The Wahine: New Zealand's Worst Maritime Disaster

Wahine survivors being pulled to safety
Wahine survivors being pulled to safety | © Archives New Zealand / Flickr
Thalita Alves

Tuesday April 10, 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster: the sinking of the Wahine. Fifty-three lives were lost after the Lyttleton-to-Wellington passenger ferry capsized into the Wellington Harbour. Survivors, families who lost their loved ones and community members who risked their lives to rescue those on board recently gathered to remember this tragedy in memorial events across the capital city. Here’s everything you need to know about the shipwreck and its historic significance.

The TEV Wahine was one of the various vessels that linked the North and South Islands by navigating through the Cook Strait into Wellington. She was built by the Union Steamship Company in 1965 – the biggest shipping line at the time – and was the largest ship of its kind upon completion. The Wahine had her first inter-island sailing in 1966, just over 18 months before disaster hit.

Wahine salvage operations, 24 Apr 1968, Wellington, New Zealand

On the evening of April 9, 1968, at 8:40pm, the Wahine departed on its typical journey from Lyttelton, around the Canterbury and Kaikoura coastlines, and into the Cook Strait. There were 734 passengers and crew on board. Even though storm warnings had been issued, the service carried on as normal – no alarm bells were raised as the Cook Strait was known for its volatile weather conditions.

Unfortunately, the vessel found itself amid one of the worst recorded storms in New Zealand history. As the ship neared the treacherous Cook Strait, it was swept by the collision of two natural forces: the tropical Cyclone Giselle, which had travelled from the Pacific into the North Island before heading southwards; and a storm that had made its way from Antarctica to the West Coast before colliding with the capital city. The combination of warm and cold air fronts produced a series of turbulent wind gusts – some of which reached a speed of 275 kilometres per hour (171 miles per hour) – which in turn became the strongest recorded in Wellington.

A map tracing the trajectory of Cyclone Giselle in 1968

The ship entered Wellington Harbour at 5:50am on April 10, when winds were blowing at just over 50 knots. Given that many vessels had sailed across much stronger gusts, Captain H.G. Robertson had decided this was safe enough to continue the journey. As the Wahine neared the harbour entrance, wind speeds suddenly doubled to 100 knots. By 6am the ship’s radar system had stopped working completely and towering waves began hitting the vessel with full force. The engines eventually stopped working and several attempts to bring the Wahine back to safety ensued – all of which ultimately failed.

Wahine survivors being pulled to safety

Several hours later, just before 1:30pm, the order was given to abandon ship. Captain Robertson had delayed the decision up to that point because he believed the storm conditions rendered it safer for passengers and crew to stay on board. This judgment call was later criticised during a post-disaster inquest.

Passengers were primarily crammed into four starboard lifeboats, though many were forced to jump into the cold sea to swim back to safety. One hour later, the first set of survivors reached the shores of Seatoun, a suburb on the east coast of Wellington’s Miramar Peninsula. At the same time, the abandoned Wahine ran aground as 11.6 metres (38 feet) of water crashed into the seabed. One lifeboat was swamped shortly after leaving the vessel, tossing all its occupants into the sea; two others managed to reach Seatoun and the third strayed from the others and landed into the Eastbourne Beach in Lower Hutt.

Survivors walk along the coast after being rescued from the Wahine

Some 200 survivors struggled their way towards the Eastbourne coast into safety. This, however, was also where the first fatalities occurred. A total of 51 people died that day: some drowned, others were killed when driven against the sharp rocks by the waves, and many didn’t make it because they didn’t receive medical attention fast enough. Another person died several weeks later and the disaster’s 53rd victim passed away in 1990 due to sustained injuries.

Eastbourne and Seatoun locals risked their lives to help Wahine survivors during the volatile storm

The Wahine tragedy, 50 years on

In the lead-up to Wahine disaster’s 50th anniversary, the stories of those directly involved – and affected – by the events came into spotlight once more.

A small group of survivors and community rescuers joined forces to establish the Wahine 50 charitable trust. The group organised several commemorative events in Wellington, including a memorial dawn service in Eastbourne, as they set out to acknowledge the lives that were lost, the survivors who lived to tell their stories and all of those who risked their lives to help passengers and crew get to safety.

Wahine memorial, Seatoun, Wellington, New Zealand

Local media also played a part in showcasing these remarkable experiences. Among the different memories shared by survivors in a Radio New Zealand programme was the solidarity of the local community:
I got tapped on the shoulder by a chap who said, ‘I live nearby, how about you come home with me and have a hot shower and I’ll get some dry clothes and have something to eat.’ He took three of us to his place and that’s what we did and that’s what the people of Eastbourne did that day in a very short period of time. They got a rescue operation going that was amazing.
The New Zealand Herald also put together a special report to mark the anniversary. Shirley Hick, now 78, survived through tragic times – but her three-year-old daughter Alma and one-year-old son Gordon didn’t make it. She told the New Zealand Herald that she is still very much in mourning:
I think about it every day. I live it every day. I’ve got things here I had when Alma was alive, the toys, the beautiful photos of Alma and Gordie.
A full list of all passengers and crew who lived and died during the Wahine tragedy can be found on the Wahine 50 trust website.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.