The 50th anniversary of the TEV Wahine disaster

Guest blog by Captain Mike Pryce, Wellington Regional Harbour Master (1989-2017)

Mike Pryce
Captain Mike Pryce

With the fiftieth anniversary of this tragic event occurring on 10th April 2018, it is understood that various commemorative activities have been planned to coincide with this.

Wahine II at Queens Wharf by Martin Cahill
Wahine II at Queen’s Wharf (1997) by Martin Cahill. Museum collection

The various detailed enquiry reports show that the primary cause of the tragedy was severe weather conditions and ‘wrong place, wrong time’, but there were other factors.  One question that is frequently asked is: ‘Could it happen again, and would authorities be better prepared now than they were back then?’ An interesting question!

Wahine Weather maps
Wahine Weather Maps (2008) by David Ellis. Museum collection

One of the key points mentioned in the enquiry was the critical period when the severe weather and radar breakdown made it impossible for those on board to know their exact position in the harbour entrance.

Binnacle cover
Binnacle cover from the Wahine. Museum collection. [A binnacle displays and protects the fragile navigational instruments]

One could perhaps ponder on the options available today, with vastly-increased use and reliability of electronic aids to navigation.  Ships have two radar sets today, with a large and a small scanner size.  With improved mechanical reliability, it would be hoped that both did not become inoperative at the same time.  Modern electronic equipment fitted to ferries and shore helps to ensure that their voyages are safe and well-monitored.

Greater Wellington Regional Council’s (the harbour authority) Beacon Hill Communications Station (Wellington Harbour Radio) opened a new building in December 2010, fully-equipped with the latest electronic gadgets.  The experienced station operators are able to check positions of all vessels by radar and AIS (Automated Identification System – similar to monitoring aircraft transponders, but from ship) and liaise closely with CentrePort Wellington.  A wave-rider buoy stationed off Baring Head (at the eastern harbour entrance) provides swell-height and swell-direction information, and an electronic in-harbour weather monitoring system provides wind-speed and direction information at various locations inside the harbour.  A webcam at Beacon Hill enables the sea and weather conditions at the harbour entrance to be viewed ‘live’ so that nobody is in any doubt about the weather conditions prevailing.

Beacon Hill Signal Station
Beacon Hill signal station (Wellington Harbour Radio) ttp://www.gw.govt.nz/Beacon-Hill-Signal-Station/

Similar sophisticated electronic equipment and data-recorders are fitted to all the ferries, helping to make their routine voyages safer, and enabling various operational departments ashore to know exactly where the ferry is, when it will arrive, and when sailings might need to be cancelled.  Adherence to the NZ Port & Harbour Safety Code enables all information to be carefully considered when ferry sailings are decided.

It is a far-cry from ‘the olden days’ of bad weather when the ferries disappeared from sight into the spume of Cook Strait.

SS manuka
SS Manuka (1911) by Frank Barnes. Museum collection

A special Wahine exhibition ‘One Tragedy – A Range of Responses’ is on display in the Museum.

Featured Image: Wahine Wreck (1976) by MR Jackson. Museum collection