The New Zealand Maritime Record - sponsored by the NZ National Maritime Museum


Maintained by the NZ National Maritime Museum
as a service to Shipping Enthusiasts and Maritime Historians

Go To the NZNMM Website

This website is developed from the site originally conceived developed & maintained by Marcus Castell and associates. Opinions are those of the various authors of the articles, and are not those of the NZ National Maritime Museum unless specifically noted. Information in this site has been updated to 2002 and will be progressively updated as resources allow. More information on historic ships (etc) is contained in the MARITIME INDEX website

The Turbo Electric Vessel   WAHINE     1966 - 1968


The twin screw turbo electric steamer Wahine was built at Govan, Scotland in 1966 for the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd by Fairfields Ltd of Glasgow.


After completing his Shipwright apprenticeship at Fairfield's, Colin Munro worked on the construction of the New Zealand Frigate Canterbury at Yarrow & Co. He migrated to New Zealand in 1974 and as the Project Planning Officer at the Naval Dockyard he's still working on her.

"On the day of Wahine's launch, along with three other apprentice Shipwrights, I was nominated as a 'Dagger Boy.'

The launch set up for a ship is a 'Standing Way' which is anchored to the ground of the building slip, on top of which is built a 'Sliding Way' which sits free on the Standing part and is attached to the ships hull by several welded brackets called "Poppets". To hold the sliding way in position until the launch, a trigger mechanism is used. There are four triggers fitted to the launch ways, two forward and two aft and the counter weights are supported by a timber shore called the 'dagger'. When the officials on the launching platform are ready to launch the ship a signal is passed (the ringing of a buzzer under the ship) to each trigger position. That buzzer is the signal to pull out the securing pin on the counter balance and take away the supporting shore from underneath thereby freeing the sliding ways from the standing way.

The role of the Dagger boy is then to run as fast as possible to the launching platform and hold the pin and shore up for the officials to see that all is ready for the moment of launch. As the full weight of the ship now is just sitting with nothing holding her back it is important that this part of the ceremony takes the least possible time and the rivalry between apprentices to reach the platform first, has through time, developed into the "dagger race".

There was great rivalry among the chosen apprentices for the prestige to be gained by being the first to appear from under the ship in front of the launch platform holding aloft the pin and dagger. I won the race on the Wahine and was held in great esteem by my peers (until the next launch of course when someone else took that honour)".

She was the second ship to bear the name and at 8,948 tons, the largest in the company's fleet.  Referred to as a "Steamer Express" by the company's publicity department, at 488 feet (149m) long she was also one of the largest ferries in the world.

General Lounge                                             Cafeteria                                             Smokeroom


William Waters, (1922 - 99), the Union Steam Ship Co's last in-house naval architect, designed the vessel and the proposal to build was announced in 1961, but tenders were not called until 1963.  Fairfields were awarded the contract in October of that year, with an anticipated of completing Yard No. 830 in 1965.

The shipyard encountered financial difficulties and the Wahine was not launched by the wife of the Union Steam Ship Company's managing director, Mr. Fergus McFarlane, until the 14th of July, 1965.  The vessel arrived at Wellington on the 24th of July 1966, some nine months late and entered service on the first day of August, making the first of 67 voyages to Lyttelton that year.

Wahine could accommodate 927 passengers in cabins on six decks and in greater comfort than in any of her predecessors.  Stabilisers halved both the frequency and amount of roll, two transverse thrust units simplified berthing.  She had twice the garage space of the Maori and auxillary space forward for a further fifty cars.

Wahine Poster    

Good Friday in 1968 brought tropical cyclone Giselle to New Zealand.  Across the country it caused much havoc including tearing off roofs and bringing down power lines.  The ship sailed from Lyttelton on the 9th of April in the mid evening.  On board were 610 passengers and a crew of 125, though the Wahine was easily capable of carrying 928 passengers.  None of the passengers or crew expected a difficult crossing, word was that the cyclone was still too far distant to be a problem, there was only a slight breeze, and the weather did not seem bad nor the sea rough.

