Wahine disaster rescue story

<em>Wahine</em> disaster rescue story

19-year-old Kate McGibbon (now Watson) and her rescuer Eroni Vakacegu on the shore near Eastbourne, 10 April 1968.

Kate Watson remembers the Wahine disaster

The night the Wahine sailed from Lyttelton was very dark and eerie, and there was a feeling of impending danger in the air. I can remember that very clearly. I even joked with the people who were seeing me off about hoping the ship didn't sink! Little did I know what lay ahead!!

The next morning I awoke to find we were in the midst of a terrible storm, and the ship was rolling badly. Then there was a distinct thud at one stage when the ship must have hit Barrett's Reef. The impact threw me across the cabin. I had been cleaning my teeth at the time. I suddenly felt very afraid and wasn't sure what to do.

Very soon a steward came rushing in to the cabin and told me to put my life jacket on and proceed slowly up to the Lounge on B deck. Everyone looked very upset and worried as we all made our way along the corridor and up to the top decks. We all crowded into the lounges and the boat was now listing very badly and some people were very sick. I felt sure the ship was going to roll over completely. I think a lot of others did also. All you could see outside the port-holes was sea spray. Everything looked in turmoil. After a couple of hours the ship seemed to be listing very badly to one side, and this made everyone feel very unsettled. The steward brought around sandwiches and boiled eggs. They did a great job and tried to be cheerful.

By now I had become friendly with a Scottish woman who was sitting near me on the floor. We kept telling each other that we would be alright and that cheered us both up a lot.

All of a sudden the ship listed very badly to one side and never came back. It was at this point that the order to abandon ship was given. There was a siren going which was frightening too. I can remember the thought of the Titanic ship sinking going through my mind at this stage. I'd seen the film of that a few years before. But it flashed vividly in front of me. Everyone was in a state of shock and panic now and the rush to get off the ship began. I think everyone felt the ship could go under and sink very quickly and take a lot of people with it. But as it was it didn't do that at all, as it was on a shelf or something and not in very deep water at all, and flipped over and lay on its side, partially under water.

A Fijian hero

The Court of Inquiry into the Wahine disaster reported that:

'A Fijian named Eroni Vaceucau [Vakacegu] rendered great service to other people both on the vessel and at the abandonment and later by taking charge of a liferaft, distributing the people in it to best advantage, doing much to ensure its safe passage to the eastern shore, and then going back into the surf after reaching the shore to help another survivor.'

For some reason I ended up on the Port side of the ship instead of the Starboard where we were meant to be to get on the life boats. I came across a man from Fiji [Eroni Vakacegu] who was also on the Port side I presume helping to get people off. I quickly told him I was lost and could he help me get off. He told me to be very careful and follow him. I can remember climbing around the outside rail of the deck and being really terrified in case I slipped, as that would have been the end of me if I did lose my grip!! Then we slid down a kind of chute and were onto the lower part of ship on starboard side. The Fijian jumped in the sea and I followed him. Luckily he was there to grab me, as my life jacket had flipped back over my head on impact after jumping into the sea. Obviously I hadn't done it up properly and there was no one who had time to check those kinds of things while on the ship. The waves were still quite big and there was a large swell, although it was no where as bad as earlier on. The Fijian man pulled me into a rubber dingy. There were about 10 people in it. We were being tossed around a lot and every time a big wave came at us, we all had to pull the edges of the dingy up to try and ride the wave. The Fijian man was giving directions. We were all singing songs and one woman was saying her prayers. We sang cheerful songs like 'pack up your troubles in an old kit bag' etc!! We seemed to drift out to sea again and it seemed to be hours, but probably only about 1½ hrs, before we were taken over to Pencarrow heads by the currents. We came ashore over there riding in on some very big waves and nearly losing our balance a few times. Luckily we missed all the rocks around the area. Others were not so lucky. It was a wonderful feeling being on land again. Everyone seemed a bit dazed.

We started walking towards Eastbourne and after a while the Police arrived. We were then taken to a Salvation Hall in Eastbourne and given a warm blanket and cup of tea. Later we were taken by bus to Wellington Railway Station where family and friends were waiting.

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Mike Smith

Posted: 08 Jan 2011

My uncle Terrence Edward Smith known as eddie to his maritime friends assisted in the rescue of 4 Wahine survivors. He was awarded NZ highest award for bravery at sea. Sadly Terry died recently despite repeated attempts and emals to NZTV and the Herald nobody can find out what happened to terrys medal or even what the medal was called, we know that only 7 were awarded to foreign nationals. His effects were sent to my father here in the UK but the medal was never found. Can anyone please help.