Wahine wrecked in Wellington Harbour

10 April 1968

The Wahine founders in Wellington Harbour (Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1968/1648a/1a-F)

The sinking of the Lyttelton–Wellington ferry Wahine is New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster. Fifty-one people lost their lives that day, another died several weeks later and a 53rd victim died in 1990 from injuries sustained in the wreck.

Would-be rescuers stood helplessly on beaches as the Wahine succumbed to one of the worst storms recorded in New Zealand history. Driven onto Barrett Reef, at the entrance to Wellington Harbour, the ship lost its starboard propeller, and power to its port engine. The 8,948-ton vessel drifted further into the harbour before leaning to starboard. Because of the heavy list, crew could only launch four of the eight lifeboats, and most of the inflatable life rafts flipped in the savage seas.

The Wahine finally capsized at 2.30 p.m. Most deaths occurred on the Eastbourne side of the harbour, where people were driven against sharp rocks by waves.

Although the main cause of the accident was the atrocious weather conditions, the subsequent inquest also acknowledged that those on board the ferry and on shore had made errors of judgement.