At approximately 7am on Saturday 10 April 1968 a storm of unprecedented ferocity hit Wellington. At the same time the Interisland ferry from Lyttelton, the Wahine, was slowing down to enter Wellington Harbour. Hit by winds up to 100 knots (185kms/hr) and mountainous seas the Wahine was out of control in the narrowest part of the harbour entrance; while the Master and helmsman struggled to regain control she was blown across Barrett’s Reef. The starboard propeller and tailshaft were ripped away, and she sustained massive damage all along the hull. With the drive-motor room flooded all propulsion was lost and, with her anchors dragging on the seabed she drifted slowly past Fort Dorset to finally hold just by Steeple Rock, off Seatoun, at about 11am.
Swinging wildly to her anchors, with a gradually increasing list to starboard, Wahine’s passengers and crew waited anxiously. Finally at 1.15pm, with the weather slowly easing and the ship’s position providing some shelter, the Master gave the order to abandon ship. All 734 persons on board left the ship via liferafts and the starboard lifeboats – or by swimming; all but 51 made it safely to shore.
The Wahine herself fell over on her starboard side and came to rest on the bottom of the harbour in 38feet (11.5m) of water, with most of her port side showing above the surface. The wreck was just out of the shipping channel but sufficiently close to be of concern to the Harbour authority, so salvage became a priority. Navy divers surveyed the wreck and produced a diagram of the visible damage.
Seven companies applied for the contract, which was awarded to United Salvage Proprietary Ltd of Melbourne. Their plan was to cut off the superstructure, fill the wreck with urethane foam, and tow it out and sink it in deep water.
The whole salvage lasted just a month over 5 years, and was United Salvage’s longest job on a single wreck.
The following photos show the Wahine and the Hikitia's involvement in the salvage operations:
On 8 May 1969 another savage storm struck Wellington, and broke the wreck into three pieces. The plan to raise the wreck and sink it in deep water was abandoned in favour of cutting it up and lifting the pieces ashore, with this to be mainly carried out by the Hikitia.