Kath Henderson and her fateful trip on the Wahine
On 8 April 2019 Kath Henderson told the club and guests of her experiences on 10 April 1968 when the interislander ferry, the Wahine, sank in Wellington Harbour. Kath was travelling alone. She was a 19- year-old third year student from Canterbury.
The Wahine left Lyttleton Harbour near Christchurch at 8.43 pm on the night of 9 April 1968. The voyage was on an overnight ferry crossing to Wellington. There was a full complement of passengers and crew. By that time the following evening 51 of them were dead, and many seriously injured. Two others died of injuries later, bringing the eventual toll for the sinking of the Wahine to 53.
Kath got up early on 10 April after tea and biscuits in her cabin. She sat down in the B deck smoking lounge shortly before 6 in the morning.
After 6 it got very rough. The ship rolled badly. People came through the lounge, hanging onto things, to go and get breakfast. It got so rough that furniture began to slide from one side of the lounge to the other. Kath held onto a porthole curtain to avoid being thrown across the room. People on their feet were running out of control from side to side of the lounge.
By 6.30 am it was too dangerous to move from the porthole. She was quite wet from seawater forcing itself through the bolted shut porthole.
At about 20 to 7 the ship lifted up and crunched several times down onto something. It was still fairly dark, but Kath saw several men in orange jackets run out on deck and look over the side. Now the ship was fairly still and it felt much better. Then it was announced over loudspeaker that the Wahine had hit Barrett’s Reef and passengers were told to return to their cabins and collect life jackets. Kath went back to the lounge. She said they were all quite happy at that stage and laughing at how funny the lifejackets looked. Then the loudspeaker asked that some people go up to A lounge to make more room in B. So, Kath went up and sat there for the rest of the morning.
Next to Kath in A lounge, was a girl of similar age, whose younger brother was a steward on the ship. He brought them a transistor radio. The people in the lounge chatted and some people sang or played cards. People relaxed and some had their lifejackets off. Children played. Some people just slept, using their lifejackets for pillows.
Lukewarm, milky coffee was served and food was continually brought up on trays and passed around. Salads, sausages, cold meats. Every half hour or so an officer would pass through the lounge at speed, wave to us all and say that “everything is under control” and “You are all quite safe”. We also heard that message through the morning over the loudspeaker. We heard that message being broadcast over the radio in news bulletins. And we heard how bad things were onshore. So it felt very comfortable there, just drifting meantime.
They could see a harbour tug through the rain. We heard loud cracks as lines were fired to or from the tug around midday. But they broke.
Then ship started to list alarmingly, Kath was sitting on the low (starboard) side near the window. They watched crew running around outside. We saw them take the wooden covers off rafts, and planks flew apart and over the side in the wind. But no one had mentioned abandoning ship. About 12.30 pm the list got very bad and people started to look worried.
At 1.00 pm there was another announcement that they were quite safe and everything was under control. But it was obvious to the passengers that something was badly wrong, and some people were getting close to panic. People clustered around the portable radio to listen to the 1.00 pm news, and heard, to their amazement, that the ship was sinking. There was widespread panic, screaming and shouting and furniture rolling down towards them. The young steward came down to see his sister and said “everyone is going. You had better go”. They made their way past piles of overturned furniture and headed out the door. At some time from then there might have been an Abandon Ship announcement in their area, but no one would have heard it in the commotion.
A line of stewards passed them down the stairs to B deck and then another line pushed us up the now steep slope of the passage to outside on B deck (on the port, high, side). At least 100 passengers were out there, clinging to the railing. They had to make our way along the railing with the cold hitting them and wind, colossal rain and seaspray pulling at them and their clothing. Then down some metal stairs to the level of C deck where the lifeboats were – across on the low (starboard) side. Webbing strips were tied to the port railing to help people abseil down the deck slope. But Kath slipped and fell down the deck, through the railing and into the water, and was pulled onto a raft. That was almost immediately holed by a lifeboat next door starting up and so those in her raft were thrown into the water again. She was in the water for the rest of the afternoon.
Kath had no idea where in the harbour she was. Later she learned she had been not far off Seatoun Beach. But there was no visibility. She kicked out to get away from the sinking ship and found herself around the stern of the ship on the storm side, and after that was carried off by the tide.
She was up and down on waves, seasick, then came up to a group of people and they tried to hold onto each other and form an easy-to-see group.
The Tug Tapuhi came up to them and tried to take them on board, but it was too rough. The tug was either towering over them on a wave or they were up and looking down on the tug, scared to be smashed onto the deck. People screamed for the tug to go away, so they threw out several life buoys and sailed off a bit. Kath grabbed a lifebuoy and two others grabbed the same lifebuoy. She was with a young man aged 17 and an older man aged 54. They were carried on together in the tide – towards Petone at first, then out past Eastbourne towards the harbour entrance where there were huge waves pounding them and forcing them underwater with each one that broke over them. Kath did not think they would make it back. They were past where they could see people being washed up on the rocks, and past the last of the orange life-rafts and the rescue boats. NIWA later agreed with their rescuer who said the waves were about 40 ft high (about 12 metres)
Then Mr Allan Pain’s boat Nereides appeared on the top of the next wave, looking like a little toy though it is a 44 foot-long cabin cruiser (about 13.5 metres). Just Allan, family friend Joan Ward and her son Peter (aged 12). They saw the three and, at great personal risk, came after them and eventually got them all on board. The 17-year-old lad first, as they thought from his long hair that he was a girl. At this stage they were almost onto the Pencarrow rocks themselves, and kelp was swirling around near their motor. The crew later said they could see the bottom in places and the whole launch was in real danger. So young Peter climbed down something at the back of the boat and tied the 54-year-old man and Kath to the Nereides with ropes, under their arms, Allan gunned the motor and dragged the two of them back through the big waves to calmer, deeper water. A real nightmare as the waves were covering their faces a lot of the way and it was extremely painful being dragged by the arms with wake coming up under their backs, but there was no other option. Then they got Kath on board and eventually, with help from another rescue craft, the 54-year-old man was laid next to the 2 teenagers on the deck. Sadly, he died a few minutes later. Allan said the whole rescue from the time they were seen took around an hour and a half in those conditions, and because Kath and her companions were too knocked about to help themselves.
There were widespread losses and injuries to passengers, crew and their families in the aftermath, far more than the 53 deceased were affected.
Kath saw people at the 40 and 50 year commemorations and noted that many survivors had visible disabilities and some were still coming to terms with what happened.
Their Nereides rescuers on 10 April 1968, due to the very dangerous conditions over by the harbour entrance, later said they were just turning back, as things were so dangerous, when they saw Kath and her companions, but the adults discussed that they could not live with themselves if having seen us they turned their backs and let us drift out to certain death in Cook Strait. The crew were absolute heroes and excellent sailors.
Once rescued and on land, Kath still had her handbag (which had opened during her ordeal) and only her Wahine ticket was left in it, not her money or other possessions and make-up. She had nothing else. She wrote down her recollections as soon as she got home (keeping them unread till the 40th year commemoration).
On the day it was largely left to luck, self-rescue and some heroic individuals who put themselves at risk to help.
But looking back, we can see how far we have come in understanding how to put measures in place both to prevent accidents and lessen their impacts. We also have ACC in New Zealand and victims of an accident since its introduction will almost always be taken care of. At that time the people from the ferry were left to just carry on without any help or compensation.