Shipwrecks have long been a part of human experience in New Zealand. The country has a long and often rocky coastline, and windy, changeable weather, which make navigating the seas around New Zealand difficult. In addition to this, there was the constant possibility of human error. Since European settlement began in the 1790s there have been over 2,300 shipwrecks.
How many canoes and Māori lives were lost is unknown. Māori traditions make it clear that Māori found the seas surrounding New Zealand a challenge. When their canoes sailed from Hawaiki, several were wrecked on the New Zealand coast as they landed.
According to tradition, the story of the Tairea explains why greenstone (known to Māori as pounamu) is found on the West Coast of the South Island. The Pounamu were a race of people living in Hawaiki. Fearing the two races named Matā (flint) and Hōanga (grindstone), they fled in the Tairea to the West Coast. However, they were shipwrecked and the crew turned into pounamu, taking refuge from their enemies in the rivers and waterfalls where the treasured stone is now found.
On the east coast of the South Island, the Ārai-te-uru canoe suffered a similar fate. As it sailed down the coast, a violent storm washed it ashore at Matakaea (Shag Point), where it turned into a reef. Its cargo ended up at Moeraki beach. The large round boulders are said to be kūmara (sweet potatoes), gourds and eel pots. In another incident, near Maunganui Bluff in the north, the Mamari canoe was also wrecked and then transformed into a reef.
The 19th century saw New Zealand’s most frequent and lethal maritime disasters. Drowning was so common in early colonial times that it was known as ‘the New Zealand death’. 1
Alongside the unpredictable climate, other factors contributed to the poor maritime safety record:
The first New Zealand shipwreck recorded by Europeans was that of the sealing supply vessel Endeavour in 1795 in Fiordland’s Dusky Sound. The boat made it into harbour after crossing the Tasman Sea in a storm, but it was damaged and had to be run ashore.
The greatest wreck in New Zealand waters was that of HMS Orpheus on 7 February 1863 at the Manukau Bar, Auckland. Bringing naval stores across from Sydney, the captain entered the wrong channel when approaching the harbour. The ship stuck fast on a sandbar, and breaking waves destroyed her. Of the 259 naval officers and men aboard, 189 died, including the captain.
On 19 April 1865 a cargo of wool on the Fiery Star caught fire. The clipper was 240 kilometres north-west of the Chatham Islands, en route to London from Brisbane. After four days, the captain and 77 passengers took to lifeboats. They were never seen again. The chief officer and 17 crew members battled the fire on board for almost three weeks, until they were rescued 24 kilometres from the Coromandel coast. Half an hour later, the ship sank.
On 14 May 1866 the General Grant, sailing from Melbourne to London, hit cliffs on the west coast of the main island in the Auckland Islands and sank. Of the 83 people on board, only 15 survived. After nine months on Auckland Island, four members of the crew set out in a small boat for Bluff – a 290-mile journey – to get help, but they were never seen again. Another person died on the island. The 10 remaining castaways were rescued by the brig Amherst after having survived 18 months on the subantarctic islands.
Shipwrecks with large loss of life were widely reported in the colonial press. A story that captured public interest was Hūria Mātenga’s rescue of the crew of the Delaware, which ran onto rocks at Whakapuaka near Nelson in September 1863. Hūria first swam into the raging sea to pick up a lead thrown by the ship’s captain, and then she entered the surf again to help the crew ashore. Also helping with the rescue were her husband Hemi and three other men. All were saved and Hūria Mātenga became a national heroine.
The second greatest maritime tragedy in New Zealand waters occurred on 29–30 April 1881, when the steamer Tararua struck a reef at Waipapa Point, Southland, about a kilometre from shore. The ship was sailing from Port Chalmers to Melbourne. In all, 131 passengers and crew died, including 12 women and 14 children. Most were washed overboard and drowned while the rescuers were held back by high seas.
