10 April 1968 was a day that Wellingtonians would long remember. Many were caught between battling the damage on land and following the drama aboard the Wahine out at sea. Below, Stuart Young describes the events he and his wife Jenny witnessed from their home at the entrance of the harbour.
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Contributed by Stuart Young of Wellington.
I live in what I rather loosely call ‘the last house at the south end of the North Island of New Zealand’, being at the south end of Breaker Bay, right at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. I was up and about from 5.30 that morning, mopping up massive leaks in our south side windows that had never leaked before, nor since. It was already the worst weather I had ever experienced in my 33 years on this exposed Cook Strait coast.
It was still dark at 6.20 a.m. I peered out to the east across the harbour entrance and saw the Wahine entering port, on time and on course in the main channel east of Barrett Reef. But something was wrong. She was pointing out, rather than in, to the harbour entrance. I called my wife Jenny from bed, saying ‘Come see, the Wahine is the wrong way round!’ Shortly afterwards the weather closed in again and we could see nothing. The wind speed, later recorded on the coast as averaging 181 kilometre per hour and gusting to 268, was literally picking up the surface of the sea to a height of at least 100 metres.
We kept watching, and at 7.30 a.m., again in a small gap between gusts, saw the Wahine right in front and pointing directly at us, listing to starboard (from the wind pressure) and being carried at some 5–10 knots sideways past us towards the north. She was a blaze of lights, with her masthead and port and starboard lights showing very brightly through the murk. She was no more than 200–300 metres away from us in Chaffers Passage – an area where no large vessel should be. I immediately rang the police on 111 and reported that the Wahine was in serious difficulties at the harbour entrance. Again the weather closed in and the ship was no longer visible from the shore. This was the first anyone on land knew of the situation.
I then went down the road to help some neighbours tie down their roof, while Jenny kept watching out to the east. At around 7.45 a.m. she momentarily saw the Wahine much further away, and in the absence of any background to locate it against, Jenny lined up what she could see with a rock on the beach in the foreground and made a mark on the windowsill. The next day she was able to identify the location of the Wahine as having been close to the Outer Rock at the south end of Barrett Reef. The vessel’s starboard propellor was subsequently found there.
During the morning we lost about one-third of our roof, with sheets of aluminium flying away out over the sea to the north-east.
At around 1.00 p.m. the tide changed and the wind dropped right away. The flying spray cleared and there was the Wahine visible for the first time, just inside the harbour entrance. As we watched through binoculars we saw the ship slowly heel over to starboard, and we could see lifeboats and life rafts capsizing. I had a 15-foot open trailer–sailer yacht, and my brother Marten and I towed it over to Seatoun where we launched it and went out in the hope of being able to help rescue people. A very large sea lifted the bow of our yacht up so steeply that it fell over on top of us. I was thrown clear but Marten (wearing a lifejacket) was trapped underneath the upturned craft and nearly drowned before I was able to roll it upright and free him. The yacht ended up on the beach and was badly damaged.
Altogether quite a day.
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