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Wahine disaster, the

These thoughts and recollections are taken from a book dealing with a disaster that occurred in Wellington, New Zealand on April 10, 1968, when the inter-island ferry "Wahine" foundered on Barret Reef near the entrance to Wellington harbour. I have added the Scripture passages that these thoughts and recollections caused me to consider.

Jonah 1:4; 4:8 -- But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken... And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.

The ferry had room for another 300 passengers. The passenger capacity of 924 was under-booked; only 610, including 41 children under the age of 14 were sailing that night. The crew totaled 125. Air hostess Sally Shrimpton, 23, on transfer to Wellington from Christchurch, was on the ship because ear trouble had put a temporary halt to flying... Mrs O'Neill, 35 and expecting another child, was uneasy about the voyage to Sydney. I wasn't worried about the ferry; it was the big trip to Sydney that was on my mind, she recalled later. I told my friends to pray for us. I had my faith in God and thought He would take care of us, but I just felt something was going to happen. When I got on the boat I could not settle. I kept gathering the children together. When she had tucked her children in Mrs O'Neill got into bed. But she left the light on and began praying... Also in the smoke-room were the Hansens, watching television. They'd been early arrivals at the ship, driving their car aboard about 5.30 pm. After leaving overnight luggage in their cabin they had gone across the road from the wharf entrance to the British Hotel, and over a few beers played tunes on a jukebox. One of them was the pop song "There goes my prized possession, There goes my everything." It was an omen.

Ezekiel 33:6,7 -- But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand. So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel, therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.

The 3 am forecast on the NZ Broadcasting Corporation's all-night programme located the cyclone's centre off the eastern coast of the southern part of the Coromandel Peninsula. They said:

"Present indications are the centre will be located about 100 miles east of Hawkes Bay by midday today."
The weathermen were right when they predicted gale force and above southerlies in Cook Strait in a few hours (John's note -- Hawkes Bay is quite a wee ways north of Wellington, and the ferry should have been in Wellington long before midday. Cook Strait is just outside Wellington harbour). But their estimate of the centre's location at midday was to be proved sadly inaccurate by one factor largely unknown to them: the storm had speeded up. At 3 am it was over Tauranga, building up huge seas on the coast, ripping down power and telephone circuits and in nearby Whakatane pulling a section of roofing from the toll and telephone exchange. The fringes of the storm built up the southerly over Wellington dramatically between 3 am and 4 am. At 3 am the anemometer at Wellington Airport, close to the harbour entrance, registered 10 knots. An hour later it showed 42 knots with a maximum gust of 60. The rain that would not let up until 3.30 pm was driving across the exposed runways.

The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

He had been joined on the bridge by Chief Officer Luly. Arriving back from the garage, the chief officer saw the visibility had gone and had a quick look at the radar. The picture had spun round and he realised it was out of order. Through the windows of the bridge he could see the scanner on the foremast still rotating, but the mast was shaking so violently it was touch and go if it would remain with the ship. Bracing himself against the ship's movements, he went and stood by the master amidships and made sure his telegraph orders were received by Third Officer Noblet who was on the port wing telegraph. The orders came in quick succession as Captain Robertson tried desperately to bring the bow round. He had nothing to navigate with but his instinct and feeling. At times he sensed the ship was approaching rocks ahead and ordered her astern, or else he felt she was near the Pencarrow coast astern and ordered her ahead. Whether the ship was in fact moving ahead or astern was difficult to estimate as, so violent was the motion, for much of the time the two huge propellers were spinning uselessly out of the water.

Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth.

About five tense minutes passed and then Chief Officer Luly saw the orange light of the Barret Reef buoy, moored 400 yards south of Outer Rock. Southward from Outer Rock extend drying and low-water rocks, leaving a gap of 200 yards of deep water to the buoy. The chief officer first saw the light on the starboard bow, then on the port bow. A few seconds later he saw rocks to starboard. He cried out "Rocks ahead !". Almost instantly came the cry "Rocks astern !" Captain Robertson raced for the starboard wing of the bridge. His reaction when he saw the rocks on the starboard bow was horror. "Then I saw them astern and there was no way of getting out of it." The doomed ship quickly closed on the rocks. Captain Robertson had the impression she was picked up bodily and thrown on to the reef. He did not feel the initial impact but a bit later felt the hull bouncing up and down on the rocks. It was the end of a ghastly half hour of commanding a blind ship in the most hazardous position imaginable.

Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters; who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind... For He commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof... He causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth, He maketh lightnings for the rain; He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries... He sendeth out His word, and melteth them: he causeth His wind to blow, and the waters flow... Fire, and hail; snow, and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling His word..."

Ashore, the wind was battering the city and threatening to remove anything not firmly secured, but it wasn't until 7.20 that the country as a whole heard about the Wahine. With power restored, announcer Joy Ring gave the news in a special bulletin on the NZ Broadcasting Corporation's national network link:

"The inter-island ferry Wahine is reported to have gone aground on Barrett Reef a short time ago. Tugs are on their way to help but the Marine Department believes there is no serious danger."
This was sensational news, but the Marine Department's belief, unfortunately unfounded, that there was no serious danger, helped allay the fears of listeners around the country, particularly those with loved ones aboard.

(Do we look at events around us and believe that there is no serious danger?)

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you.

Outside the smokeroom, Clarrie O'Neill and his wife kept a watchful eye on their six children. He spoke to others around them about their plight. "We realised the helplessness of our position and the need of a higher power to save us. I tried to encourage the others but I was still very worried though this receded somewhat as time went on. I met a man from Greymouth and his wife I knew, and talked to them of God for about half an hour. I was very sad the next day to see his name on the death roll.