        Wahine at Sea, click to expand

In the early morning of the 10th of April, as she approached the Wellington Harbour heads, a tremendous storm, blowing from the South, was at its height, with 100 k.p.h. winds gusting to 155 k.p.h.  At around 6 a.m. the Wahine was entering the heads when she abruptly lurched to port.  The helm would not respond.  The sea was so turbulent that the propellers were as often out of the water.  The ship's radar had failed as she entered the narrow, rocky channel and visibility deteriorated quickly to zero.  The Captain and crew could not determine which way the vessel was oriented and inadvertently backed over a reef severely damaging the ship's bottom.


The Wahine struck Barrett's Reef just after 6.40 a.m. Few passengers felt the grounding and most were oblivious to what was going on.  Alarm bells were rung, the following announcement made:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are aground on Barrett's Reef.  There is no immediate danger.  Please proceed to your cabins, collect your life jackets, and report to your muster stations."

In the raging seas, it took 20 minutes just to reach the fore deck to drop the anchors.   For a further two hours she dragged anchors and was driven Northward into the harbour.  Had the cables parted during that time few would have survived.  Fortunately they didn't and at about 11 a.m. the anchors finally held near Seatoun beach on the Western side of the harbour. Right: an engineer inspecting water on the vehicle deck.

Efforts to secure the ship with tugs then began in the still dangerous conditions.  One tug was turned around completely by the storm before it reached the stricken vessel.  At 11.00 a.m. the tug Tapuhi (232 tons, 1945) was able to get a tow line to the ship but this broke after ten minutes and it proved impossible to attach another line.  Captain Galloway, the deputy Harbour Master risked his life jumping from a pitching launch to clamber up a ladder hanging over the Starboard side of the ship.  He just missed being crushed when the launch came back and hit the Wahine.


By 1.00 p.m. the wind had dropped a little although the seas remained very rough.  The tide swung the Wahine beam on to the wind providing some shelter on the starboard side.  At the same time her list to Starboard increased noticeably.  At 1.15 p.m. the passengers and crew were instructed to abandon the ship on the starboard side.


During the day the captain and crew had intentionally misled the passengers into believing there was no danger.  It was felt that this was preferable to telling of the possible dangers and risking widespread panic.  As a result, when the order was given to abandon ship many of the passengers were stunned.  They felt that it was safer onboard and some had even removed their life jackets, using them as pillows.  Others didn't know which side was Starboard and instead made their way to the high side of the ship from which it was impossible to launch the lifeboats.

The Wahine then began to develop a severe list and the order to abandon ship was given to the 734 men women and children aboard.  Many of those who perished were in the first lifeboat away which swamped soon after launching.  The others land safely on the beach at Seatoun. The Wahine was within sight of the shore and a large number of other vessels, including a smaller ferry, the Aramoana, stood by to pick up those in rafts.  Some passengers were left with no choice but to jump from the listing vessel into the cold.  They were blown across the harbour towards Eastbourne Beach, an area with difficult access. Debris on the road caused by the storm had meant that rescue vehicles couldn't gain access to the beach itself.


The Wahine was designed with an enormous two-tiered vehicle deck capable of holding over 200 cars.  This single compartment spanned nearly the entire length of the ship and clear across her beam from the port to the starboard side.  When the reef damaged the ship's hull the stability of the vessel was maintained until the vehicle deck began to take on water.  Once this happened a principal known as "free-surface effect" began to slowly drain the ship of its stability as water sloshed from one side of the ship to the other.



As the ship continued to rock back and forth, the momentum of the flooded water slowly increased her starboard list.  As she suddenly approached the point of no return, the Captain gave the command to abandon ship and all on board rushed to the lower, starboard side lifeboats.  This sudden shift in weight, although slight, caused the ship to lose its little remaining stability and at 2.30 in the afternoon, the now abandoned Wahine capsized in thirty-eight feet of water and crashed heavily to the bed of the sea.


