Retired ship engineer Julian Webb helped rescue six people from the sinking ferry Wahine - but it could have been nine if not for a big wave that swept over his lifeboat from Cook Strait.

Now living in Tauranga, Webb hopes to find one of those rescued: a "brave little lad" who sat near him through the ordeal, clinging on tightly to the lifeboat's engine cover. He never learned the boy's name: "We didn't have time to talk".

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Fifty-one people died in the hours after abandoning the capsizing ship in the entrance channel of Wellington Harbour; two more died of their injuries in later weeks and years.

Survivors from the stricken ferry struggled to get ashore in heavy seas.
Survivors from the stricken ferry struggled to get ashore in heavy seas.

Webb was second engineer on the New Zealand Railways ferry Aramoana, which had gone to the aid of the Union Line's Wahine. Two of Aramoana's lifeboats were launched and Webb was engineer on one, in a crew of about six.

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"We sailed past Wahine and out towards the entrance because the tide had turned and there was a great rush of water that was taking people out of the harbour.

"We picked up six people out of the sea and into the lifeboat and were on the verge of picking up another three women.

"We were getting out of the entrance and the big seas washed over the top of us, spun us around and washed the tiller out of the mate's hands."

The boat carried a tomahawk which Webb quickly used to chop out a floor board to fashion a replacement tiller - the steering handle.

The three women were by now out of view - "We never saw them again".

The abandonment of the capsizing ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour, April 10, 1968. Photo / Fairfax Media
The abandonment of the capsizing ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour, April 10, 1968. Photo / Fairfax Media

The boat headed back out towards the entrance and another big wave washed over it, killing the engine "with a great 'bang'." The rest of the crew and one of the survivors, a Wahine crewman, were thrown out of the boat, leaving Webb with five Wahine passengers.

The lifeboat became caught in the surf crashing onto the eastern side of the harbour with large waves smashing over the top. It went up on its side but didn't quite overturn and was eventually thrown among the jagged rocks.

Webb took a rope and let himself be washed out. He managed to get a couple of loops around a pinnacle of rock, which helped steady the boat. Those washed out earlier had landed alive and some now returned to the boat to hold on to it and lift passengers ashore.

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Read more: See our full online presentation, Wahine, 50 years of pain

Everyone survived. They started trudging towards the safety of Eastbourne and were taken the rest of the way in buses. A couple of elderly men had been picked up by Landrovers. Webb was now so cold he could hardly talk.

He recalls that the boy, Maori and aged about 6, was handed to him after being pulled aboard.

"I said to him, sitting alongside me: 'Hold on to the engine cowling and don't do anything until I tell you', and I stared into his eyes and he obeyed the instructions to the letter.

Aramoana second engineer Julian Webb, holding the whistle from his lifejacket, helped rescue people from the stricken ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour. Photo / Alan Gibson
Aramoana second engineer Julian Webb, holding the whistle from his lifejacket, helped rescue people from the stricken ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour. Photo / Alan Gibson

"When we got the passengers out, it was an hour or two [later] and he was still sitting, hanging on to the engine cowling … He was quite calm and collected, a brave little lad and he survived."

Wahine commemoration events on Tuesday
• 6.30am - Dawn service at the Wahine mast memorial in Eastbourne
• 7.30-8.30am - Wellington Community Choir sings tunes reminiscent of those sung by passengers on the stricken ferry and in its lifeboats. Wellington Railway Station
• From 8.30am - Wahine display of student works, photos and memorabilia. Muritai School, Eastbourne
• 10am-8.30pm - Wahine exhibition and talks. Wellington Museum, Queen's Wharf, Wellington
• 11.30am-4.30pm - Search and rescue display, Shed 6, Queens Wharf
• 11.30am-12pm - Remembrance at Wahine mast memorial, Frank Kitts Park, Wellington central city waterfront. Orpheus Choir performs choral tribute
• 12-12.45pm - Flotilla of about 40 vessels, including some that were involved in the Wahine rescue, steams past the city mast memorial
• 3.30-5pm - Wahine display and afternoon tea, Seatoun School
• 5.30pm - Annual NZ Search and Rescue awards ceremony (invitation only). Shed 6.
For more information, visit Wahine 50 Trust wahine50.org.nz