The following is an abridged recollection of a memorable trip aboard one of Alexander Hatrick's riverboats in 1936 or 1937, as recalled by nurse Margaret Duirs Macnab.

Margaret was born in Hawera in 1900 and attended school in Whanganui and Nelson before training as a nurse in Christchurch. She was involved in nursing for 35 years, most of that time spent in isolated areas of New Zealand. After she retired, she moved to Nelson, later moving back to Whanganui where she passed away on January 12, 2001.

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At the time of the events recorded below, Margaret was living at Pīpīriki House, visiting patients on marae and kainga by the Whanganui River. These words are her own:

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About once a month I visited Paranui [sic]. In the summer, I stayed the night. In the winter time I had an arrangement with the boat whereby they waited 2 or 3 hours for me whilst I made a very perfunctory visit. The crew consisted of three Maori Men; the skipper, a mate, and an engineer. These men knew every inch of the water they travelled.

Margaret Macnab around the time when she was a district nurse on the Whanganui River, 1930s
Margaret Macnab around the time when she was a district nurse on the Whanganui River, 1930s

It was midwinter, and the days were even shorter in the river valley. We arrived at Paranui about 11am, and I arranged with the skipper to be back at the boat by 2pm, which would give us ample time to accomplish the return trip in daylight.

I completed my visits and hurried back to keep my assignment with the skipper. The boat seemed strangely silent. No sign of skipper, or mate, but a very disgruntled engineer who had not accompanied the others when they left with liberal liquid refreshments. Nearly three hours passed before two slightly unsteady figures appeared and proceeded to goose step down the slippery slope.

I watched with some interest to see how they would navigate the narrow gangplank. They surveyed it carefully, then took it with a determined rush and landed safely. The skipper came to me, hoping that I was not angry and assuring me that although night was falling, I need not be worried as day and night were the same to them, as they knew the river so well.

The engines started up and we were off. We nudged first into the left bank, and then into the right, but after a brief zig-zag course we straightened out. Night was falling and it was cold, so I went below to the engine room where there was just room for the width of a chair beside the engine.

All of a sudden a terrific bump threw me forward on to the floor. The engineer cried, "We've struck a rock and we're sinking". I rose and made for the ladder and the deck, not wishing to go down with the ship. However, although we had struck a rock in midstream, we were more or less perched upon it and in no immediate danger of sinking.

The calamity had an instantaneous, sobering effect on the crew who went over the side with long poles to try and lever us off – to no effect. They came aboard and went below to join the engineer in the engine room, where there was standing room only for three men, but no warmth as the engines were turned off. They, however, did have a roof over their heads, which was more than I had on the open deck. I wrapped myself in my oilskin and lay on the wooden seat and listened to the melancholy call of the morepork, and the river mists crept down, and enveloped me like a shroud.

Margaret Macnab around the time when she was a district nurse on the Whanganui River, 1930s
Margaret Macnab around the time when she was a district nurse on the Whanganui River, 1930s

I know not for how long I endured this misery but, after some hours I rose and went below. I informed the assembled company that now we would exchange places. I moved in, and they moved out, without a word.

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About 4am there floated on the air sounds of revelry by night. A football team had joined the search and rescue boat and were in great spirits of one kind and another. The sequel was brief – we were not even holed, so we were towed off and proceeded downstream in convoy.

• Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.