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Lyttelton-Wellington ferries

Page 1 – Introduction

On 10 April 1968 the Union Steam Ship Company's roll-on roll-off passenger ferry Wahine capsized and sank at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The disaster cost more than 50 lives and stunned the nation. 

However, for more than 80 years the overnight Lyttelton ferry, or Steamer Express Service as the Union Steam Ship Company called it, was a vital link in the country's transport network. The ferries were part of the Kiwi way of life, symbols of certainty and stability. Wellingtonians said they set their watches by the ships' regular arrivals and departures.

Everyone used the ferries. The company held up ships so politicians could get home to their electorates. Writers criticised them, school children saved for months to take a trip to the capital, and circuses, bands and sports parties depended on them for economical travel. 

For thousands of Kiwis, the steward's early morning knock on the cabin door, a cup of milky, sweet tea ('if you don't want sugar, don't stir it'), a dry biscuit – and all too often the sight of a full, smelly 'strawberry carton' or spew box – was part and parcel of travelling between the islands.

Let's cast off and relive those days.

How to cite this page

Lyttelton-Wellington ferries, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated