In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Wahine ferry tragedy, photos have emerged showing the state of the stricken vessel just days after it shipwrecked.

Tom Palaskas first boarded the stricken Wahine ferry on April 12, 1968 - just two days after the maritime disaster.

The sky was overcast - with the gloomy remains of Cyclone Giselle lingering. A heavy stench of oil hung in the air. The vessel, pummelled on to its side by the storm, lay partially submerged in the Wellington Harbour.

Fifty-one people had died in the harbour on April 10, nearly all from drowning. Two others would die weeks and years after the tragedy from injuries sustained on the day.

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At the time Palaskas, then 21, was a student at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University where he was studying graphic design and photography.

He had made his way to Wellington for the purpose of snapping some shots of the Wahine, which he thought would make a good subject for photojournalism.

Picture exclusive: The wreck of Wahine

"I've always been interested in the sea, I've been drawn to it since I was a young child," Palaskas tells the Herald on Sunday, from his home in Melbourne.

In order to determine how viable it was to get on board the shipwreck, Palaskas went out to the airport, hired a plane for around an hour and had a pilot fly him overhead.

Wahine, two days after the sinking. The remnants of the cyclone still fill the sky. The VHS radio-telephone antenna on the roof of the bridge is now silent. Photo / Tom Palaskas
Wahine, two days after the sinking. The remnants of the cyclone still fill the sky. The VHS radio-telephone antenna on the roof of the bridge is now silent. Photo / Tom Palaskas

"There was a limit as to how low he could fly it," he recalls.

"I had a look at it from the plane and saw it wasn't too far off shore, and that I could take steps to get on board."

Palaskas managed to venture out to the boat with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Pentax 35mm, and snapped some images.

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On board the ferry for the first time, he took pictures of the decks, slick with oil, and the lifeboats still secure in their davits.

Lifeboat P4 still secure in its davits. Fuel oil covers the deck and superstructure. Photo / Tom Palaskas
Lifeboat P4 still secure in its davits. Fuel oil covers the deck and superstructure. Photo / Tom Palaskas

But it was only during a second trip to the Wahine wreck - this time with the permission of Wahine's owners the Union Steamship Company - that Palaskas was able to get inside the cabin.

He headed back to the boat several days later, keen to improve on the quality of the first set photos. The sky had been a little dark for his liking and he anticipated better access to the ship if he returned.

During this trip he came across salvagers who were starting to work on the vessel and helped him access different parts of the boat.

"I went to their [Union Steamship Company] headquarters in Wellington and asked for their permission to visit. And I got it."

A Deck: One of several single-berth cabins for the Wahine's engineers. A glass tumbler, books, upturned drawers and a can of shoe polish float gently from side to side. Photo / Tom Palaskas
A Deck: One of several single-berth cabins for the Wahine's engineers. A glass tumbler, books, upturned drawers and a can of shoe polish float gently from side to side. Photo / Tom Palaskas

It was something that "probably wouldn't happen today," Palaskas said, but he met little opposition to the request.

On board the ship there was a strong smell of oil. Another smell took over when he ventured into the cabins - the beginnings of mould setting in.

"Even books smell once they get wet," Palaskas said.

"It depends what they get wet with - if it's a combination of oil and seawater they have a particular smell."

Vehicle Deck facing aft. All vehicles are submerged having broken away from their chains and fallen to the bottom (other side) of this deck. Photo / Tom Palaskas
Vehicle Deck facing aft. All vehicles are submerged having broken away from their chains and fallen to the bottom (other side) of this deck. Photo / Tom Palaskas

In the sea water flowing through the decks of the overturned ship were the belongings of passengers forced to hastily abandon ship just a little more than 48 hours before.

Palaskas said it was eerie seeing books, clothes, shoes, floating around.

"You're faced with objects and a scene which is completely out of context. The things I could see should not have been in the state that they were," he said.

"The baby's bottle shouldn't have been floating in the water, the clothes shouldn't have been there. The pillows were shredding and the feathers were floating all over the water.

The image shows an electric motor, just in front of the lifeboat. This motor operated the winch visible at centre right for hoisting and lowering the lifeboat. Photo / Tom Palaskas
The image shows an electric motor, just in front of the lifeboat. This motor operated the winch visible at centre right for hoisting and lowering the lifeboat. Photo / Tom Palaskas

"Everything was out of context - so in that sense there was a very strange, surreal feel to the whole thing."

Palaskas said there had been no apparent danger, though he doubted he would have been overly cautious even if there had been.

The fine arts student had ended up using some of the images for a university assignment and then put them away.

For the decades following, Palaskas said the negatives were stored in "often less-than-ideal" conditions - until he decided having them stuck in a cupboard was a waste.

D Deck smokeroom: The movement of the ship as it heeled over was violent enough to tear timber room fittings off the walls and to break furniture apart. Photo / Tom Palaskas
D Deck smokeroom: The movement of the ship as it heeled over was violent enough to tear timber room fittings off the walls and to break furniture apart. Photo / Tom Palaskas

The significant anniversary, together with a discussion with a Herald photographer about the treasure trove of images, prompted Palaskas to dig out his photos.

"I had a good quality scanner - I was able to scan the negatives and then bring them into Photoshop to edit, restore and finally save them," he said.

"It's part of New Zealand's history so I think they should be available for the public to see.

Section of the upper garage showing part of the circular outer edge of the turntable used by the Wahine's seamen for turning passengers' cars inside this confined space. Photo / Tom Palaskas
Section of the upper garage showing part of the circular outer edge of the turntable used by the Wahine's seamen for turning passengers' cars inside this confined space. Photo / Tom Palaskas