But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day; For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved; but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened... The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.

Clarrie O'Neill and his family were also in the smokeroom after an uncomfortable wait outside. The six children lay on the floor, still in their lifejackets, and Mr O'Neill managed to get a set for his wife, who was pale and not looking too well. He remembers one elderly woman saying, "Your children deserve a medal." Another added, "The parents deserve a medal for looking after them so well." "I turned around and said, 'Medals won't help us now. What we need is help from above.' They both agreed."

2 Samuel 22:3 -- The God of my rock, in Him will I trust. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my high tower and my refuge, my Saviour. Thou savest me from violence... Psalm 62:7, 8 -- In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before Him: God is a refuge for us.

Suddenly she lurched a couple of times to starboard... and stayed there. The harsh jangle of the alarm bells and the abandon ship order a few minutes later punctured any complacency that remained. Six hundred and ten passengers were faced with the stark reality of getting off the ship into a still wild sea. Fright showed clearly on the faces of the men, women and children jammed into the B-deck smokeroom and cafeteria, passageways and cabins and in the A-deck lounge. For a few minutes panic was imminent as passengers surged to the exits in their desperate desire to get on deck.

Matthew 7:25,27: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

It was about 2 pm and now only four men -- Able Seaman Donald MacInnes, Luly, Galloway, and Captain Robertson -- remained. Save for the occasional crashes from below as equipment and cargo moved, the ship was spookily quiet. In three quarters of an hour 732 people had left the Wahine. Considering the conditions, the abandonment had gone amazingly well.

Jeremiah 51:16: When he uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens; and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth: he maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures. Nahum 1:3 -- The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.

Clarrie O'Neill, his wife and six children were also in the (life) boat. He was worried about the waves and feared the boat would get side on to them. "We were helpless, and couldn't do a thing. A woman came floating towards me in the water crying, 'Save me, save me.' I reached out and grabbed her hand and she cried out, 'Don't let me go. Don't let me go.' She must have been in her fifties, and weighed between 15 and 16 stone. I had a terrible job to try and get her aboard and I had to get another man to help me. I told her how glad we were to have her aboard. Then a woman in the boat cried out -- 'Has anyone seen my baby?' A man at the end of the boat held up a poor mite, all dripping wet and asked -- 'Is this it?' It was. The woman took her baby and cuddled it to her. It looked so cold and bedraggled that I took off my felt hat which I had on all the time and put it on the baby's head to keep the rain off. The woman did not say anything, just gave me a look of thankfulness that was worth all the silver and gold in the world."

Luke 8:23,24: But as they sailed he fell asleep: and there came down a storm of wind on the lake; and they were filled with water, and were in jeopardy. And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, 'Master, master, we perish'. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm.

Those rescued include 61-year-old Mrs Tressa Dunford of Christchurch, and her husband, who had a terrifying time since jumping off the ship. 'Some of my thoughts were for my mother, who is 84, and I wondered who would look after her if I didn't get out alive. I also thought of my 3 sons and 5 step-daughters and wondered if I would ever see them again. I thought about sharks, and the mess there would be if a few got loose amongst us. Actually I love water but I like to know what is in it with me. I wasn't frightened of dying but realised that it's not until faced with death that you realise how sweet life is.'

Isaiah 4:6: And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for r a place of refuge; and for a covert from storm and from rain.

Isaiah 25:4: For thou hast been a strength to the poor , a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.

Clarrie O'Neill, his wife, and 6 children, thanked God for getting them safely ashore. 'I realised that we had been in a terrible situation and my first thoughts were that we had been permitted to go through the valley of the shadow of death. On the law of averages, I suppose we should have lost one or two of the children, but apart from being soaked and cold we were all right.'

Mark 4:27: And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full... And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, 'Peace, be still'. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm... And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, 'What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?'

After radio newscasts had revealed that survivors were being taken to Wellington Railway Station, relatives and friends of those who had been on the Wahine gathered quietly behind the crowd-control barriers. The tense, anxious wait common to all disasters began. For some the vigil was in vain; others spent hours waiting, only to learn that loved ones were already in hospital. For some the wait was mercifully short.

Early in the evening police discovered they had names of far more survivors than the total number of passengers and crew who had been on the Wahine. There was much duplication of names, different spellings of the same name, different addresses for the same survivor. In the chaos of the afternoon the names of many rescuers had gone on the lists. In a few cases the names of the dead were also on the list. No name could be deleted until painstakingly checked out.

Revelation 20:12: And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judges out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

I would like to conclude with a paragraph written in "The Gospel News" one time, by our Brother Christopher Damaso, from the Philippines:

"The boat is our ecclesia that brings its people to the conference which will be at Mt Zion in Jerusalem. This time the subject and the speaker will be our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will reveal himself as the King and those who are patiently and faithfully waiting for him will find joy, receiving the promise, "He who stands firm till the end will be saved." (Matthew 24:13). However, sailing to the Kingdom is not easy, there are waves and winds of trials to be overcome. Sometimes, along the way, we have brothers and sisters who need to be rescued from a shipwreck. They need us to strengthen their faith. They are the survivors who call for comfort, encouragement, and prayers. Helping the weak must be a primary concern (Acts 20:28,35). Indeed, our voyage is a selfless endeavour. We are not only concerned for ourselves, but for others as well. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said, "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). If we can fulfil this responsibility, our boat will not sink and no one will fall into the sea, and, at the end, we will finally reach the harbour to meet our King.


Begone, unbelief!
Our Saviour is near,
And for our relief
Will surely appear:
Though rough winds may wrestle --
Our God will perform:
With Christ in the vessel,
We smile at the storm.

(John Ching)
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