The Wahine disaster occurred on 10 April 1968 when the TEV Wahine, a New Zealand inter-island ferry of the Union Company, foundered on Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour and capsized near Steeple Rock. Of the 610 passengers and 123 crew on board, 53 people lost their lives.
The wrecking of the Wahine is by far the best-known maritime disaster in New Zealand's history, although there have been worse with far greater loss of life. New Zealand radio and television captured the drama as it happened, within a short distance of shore of the eastern suburbs of Wellington, and flew film overseas for world TV news.
In the early morning of 10 April, two violent storms merged over Wellington, creating a single extratropical cyclone storm that was the worst recorded in New Zealand's history. Cyclone Giselle was heading south after causing much damage in the north of the North Island. It hit Wellington at the same time as another storm which had driven up the West Coast of the South Island from Antarctica. The winds in Wellington were the strongest ever recorded. At one point they reached a speed of 275 km/h and in one Wellington suburb alone ripped off the roofs of 98 houses. Three ambulances and a truck were blown onto their sides when they tried to go into the area to bring out injured people.
As the storms hit Wellington, the ferry Wahine was crossing Cook Strait on the last leg of her overnight journey from the port of Lyttelton, near Christchurch, to Wellington. At the time she had set out, there had been no indication that the storms would be worse than those often experienced by vessels crossing the Cook Strait.
At 5:50 a.m., with winds gusting at between 130 and 150 km/h, Captain Hector Gordon Robertson decided to enter the harbour. Twenty minutes later the winds had increased to 160 km/h, and the ship lost its radar. A huge wave pushed the Wahine off course and in line with Barrett Reef. The captain was unable to turn back on course, and decided to keep turning the ferry around and back out to sea again. For 30 minutes the Wahine battled into the waves and wind, but by 6:40 a.m. had been driven back onto the rocks of Barrett Reef. Passengers were told that the ferry was aground, to put on their lifejackets and report to assembly points around the ship.
The storm continued to grow more intense. As the winds increased, the Wahine dragged its anchors and drifted into the harbour, close to the western shore. The weather was so bad that no help could be given from the harbour or the shore.
At about 11.00 a.m. a harbour tug managed to reach the vessel, and tried to attach a line and tow the ferry, but the line gave way. Other attempts failed, but the deputy harbourmaster managed to climb aboard the Wahine from the pilot launch, which had also reached the scene.at about 1.15pm the combined effect of the tide and the storm swung the Wahine around.
At about 1.15 p.m. the combined effect of the tide and the storm swung the Wahine around, providing a patch of clear water sheltered from the wind and the sea. As the ferry suddenly listed further and reached the point of no return, Captain Robertson gave the order to abandon ship. Only four lifeboats could be launched. One lifeboat was swamped when it hit the water and people were lost into the sea. Some managed to hold onto the boat as it drifted across the harbour to the eastern shore. Other boats were also swamped but many of the passengers were able to reach the rescue boats which by now were surrounding the vessel.
At about 2.30 p.m. the Wahine rolled completely onto her side. By then the first of the survivors were reaching the western shore. Over 200 survivors drifted across to the rocky, unpopulated eastern side of the harbour.
On the eastern side the only road was blocked by land slips, and it became impassable due to the huge seas breaking over it. Some of the survivors reached the shore only to die of exhaustion or exposure. Fifty-one people died at the time, and two others died later from injuries sustained in the shipwreck, fifty-three victims in all. Most of the victims middle-aged or elderly, along with several children, from drowning, exposure or injuries from being battered on the rocks. 46 people's bodies have been found; 566 passengers are safe, 110 crew safe and 6 are missing.
Ten weeks after the shipwrecking, a court of inquiry found errors of judgement had been made, but stressed that the conditions at the time had been difficult and dangerous. Free surface effect caused the ferry to finally capsize due to a build-up of water on the vehicle deck. The report of the inquiry stated that more lives would almost certainly have been lost if the order to abandon ship had been given earlier or later. The storm was so strong that rescue craft would not have been able to safely help the passengers any earlier than about midday.
Attempts were made to salvage the Wahine, but later storms broke up the wreck, and she was finally dismantled where she lay.
Today the Wahine Memorial Park marks the disaster, near where the survivors reached the western shore at Seatoun. This park has a memorial plaque, the Wahine's anchor and chain, and replica ventilation pipes. A further plaque has also been placed on a rock at the parking area next to Burdans Gate on the eastern side of the harbour, marking the coast where many of the survivors and dead washed up. The Wahine's fore-mast is part of another memorial in Frank Kitts Park in central Wellington. The Museum of Wellington City & Sea has a permanent commemorative exhibition on their maritime floor that includes artifacts from the ship and a film about the storm and the sinking.