As the canopied rubber rafts approached the shore waves as high as 6 metres capsized them and many lives were lost at this time.  Only eight police officers were initially able to get down to Eastbourne and they co÷rdinated most of the early rescue activity followed by one hundred other officers and one hundred and fifty civilians.  Bodies washed up along this stretch of beach and some people who made it on to the shore alive were unable to be given medical attention soon enough to prevent death from exposure. Others drowned or were dashed against the rocks by the pounding surf.

Wreck of the Wahine
Watercolour by T. L. Cutten, 1968.

As tradition demands, Captain Hector Robinson was the last to leave by diving over the side, now nearly level with the sea. Despite all rescue attempts 51 people lost their lives; 44 passengers, six crew members and one stowaway.



"We had a family reunion in Blenheim that Easter and I travelled across the Cook Strait the very next night to Picton and the Wahine had lights marking where she lay on her side, there were flowers & wreaths floating around her. Coming home on the Monday afternoon sailing when we neared the Wahine, our ferry listed badly because of so many passengers moving to the one side to see the wreck. It was panic stations with several bursts of a horn and the Captain on the loud speaker ordering passengers to return to their previous positions."

The Picton ferry Aranui passing the wreck.

A Court of Inquiry was convened ten weeks later.  In December of that year it was to return with a list of errors and omissions made both onshore and aboard the ferry.  At the same time it was noted that these occurred under very difficult and dangerous conditions.  The Inquiry found that the primary reason for the Wahine's loss was the presence of water on the vehicle deck.  Fault was found with Captain Robertson for failing to report this to those onshore and also not reporting that the ship's draught had increased to 22 feet after striking the reef.

Over the next year preparations were made to re-float her.  However, during a second storm on May 8, 1969, the hull broke into three pieces and she was eventually demolished on site by the salvors, the work took more than five years and was completed in September, 1973.  The image above shows her bow section being landed on a Wellington wharf.

A memorial made from ventilation pipes, an anchor and chain from the ship has been erected on the foreshore at Seatoun to mark the last resting place of the ship.  Her fore-mast now stands in the Frank Kitts Park at Wellington as a memorial for those who died.

Above: Dal Flannery's remarkable diorama of the sinking vessel
Museum of Wellington City and Sea, Wellington, New Zealand.

2001     March 14     The restored foghorn on the Wahine is set to break its 35-year silence and grace the Wellington waterfront.  The foghorn had been in storage in the Wellington Museum City and Sea for years until it was rediscovered by a staff member who suggested that it be resurrected.  It was one of several items of Wahine wreckage bought by Sir Len Southward.  He donated both foghorns and the two masts to the museum. One mast had been restored and erected in Frank Kitts Park on the waterfront, the other is awaiting restoration, and the second foghorn might also be restored.

click to expand - OPENS IN A NEW WINDOW
1966 advertisement from The Listener magazine
Expanded image opens in a new window.


Brewer, N. H.
A Century of Style
Wellington: Reed, 1982. 238 pp. Illustrated.

Churchouse, Jack
Glamour Ships of the Union Steam Ship Company N.Z. Ltd.
Wellington: Millwood, 1981. 104 pp. Illustrated.

Scotter, W. H.
A history of Port Lyttelton
Christchurch: Lyttelton Harbour Board, 1968. 356 pp. Illustrated.


Thanks to Peter Armstrong, Scott Bennett, Colin Munro, Matthew Smith, Steven McLachlan (specialist in Maritime Covers) for many of the images and Marcus Castell for bringing it all together.

This page is part of the Historic New Zealand Vessels section of the
New Zealand National Maritime Museum
web site.



Copyright (c)2003-2007
NZ National Maritime Museum

Return to the Ship Index

Enquiries & Research