On 29 October 1894 the steamer Wairarapa, travelling in thick fog from Sydney to Auckland, slammed against cliffs on Great Barrier Island, about 90 kilometres north-east of Auckland. Although some lifeboats were launched, the seas swept other people to their death. In all, 101 of the 186 passengers and 20 of the 65 crew were lost.
There were several other 19th-century wrecks with significant loss of life:
Some New Zealand ports became notorious for their risks to shipping. They were the bar harbours and river ports, mainly of the west coasts, and the exposed beach harbours.
The bar harbours of Hokianga and Kaipara on the North Island’s west coast were especially feared. One of the sand bars at the entrance to Kaipara Harbour is known as the Graveyard. It has been the site of at least 43 shipwrecks, and some say as many as 110.
The colonial trader Samuel Polack described his encounter with the harbour mouth in 1831:
The breakers were dashing on several sand bars in an awful manner, about three miles from the land. The late westerly gale caused the fearful commotion of the rolling waves to bound on these sea sand spits, dashing the surf to an unusual height. No vessel, of any size or shape, could at this time have entered the Kaipara; instant shipwreck, into a thousand pieces, would have been the result. 1
Thousands of gold prospectors flocked to the West Coast in the 1860s. Unsuitable though it was, Hokitika established as a port at the mouth of the Hokitika River, imported miners from Australia and exported gold. Between 1865 and 1867 there were 108 strandings with 32 total losses as vessels attempted the hazardous entry into, or exit from, the river. Other perilous river ports were Greymouth, Westport, Whanganui, Gisborne, Whakatāne, Pātea and Kaiapoi.
There were so many ships wrecked on the Hokitika bar that a group of men known as ‘beach rakers’ gained a livelihood from scavenging the wrecks. Working in pairs on moonlit nights, they used hooks and lines to drag in valuable catch.
More feared than river ports were the exposed beach harbours in places like Timaru, Ōamaru, Napier and New Plymouth. Vessels anchored offshore were at the mercy of bad weather while goods were offloaded into surfboats and ferried through breakers to the shore.
Timaru’s harbour was infamous. On 14 May 1882, the worst tragedy in the port's history occurred when two vessels, the Ben Venue and City of Perth, broke loose from their moorings in a heavy sea. Of the nine people who died, six were rescuers whose surf boat was swamped.
Before a breakwater was built in Ōamaru in the 1870s to provide protection from the prevailing easterlies, its port was a renowned ship cemetery. In 1867 eight ships were swept ashore or beached, and the following year a storm swept two ships on to the beach with the loss of five lives. However, after the breakwater was built in 1875, only three deaths were recorded. Similarly, following the building of breakwaters at Timaru, New Plymouth and Napier there were no major wrecks there in the 20th century.
By the early 20th century, safety at sea had improved.
A major change was the development of steam-powered ships with iron or steel hulls. The invention of the compound engine in the 1870s was important in increasing the amount of energy and power available to ships, enabling them to get out of trouble.
New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse was opened at Pencarrow, near Wellington Heads, in January 1859. Following the establishment of the Marine Department in 1866, lighthouse construction increased, and by 1900 there were 22 manned lighthouses around the coast and at harbour entrances.
Occasionally lighthouses added to navigation problems. The light at Mana displayed the same characteristics as the light at Pencarrow Head, at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The crews of the City of Newcastle (in 1872) and the Cyrus (in 1874) confused the Mana light for the Pencarrow one, and both ships were wrecked. Subsequently, the Mana lighthouse was moved to Cape Egmont, the most westerly point of Taranaki.
The Enquiry into Wrecks Act 1863 empowered the principal customs officer nearest to a wreck to hold a preliminary enquiry. If a formal enquiry was warranted, this proceeded under a magistrate. Such investigations could produce changes. For instance, a new light was set up at Waipapa Point, Southland, in 1884 following the enquiry into the wreck of the Tararua.
