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Cook Strait's dangerous waters - roadside stories

The wild waters and intense weather of Cook Strait led Māori to perform special rituals when crossing the strait. The inter-island ferry Penguin was wrecked south of Wellington in 1909, causing 75 deaths, and 51 people died when the Wahine foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour in 1968.


Archival audio: Coverage of the Wahine disaster.

Narrator: The turbulent waters of Cook Strait flow through the only significant gap in New Zealand’s mountainous backbone. As the prevailing westerly winds reach New Zealand, they are funnelled through the small gap between the North and South Islands, which increases their speed. And when strong winds come from the south, they often become gales as they blow through Cook Strait. The country’s capital city, perched on the edge of the strait, is known as Windy Wellington.

Cook Strait’s rough seas are also the result of the meeting of two major currents – the warm D’Urville current which flows southwards and the cooler Canterbury current which travels northward up the east coast of the South Island.

The combination of conflicting currents, variable tides and strong winds can create extreme conditions in the strait. Māori greatly respected these waters. A canoe crossing of the strait was an occasion for ritual designed to ensure survival. All those who had never crossed the strait before were blindfolded. Only those who had previously crossed used their eyes. They acted as pilots. When the canoe had crossed the strait and was close to the beach, the new travellers would finally take off their blindfolds. They would be carried ashore, because it was believed that if they waded in the water, a great storm would come up.  

The great English navigator, Captain James Cook first explored the strait in 1770, thinking that it might be a large harbour in the great southern continent that he had been sent to find. But having sailed through the passage, he confirmed it separated the two large islands of New Zealand. His crew named the passage Cook Strait in his honour.

As the European settlement of New Zealand increased, so did shipping between the islands and shipwrecks inevitably occurred. In 1909, the Penguin ferry that travelled between Nelson and Wellington, hit a large rock at night during a southerly storm. It sank with the loss of 75 lives. Twenty-three passengers survived on two rafts despite both being upturned, and the captain drifted ashore on flotsam.

On April the 10th 1968, the passenger ferry Wahine, travelling between Christchurch and Wellington, foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour.

A tropical cyclone sweeping south met a southerly front, producing freak winds of up to 230 kilometres per hour around Cook Strait. As the Wahine tried to enter Wellington Harbour through the narrow passage at the heads, it was blasted by hurricane-force winds. Massive waves over 10 m high pushed the ferry onto the hidden rocks of Barrett’s Reef. Taking in water, the vessel was then blown into the harbour.

Eventually the order was given to ‘abandon ship’. Although the Wahine was very close to the harbour’s southern shore, the waves and wind pushed many of the lifeboats, as well as passengers in the water, towards the rocky northern coastline. Here, giant waves smashed lifeboats and passengers onto the rocks. Of the 51 people who died that day, most were killed here.

A number of swimmers have attempted to cross Cook Strait. The first is said to have been a Māori woman, Hinepoupou who crossed the strait around 1750, after being abandoned by her husband at Kāpiti Island. The first person to swim the strait in recent times was New Zealander Barrie Devenport. His 1962 crossing took just over 11 hours.

Today, most people chose to cross Cook Strait on modern vehicle ferries, which provide a vital link between the Islands. However, even today, sailings are sometimes cancelled during heavy storms.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number: sa-t-0605-su03-pm).

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Cook Strait's dangerous waters - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated