The storm that swallowed the Wahine was a monster, but in the 1960s New Zealand skippers were expected to sail in weather that keeps captains in port today.

Fifty years ago today, the Wahine sank in the entrance to Wellington Harbour eight hours after running aground on Barrett Reef, with the loss of 51 lives at the time and two more later from injuries.

The Union Line ferry was hit by the full force of ex-tropical cyclone Giselle, one of the worst storms to hit New Zealand last century.

Wahine sank 400m from Seatoun beach in Wellington Harbour after running aground in enormous seas that would keep today's Cook Strait ferries in harbour.
Wahine sank 400m from Seatoun beach in Wellington Harbour after running aground in enormous seas that would keep today's Cook Strait ferries in harbour.

In 1936, in the storm that some consider as bad as Giselle, the Union Line ferry Rangatira ran aground on Wellington's southern coast. The ship got off the rocks and limped into the harbour in reverse. No-one died or suffered serious injury.

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The greatest loss of life - 75 deaths - from a shipwreck in the Cook Strait area was in 1909 when the Penguin, another Union Line steamer, probably hit a rock near Cape Terawhiti on Wellington's southwest coast. In 1865 around 40 people - everyone on board - died when the City of Dunedin paddle steamer sank in the same area.

Wahine's master Captain Gordon Robertson on the bridge of his ship.
Wahine's master Captain Gordon Robertson on the bridge of his ship.

Wahine researcher Murray Robinson, godson of the Wahine's master - Captain Gordon Robertson, who died aged 62 in 1973 - said shipping companies in the 1960s were willing to risk sailing in much worse weather than now.

Murray Robinson, with photographs of his godfather, Wahine master Captain Gordon Robertson, says skippers in the 1960s were expected to sail in all but the most extreme weather. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Murray Robinson, with photographs of his godfather, Wahine master Captain Gordon Robertson, says skippers in the 1960s were expected to sail in all but the most extreme weather. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Masters in those days were expected to take their ships to sea. You couldn't cower in port and say 'There's a big storm coming, I'm not sailing'."

"They were expected to get their ships into and out of port in all but the most extreme weather. Masters who refused or were frightened were replaced, just like that. [Shipping company chiefs] would say 'We're running a business here for commercial profit … we'll find someone else with the necessary fortitude'."

Robinson said some of the waves hitting Wahine were estimated to be 12m high.

Cook Strait ferry Aratere entering Wellington Harbour in stormy seas last winter, near where the Wahine ran aground on April 10, 1968. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Cook Strait ferry Aratere entering Wellington Harbour in stormy seas last winter, near where the Wahine ran aground on April 10, 1968. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Today, KiwiRail's Interislander ferries won't sail their Wellington-Picton run across Cook Strait if the waves are over an average height of 6m.

Interislander's general manager of operations, Mark Thompson, said this had been the case for many years and was based on the Wahine "and other near misses with rough conditions".

The company relies on modern weather forecasting techniques and wave-height sensors on buoys at sites including off Baring Head, and at Tory Channel between Cook Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound.

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Interislander general manager of operations Mark Thompson says the company's ferries don't sail if average wave height is more than 6m.
Interislander general manager of operations Mark Thompson says the company's ferries don't sail if average wave height is more than 6m.

"So we've got a huge advantage over 50 years ago when the Wahine was basically relying on smoke signals and the captain's judgment."

Wahine did have radio equipment, but its radar malfunctioned.

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

"I think they were 10m significant waves with a ship half the size of my fleet - I mean, you would just not do that today," said Thompson. "In those days, 'Do it or else', was sadly the situation.

"Because with that sea and trying to get through the entrance to the harbour, she should have just tucked around the top of the South Island and let the storm blow over."

Met Service 6am weather map and wind-speed data for the day the Wahine sank.
Met Service 6am weather map and wind-speed data for the day the Wahine sank.

Today's Wahine commemoration events

• 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