Memories of the Wahine disaster linger in the mind of retired Cantabrian


Kevin Cartwright remembers the day the Wahine ferry went down - with him on board. Photo:...
Kevin Cartwright remembers the day the Wahine ferry went down - with him on board. Photo: Ashburton Courier
April 10, 1968, is a date etched on the memory of Hinds retiree Kevin Cartwright – it’s the day the Wahine ferry went down, with him on board.

Kevin was a fresh-faced 21-year-old travelling from Lyttelton to Wellington with two mates when the disaster happened.

The trio were heading further afield to Australia for work, but the sinking of the roll-on/roll-off ferry halted those plans and almost claimed their lives.

The Wahine was caught in a fierce storm stirred by Tropical Cyclone Giselle and ran aground on Barrett Reef, later capsizing and sinking in the shallow waters at the mouth of Wellington Harbour.

Of the 734 people on board, 53 people died from drowning, exposure to the elements or injuries sustained in the evacuation.

“It was early in the morning and two big storms had merged over Wellington.

“I was on the Eastbourne side of the boat and I can still see those huge waves rising up over it,” he said.

People watch from shore as the Wahine capsized after striking a reef on April 10, 1968. The ferry...
People watch from shore as the Wahine capsized after striking a reef on April 10, 1968. The ferry had just arrived from the South Island when typhoon winds smashed her onto the reef. Photo: Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor
Kevin said the ferry was slowly leaning over which meant the lifeboats on one side were useless.

He and one of his mates slid down into the water from a smoko room door and into a rubber dingy. Others were able to scramble up the nets of fishing boats and into other rescue craft.

“It was cold and I must have been close to hypothermic. I remember I lost my shoes and had big rips in my trousers,” he said.

Kevin lost his suitcase and all his belongings, but his wallet survived the ordeal.

In the wallet was a ferry boarding pass, a memento that he cherishes today and is a reminder of his close call.

Three days after the Wahine sinking, Kevin was grateful to be able to celebrate his 22nd birthday.

He returned to Mid Canterbury and to concerned parents and friends.

“I can still picture the whole Wahine thing in my head, as clear as day.

“I’ve been on boats since and in rough seas, but nothing comes close to that early morning in 1968.”

The 2010 Canterbury earthquake and aftershocks stirred up Wahine memories for Kevin and he started having nightmares.

“I needed sleeping tablets for a while, but thankfully the nightmares are gone now.”

Kevin, who is 76, drove a truck for a big chunk of his working life and was also a farm worker.

While his two mates from the Wahine voyage are no longer alive, Kevin reckons he’s used up all of his nine lives over the years, both before and after the Wahine incident.

“When I was kid in Hinds I fell off a tractor. I’ve been in car crashes and had a number of health scares, but I’m still going.”

-By Mick Jensen

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