Stuart and Jennifer Young had a front-row view of the unfolding Wahine disaster.

They lived - and still live - in the southernmost house on Breaker Bay Rd. From their house and looking across the Wellington Harbour entrance, the shipping lights at Pencarrow Head and on the Barrett Reef buoy are roughly in line.

The Youngs have clear recollections of April 10, 1968, the day the ferry Wahine went aground on Barrett Reef and later sank further up Wellington Harbour, with the loss of 51 lives at the time and two more later.

Wahine sank around 400m from Seatoun beach in Wellington Harbour.
Wahine sank around 400m from Seatoun beach in Wellington Harbour.

They - and others in the area - saw the ferry doing strange and dangerous things before it ran aground, sightings through partings in the mist that the official inquiry never managed to square with other evidence.

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"It was one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen," Stuart Young told the Herald in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Wahine disaster today.

"The storm was just so outrageous. It started blowing the roof off my house."

The Youngs house, the southernmost on Breaker Bay Rd, gives a prime view of the Wellington Harbour entrance channel between Barrett Reef and Pencarrow Head. Map / topomap.co.nz
The Youngs house, the southernmost on Breaker Bay Rd, gives a prime view of the Wellington Harbour entrance channel between Barrett Reef and Pencarrow Head. Map / topomap.co.nz

The disaster on the ship began at about 6.10am when it swung to the left, wouldn't go back on course and was hit by a monster wave on the left rear quarter. The radar had malfunctioned, the master, Captain Gordon Robertson, became disoriented and navigated by instinct.

He tried to turn the ship out to sea and an evidence re-analysis by retired Cook Strait ferry master Captain John Brown indicates he nearly succeeded. But when a light was spotted roughly ahead, probably the Barrett Reef light buoy, Robertson ordered the engines into reverse and the storm soon threw the ship on to Barrett Reef at 6.41am.

Stuart Young, an experienced sailor and avid observer of ships, told the inquiry he got up at 4.30am and saw the well-lit ship twice: at 6.20am and at 6.30am.

In the first sighting, Wahine was between Barrett Reef and Pencarrow Head, but was heading in the wrong direction - south, out of the harbour.

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

This bears some resemblance to Brown's findings, although the timings don't match.

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But in Young's second sighting, the Wahine was drifting fast in the area between Barrett Reef and the western shore, heading into Breaker Bay. His wife told the inquiry she thought the ship was coming up on to the beach.

Stuart Young phoned the police.

The couple's second sighting conflicts with evidence from the ship's officers - and with Brown's findings, that the ship was never fully west of a line between the reef and its buoy several hundred metres to the south.

Herald NZPA report from the Wahine inquiry, July 8, 1968. Source: Herald archive
Herald NZPA report from the Wahine inquiry, July 8, 1968. Source: Herald archive

Jennifer Young told the Herald at least six other people in Breaker Bay saw the ship, but in her opinion the inquiry "never really believed" what she and her husband had stated.

The inquiry's chairman, who alone comprised the Court of Inquiry, made no formal findings on exactly what happened in the crucial half hour leading up to the grounding.

"To work out the actual track of the ship from the engine tapes [the printed, time-stamped record of the master's engine instructions], under the conditions prevailing, does not seem to be possible," wrote the chairman, magistrate R. D. Jamieson.

However, three of his specialist advisers, in their "qualifications" to Jamieson's findings, said the engine movements recorded on the ship "would tend to drive the ship to the position observed by Mr and Mrs Young at 0630".

The report of the Wahine Court of Inquiry.
The report of the Wahine Court of Inquiry.