Inside Story: The Wahine Disaster

Monday 31 March, 9.30pm

On April 10, 1968, the Wahine passenger ferry sank in Wellington Harbour. Fifty-one of the ship’s 735 passengers and crew died after they were forced to jump for their lives as the Wahine rolled over just hundreds of metres from houses in suburban Seatoun.

Now, in a documentary made to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the disaster, state-of-the-art animation will bring to life the last moments of the Wahine as she entered the harbour while the worst recorded storm in New Zealand history hit the capital.
Wind gusts that day reached an amazing 276 kilometres an hour, with gusts in excess of 160 kilometres an hour blowing over a four-hour period. Based on data from NIWA, eyewitnesses and expertise from former Cook Strait ferry master Captain John Brown, the animators have recreated the sea conditions.

The animations show the massive following sea, which was racing at an incredible 30-plus kilometres an hour. They then show the giant wave, which picked up the 9000 tonne Wahine and flung her sideways on to the sea.

Captain Brown, who was on the scene on Wahine Day and who later spent 30 years commanding Cook Strait ferries, says the animations are stunningly realistic. “They capture the sea conditions that day very well,” he says.

Documentary producer David Lomas decided to use animation because “there is no film footage showing how wild the sea was and how incredible strong the wind was when the Wahine was driven on to the reef. All the old television footage was taken hours later and shot from a long way away. It gives no impression at all of the reality.”

Lomas says the documentary, which has been directed by Jill Graham, is a new look at the disaster. The animation shows for the first time how the Wahine came to hit Barrett Reef. “Then we have tried concentrated on a few people and followed their day of horror.”

Among those interviewed for the documentary are a Canterbury farmer and his wife who were dumped against rocks on the Pencarrow coastline, a Wellington businesswoman who was the last person rescued from the water and a Wahine crew member who had to quell a mutiny on one of the life boats.

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