The 50th anniversary of the Wahine disaster will be commemorated on Tuesday.
The Courier reporter Greta Yeoman spoke to two South Canterbury residents who survived the maritime tragedy on April 10, 1968, in which 53 people lost their lives.
Ann Palmer: Fortunate to survive Eastbourne landing
Ann Palmer was “very lucky” to survive landing at Eastbourne from Wahine.
Ms Palmer (nee Marilyn Ann Taylor) was on a lifeboat that ended up on the Eastbourne coastline, a location where most of the fatalities occurred.
About the Wahine Disaster
The Union Steamship Company ship left Lyttelton Harbour on the evening of April 9 bound for Wellington.
Storm warnings had been issued, but rough seas were not unusual for ships coming through Cook Strait and the ferry had been transporting passengers between Lyttelton and Wellington for more than two years.
As the vessel entered Wellington Harbour after 6am on April 10, the wind increased, waves battered the ship and its radar system failed.
Just after 6.30am, the captain reversed on to Barrett’s Reef.
Despite the ship being so close to the shore, the weather prevented rescuers from reaching it from land.
Just before 1.30pm the captain put out the call to abandon ship.
Four lifeboats were launched from the ship and many of the 734 passengers and crew ended up floating in Wellington harbour, ending up either in Eastbourne or Seatoun.
Two hundred survivors were blown, in life jackets or lifeboats, across to Eastbourne, but slips from the storm battering the capital city made it difficult for many rescuers to reach the area.
Eastbourne was where most of the 51 fatalities occurred.
Several people who reached the shore alive did not receive medical attention fast enough to prevent death from exposure to the elements. Others drowned or were killed when thrown against the rocky coastline.
At about 2.30pm, the now-abandoned Wahine capsized.
Of the 614 passengers on the ship, 25 were from South Canterbury, a newspaper reported the following day.
Overall, 53 people died, 51 on the day, one several weeks later and another in 1990, from injuries sustained in the wreck.
Information provided by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
The then 22-year-old Timaru-born Royal New Zealand Air Force member was travelling back to Ohakea base, near Palmerston North, with three other RNZAF women, from a course at Wigram, in Christchurch.
She was getting ready for the day when the ship began rocking from side to side.
“We thought it was quite funny.”
But they soon realised something was not right when they were told to put on life jackets and go to a higher deck.
Passengers were told they had run aground on Barrett’s Reef but were not in danger, Mrs Palmer said.
After several hours, the ship began listing to starboard and when the call came to abandon ship, just before 1.30pm, she went to the lower side.
“I’d seen people jumping [from other decks] and it was really high.”
She remembers one woman calling for people to catch her baby and watching lifeboats being blown away by the wind.
She clambered into a lifeboat and a naval officer was put in charge.
One woman suggested they were heading out to sea.
“[She was] told to sit down and leave the steering to the one in charge,” Mrs Palmer says with a laugh.
Their lifeboat, No3, landed on a sandy beach at Eastbourne, near a rocky stretch of coastline where many passengers lost their lives.
“We were very lucky.
“I just felt like lying down in the sand and crying.”
All four of the RNZAF women survived and have gone to official commemorations in Wellington over the past half-century.
She would be meeting them again at the 50th commemorations on Tuesday.
Murray Parker: ‘Over the side and into the sea’
When Wahine survivor Murray Parker was told to put on his life jacket, he thought it was a joke.
The then 19-year-old was on the Wahine as part of the University of Otago cricket team travelling to Palmerston North for a tournament.
Mr Parker and his team-mates had just got up when the boat “hit something”.
They were milling around in their cabin when they were informed by another team member to put on their life jackets.
“We thought he was joking.”
Mr Parker, who lives in Timaru, remembers barely being able to see anything through the ship’s windows due to the high waves and foggy, stormy weather.
“We just sat there.”
When the call was made to abandon ship after just before 12.30pm, he went down to C deck to get to the lowest point of the boat.
“It was pretty steep.
“I went over the side and into the sea.”
He was pulled into a raft by his team-mate, Ray Hutchinson, a difficult feat due to the high waves, high sides of the lifeboats and the bulkiness of the life jackets.
“It was just luck if you [got] pulled in.”
There were about 96 people in his lifeboat, No4, which finally landed on a beach at Seatoun about 4.30pm.
“That was scary,” Mr Parker recalls, given the potential for boats to flip in the waves upon landing.
Their boat was the first to land at Seatoun.
He remembers watching people just “bobbing around” in the water in their life jackets and others breaking bones as they slipped on the decks of the ship.
People were wrapped in blankets when they arrived on the shore, as many were dressed in very thin clothing.
“You only had what you stood up in.”
Once safely in Wellington city, he stayed with an aunt before going to stay with his parents in Auckland.
All Mr Parker’s team-mates made it off the ship safely but never played in the tournament.
They also never thought to meet up again until five years ago, when their story was turned into a book, The Team That Never Played, and they gathered to share stories at the book launch.