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The Wahine Salvage


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:

The calm after the storm. Looking east across the harbour entrance with Steeple Rock and Steeple Rock Beacon (L) and the Wahine. Credit Michael Ashdown
The wreck on 11 April – note inflatable liferafts still tangled with the wreck.


The wreck a couple of days later, 13 April

The starboard propeller, retrieved from Barrett’s Reef by the Kerimoana. Damage to the blades show it was rotating under power when it struck the reef.

Hikitia and Kerimoana laying moorings for the Holmpark, chartered by United Salvage as accommodation and a work platform during the salvage. 2 August 1968.
Crane mounted on side of Wahine by Hikitia 23 August 1968, for retrieving cars etc during salvage work.
Hikitia lifting Wahine’s after mast 6 Sept 1968. This is now mounted in Frank Kitts Park.
Removing funnel 10 Sept 1968.
Depositing bridge on Fryatt Quay 12 November 1968.
Salvage work viewed from USS America, November 1968.


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.

The 8 May storm damaged the crane mounted to the side of the Wahine beyond repair.
Hikitia attempting to lift a 70+ton portion 16 November 1970.
Hikitia with portions of the bow on Queen’s Wharf 12 Dec 1970.
Bow sections on wharf.
Boiler and economiser from the Wahine on Hikitia’s deck, 11 Feb 1971.
Wahine drive motors 16 May 1972.
Wahine hull section 26 September 1972.
Port propeller 5 Feb 1973.
Hikitia alongside Holmpark near end of salvage. A little bit of Wahine can be seen to right.
Job done! 19 September 1973. All that remains is for Hikitia to pick up and return the Holmpark’s mooring anchors and chains.


The Wahine Salvage

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