SS Penguin wrecked in Cook Strait

12 February 1909

Hauling wreckage and a body ashore at Cape Terawhiti
Hauling wreckage and a body ashore at Cape Terawhiti (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-020152-G)

On the evening of 12 February 1909, the Union Steam Ship Company passenger steamer Penguin left Picton for Wellington in fine weather.

Conditions quickly deteriorated as the Penguin reached Cook Strait. As the weather closed in, familiar landmarks disappeared. Unable to see Pencarrow light, Captain Francis Naylor set a course to steer clear of danger. After changing course again to ride out the storm, the ship struck rocks and began to sink in heavy seas.

The ‘women and children first’ custom proved disastrous as the lifeboats quickly capsized. No children and only one woman survived. Only 30 of the 102 people who set out from Picton made it ashore alive; contemporary accounts put the number on board at 105, with 75 deceased.

Although some said the Penguin had struck a drifting wreck, it is widely believed that it hit Thoms Rock off Cape Terawhiti. A subsequent inquiry blamed Captain Naylor and suspended his certificate for 12 months, despite finding he ‘did everything in his power to prevent loss of life’ once disaster struck.

To mark the centenary of the disaster, a plaque was mounted close to the probable site.

Further information: Bruce Collins, The wreck of the Penguin, Steele Roberts, Wellington, 2000