Other advances in maritime safety included:
Following these improvements, the number of wrecks and deaths declined. Between 1860 and 1900 there had been 2,166 deaths in New Zealand waters – an average of 54 a year. Between 1900 and 1940 this figure dropped to 608 deaths, or 15 per year.
The only woman survivor of the Penguin was Mrs Hannam, who was put in a lifeboat with her four children. The boat tipped as it was lowered and her three older children were swept away. She and her baby got back onto the boat, which then capsized. She clung on underneath the boat, tied her dead baby to a seat and clutched a young boy. Eventually the boat washed ashore, and when righted, rescuers found Mrs Hannam and the young boy still alive.
The early 20th century saw two major maritime disasters. On 9 November 1902, steaming at half-speed in thick fog, the Elingamite struck West Island in the Three Kings group. Although the ship sank in 20 minutes, six lifeboats and two rafts were launched. In all, 28 of the 136 passengers and 17 of the 58 crew lost their lives, some through starvation and exposure on drifting rafts. An enquiry discovered that the Three Kings Islands were incorrectly charted, and the captain was exonerated.
The Penguin was the Picton–Wellington ferry. It struck Tom’s Rock, abreast of the Karori Stream outfall in Cook Strait on 12 February 1909. Lifeboats and rafts were launched, but the boats capsized, and 75 of the 105 passengers died.
During the 20th century, maritime safety continued to improve. From 1909, radio became compulsory in passenger vessels over 45 metres long, and it gradually appeared in smaller coasters. Masters received more accurate weather forecasts. In the 1950s radar began to be used, and it became universal by the 1970s.
For most of the century shipwrecks were rare – usually caused by exceptional circumstances.
In 1917 the German raider Wolf reached New Zealand waters and laid mines. Three ships were sunk without loss of life. However, in June 1918 the trans-Tasman liner Wimmera hit mines laid by the Wolf, and 26 people died.
On 19 June 1940 a German raider, the Orion, sank the 13,000-ton trans-Pacific liner Niagara. The ship took with her 590 gold bars and the ship’s cat, but all people aboard were saved. A month later the Orion sank the freighter Turakina, with the loss of 35 lives. On 27 November 1940 it sank the 16,737-ton passenger liner Rangitane. Seven passengers and eight of the crew died.
In the 30 years after the Second World War there were several maritime incidents. In her first post-war voyage from Sydney to Wellington the liner Wanganella ran aground on Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour on 19 January 1947. It was almost two years before she was fully repaired.
In less than a decade three modern cargo carriers sank with loss of life:
On the morning of 10 April 1968 a tropical cyclone sweeping south met a southerly front, producing freak winds of up to 125 knots around Cook Strait. The Christchurch–Wellington ferry Wahine was driven onto Barrett Reef, at the entrance to Wellington Harbour.
Its starboard propeller was knocked off in collision with the reef, and its port engine was out of action. The 8,948-ton vessel drifted into the harbour before leaning to starboard. Because of the heavy list, only four of the eight lifeboats could be launched, and most of the inflatable life rafts flipped in the savage seas.
The Wahine finally capsized at 2.30 p.m. Most deaths occurred on the Eastbourne side of the harbour, where people were driven against sharp rocks by the waves. Of the 734 passengers and crew, 51 died that day, another died several weeks later and a 53rd victim died in 1990 from injuries sustained in the wreck.
The Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland Harbour on 10 July 1985 by French saboteurs. The French government feared that the ship would draw attention to French nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll. French secret-service agents attached and exploded two limpet mines on the hull of the ship, creating a massive hole and rendering the vessel useless. Photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the explosion.
This event sparked a diplomatic row between New Zealand and France. Prime Minister David Lange described it as ‘a sordid act of international state-backed terrorism’.
Agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur were arrested, and each was given a 10-year sentence. Within a year the pair were sent to French Polynesia, and from there they soon returned to France.
On 16 February 1986 the Soviet cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov was sailing through the Marlborough Sounds to Milford Sound with 738 passengers and crew aboard. At 5.37 p.m. the ship hit rocks off Cape Jackson.
