Though it will be 50 years on Tuesday since the Wahine disaster, the memories of New Zealand’s worst maritime tragedy still remain painfully clear for Marlborough men Ron Sutherland and Peter Jerram.
The pair, now 70, were 20-year-old students when they experienced the Wahine disaster first-hand on April 10, 1968.
Both were part of cricket squads headed to Palmerston North to take part in that year’s Universities Easter Tournament.
Sutherland was from Canterbury University and Jerram was from Lincoln College – rival teams set to face each other at the tournament.
But any rivalry was instantly forgotten when the order was given to abandon ship. Instead, both men and their team-mates found themselves scrambling 12-feet overboard into a “maelstrom” of waves.
“The waves were big enough to be deck level with the boat,” Sutherland said.
“When you were in the sea and the waves dipped, you were surrounded by nothing but grey-green walls of water.”
While Jerram was picked up by a lifeboat within 10 minutes, Sutherland was left in the water for about three hours.
He teamed up with one of the seamen and two women, assuming a bigger group would attract a rescue boat.
“The lifeboats would edge in close, but with just one puff of wind and – poof – they’d be gone,” Sutherland said.
“It was frustrating and tiring – especially because most people on board were dehydrated from being seasick that night.”
After finally coming ashore on Eastbourne beach, on the other side of the harbour, Sutherland was issued with some dry clothes.
“The shirt was too tight, the pants were big enough to wrap around me twice and I was handed a kid-sized jersey,” Sutherland said.
“But I was thankful to have something warm.”
Sutherland and Jerram were some of the lucky passengers on the Wahine when it ran aground at the entrance of Wellington Harbour, listed, then sank.
Fifty-one of the 734 passengers and crew aboard the vessel died at the scene.
Another two died from injuries sustained as a result of the shipwreck in the weeks following the disaster.
A number of people who reached shore alive did not receive medical attention in time to prevent death from hypothermia.
Jerram said the death toll would have been higher had community members from Eastbourne and Seatoun not sprung into action.
“A small boat fleet came out into the harbour to rescue people in the water,” Jerram said.
“One member of our cricket team was isolated from the crowds and ended up near the rocks. Thankfully he, and many others, were rescued by members of the small boat fleet.”
Jerram said Wahine survivors were sent home following the disaster “without knowing how to cope”.
“There was no such thing as counselling back then. It was a different era,” Jerram said.
“We went to the pub a week or so after the event, took a team photo, talked and had some beers. That was our way of dealing with it.
“It was post-WWII and a lot of our parents had been involved in the fighting during the war. There was a silent understanding that no-one talked about their feelings.”
Jerram said the Wahine disaster had different influences on people’s lives.
“For myself, and many of my cricket mates, it was just another day – albeit a bad one,” he said.
“It did do one thing, though; it pushed me into pursuing my late wife because it showed me how fickle life could be.”
For Sutherland the disaster had a big impact on his studies.
“That year I had a terrible time at university,” he said.
“I lost the plot. I thought to myself, ‘what the hell am I doing here?'”
The Wahine disaster led to improved safety procedures on ships and prompted the creation of two significant rescue services: the Wellington Volunteer Coastguard and The Life Flight Trust.
The Wellington Volunteer Coastguard, which was previously called Wellington Sea Rescue, launched its first volunteer lifeboat within a year of the disaster in response to the poor rescue operations of passengers and crew.
Peter Button was also motivated by the Wahine diaster to found The Life Flight Trust with neurosurgeon Dr Russell Worth in 1982 with the aim of saving lives at sea.
In more recent times, the Wahine 50 Charitable Trust was set up to help plan and deliver the 50th Wahine Day commemorations.
Plans for the day include a dawn service on the coastline near Eastbourne, where 47 of the 51 people who died at the scene lost their lives.
There were also plans for a midday event on Wellington’s waterfront and an afternoon visit to the Wahine memorials at Seatoun.
The Wahine 50 Charitable Trust was also working with local councils and other groups to plan a reunion lunch for survivors, rescuers, and family members of those on board.
About 90 survivors of the Wahine disaster had registered to attend the upcoming commemoration.
They would be joined by family members of the 53 who died, Wahine rescuers and people who were involved in the follow-up diaster relief.
Some attendees would travel from countries as far afield as Australia, Thailand and the United Kingdom to attend the reunion lunch.
For Jerram, the day would be a chance to reunite with his fellow Lincoln College cricket members.
“The whole team will be there,” he said.
While surviving the Wahine had been a major event early in Sutherland’s life, he only occasionally met up with his old cricket team-mates.
Sutherland said although he wouldn’t be attending the reunion lunch, he would commemorate the 50th Wahine Day by “saying a wee prayer”.
Going forward, the Wahine 50 Charitable Trust hoped to archive stories sent to them from every survivor, rescuer and person who played a support role on that day to the National Library.
This would help ensure future generations understood the impact the Wahine disaster had on their lives.
“The death of those 53 people was significant for New Zealand and made it one of our most significant maritime disasters,” Jerram said.
“In a little country like ours, almost everyone knows someone who was involved with the Wahine”.