and timber, and "made a cradle with bits of driftwood and anything else that looked useful".
Matheson, a carpenter, bought an 8 x 6-metre slab of oregon pine from the works department and shaped and spliced it on to the broken mast.
"This caused great interest. It was really only held together by  glue. The natives said it would never hold but I knew it would. Then they said, 'How are you going to get it in?' I said, 'We'll find a way'."
More Kiwi ingenuity: they lined up the other two yachts on either side, dragged up the new mast using the other vessels' halyards, and pivoted the repaired mast into place on the Kehua.
The Nina and Tahiti were slipped and repaired at the makeshift yard first. The Kehua would be at Avatia for some months. Matheson and Beer stayed on the island and got work, one as a carpenter, the other a panelbeater.
Eventually, the Kehua was able to come home to Whangarei again.
But it wasn't the end of Matheson's high-seas adventures.
The Pacific islands would lure him back several more times, including in 1961 for an extra's role in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty.
But, this wild spring, as the Earth rumbles beneath the Pacific and the tides again threaten her vulnerable islands, Matheson's thoughts return to a shipwreck he survived in the tsunami of 1960.