With its hull sliced open in three places, the 155-metre vessel limped towards Port Gore, where she finally sank at 10.45 p.m. A flotilla of small craft, the inter-island ferry Arahura and the LPG tanker Tarihiko rescued all but one of the passengers and crew. Refrigeration engineer Pavel Zaglyadimov drowned.
Today, the liner lies on its side 30 metres below the sea. Since its sinking, the Mikhail Lermontov has claimed the lives of three recreational divers; two of the bodies have never been recovered.
Of New Zealand’s more than 2,000 shipwrecks, only about 150 have been accurately located. Some have become places for recreational diving. These include the wrecks of the Mikhail Lermontov and the Rainbow Warrior, which was towed to Matauri Bay in Northland and sunk. Port Jackson in the Marlborough Sounds has the Rangitoto, lost in 1873, and the Lastingham, lost 11 years later. At Great Barrier Island the Wairarapa and the Wiltshire are dive sites.
Maritime archaeology is a relatively recent discipline in New Zealand. Under the Historic Places Act 1993 any wreck that occurred before 1900, whether in marine or fresh water, is protected. Wrecks provide clues to the past. For example, before the steamer Elingamite collided with the Three Kings Islands in 1902, its propeller jammed, not allowing the vessel to reverse out of danger. In the 1960s, divers Wade Doak and Kelly Tarlton discovered the bent propeller, supporting the crew’s account of how the ship went aground.
Maritime archaeologists have investigated the wrecks of the Endeavour (1795, Dusky Sound), HMS Buffalo (1840, Mercury Bay), the Alcmène (1851, Kaipara), and Taupo (1881, Mayor Island).
The passenger steamer Tasmania sank on 29 July 1897 off Māhia. On board was a jeweller – Isadore Jonah Rothschild, who had a suitcase full of jewels. This went to the bottom of the ocean with the ship. But in 1975 the case was recovered by Kelly Tarlton.
One of the most famous New Zealand shipwrecks is the General Grant, which sank in the Auckland Islands in 1866. It was loaded with a cargo of wool and skins, 2,576 ounces of gold and 83 passengers and crew. Only 15 people survived the sinking and five died subsequently.
Since 1868 at least 15 attempts have been made to salvage the gold and artefacts, resulting in a number of deaths among the salvagers but no gold. In fact, salvagers have not been able to identify the site of the General Grant, which sank near other shipwrecks.
The most successful expedition was in 1996, when anchors, cannons, crockery, and gold and silver coins were recovered. Even so, the artefacts have not been recognised by maritime archaeologists as being from the General Grant. One of the tales surrounding the vessel is that it was carrying more gold bullion than was declared.
Atkinson, Neill. Crew culture: New Zealand seafarers under sail and steam. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2001.
Callan, Louise. Shipwreck: tales of survival, courage and calamity at sea. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2000.
Ingram, C. W. N. New Zealand shipwrecks: 195 years of disasters at sea. 7th rev. ed. Auckland: Beckett Books, 1990.
Lambert, Max, and Jim Hartley. The Wahine disaster. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1969.
Locker-Lampson, Steve, and Ian Francis. New Zealand's shipwreck gallery. Wellington: Rowfant, 1983.
McLean, Gavin. Shipwrecks and maritime disasters. Wellington: Grantham House, 1991.
O’Connor, Tom. Death of a cruise ship: the mystery of the Mikhail Lermontov. Wellington: Cape Catley, 1999.
This site has stories of major New Zealand shipwrecks, links to other websites and a bibliography.
This section of the Christchurch City Libraries' website has excellent information on some of the major disasters in New Zealand's history, including shipwrecks.
This site has a comprehensive list of New Zealand shipwrecks of the 1860s and 1870s, and the enquiry findings.
Maritime disasters and mishaps of NZ shipping. Hulks, old stories, shipping stuff, tales from the sea - we blog it.