SS Wairarapa wrecked on Great Barrier Island

29 October 1894

In the third worst shipwreck ever in New Zealand waters, 121 lives were lost when the Union Steam Ship Company steamer Wairarapa struck Miners Head, on the northern tip of Great Barrier Island, 90 km north-east of Auckland.

The Wairarapa was a well-known steamer plying the route between Auckland and Sydney. Only weeks before this tragedy the ship had crossed the Tasman in record time. On the fateful trip the Wairarapa was carrying 170 passengers and 65 crew.

In thickening fog, Captain J.S. McIntosh maintained 13 knots (24 kph), nearly full speed. A number of crew and passengers were concerned that the ship was going too fast. Shortly after midnight the steamer slammed against the cliffs of Great Barrier Island. As water began to flood in through a hole in the hull, the Wairarapa listed to one side. Many of those on board slid off the deck into the sea; others were swept away by heavy seas. Horses, sheep and other cargo were also swept overboard, adding to the confusion and risk for those in the water. Two lifeboats rescued 50 people from the sea, but other boats were smashed or swamped when they hit the water.

The passengers and crew left on board clung to the rigging or climbed to the bridge. When daylight arrived a steward swam ashore with a line along which passengers were then hauled through the water. The survivors huddled on the rocks for more than 30 hours before being rescued by local Māori. As the island’s only contact with the outside world was via a weekly steamer, news of the shipwreck took three days to reach Auckland.

In all, 101 passengers and 20 of the crew died. The resulting Court of Enquiry found that Captain McIntosh’s actions were the primary cause of the tragedy. As well as maintaining excessive speed, he had taken the wrong course from the Three Kings Islands and not made allowance for currents.

Image: the Wairarapa sinking - detail (National Library