SS Wairarapa
Photo:  Ian Farquhar Collection

WAIRARAPA, steamer : On October 29, 1894, the steamer was totally wrecked on Great Barrier Island, one mile east of Miners Head, with the loss of 121 lives. On only two other occasions has the loss of life been exceeded in the history of New Zealand shipping disasters-in the wrecks of H.M.S. Orpheus and the steamer Tararua. The Wairarapa was bound from Sydney to Auckland, where news of the disaster was received on November 1.

The second officer of the Wairarapa, Mr. Joseph Lucas Clark, afterwards gave the following account of the wreck "The Wairarapa encountered moderate weather and winds crossing the Tasman Sea and passed the Three Kings at 7.45 a.m. on Sunday, October 28. The weather then became thick and foggy. At 10.30 a.m. she passed Cape Maria Van Diemen, and at noon she was off Spirits Bay, close to the North Cape. At 12.40 p.m. a very thick fog came down, obscuring everything. A course was steered for Cape Brett, and that course was continued until about 10 o'clock on Sunday night, when the course was altered to take the ship outside the Hen and Chickens Islands. It was ten minutes past midnight when the Wairarapa struck. Those on board felt a severe shock, and everyone was aroused. It soon became known that the vessel had rub on the rocks. The night was so dark that no land was seen until the steamer struck, and a heavy sea was running. The passengers behaved with great coolness. The captain was on the bridge when the steamer struck, and at once gave orders to launch the boats.

The boats on the port side were quickly launched, and some of the lady passengers were placed in them with great difficulty, as the ship had filled with water. The four rafts, which were carried in addition to the six lifeboats, were set adrift, and were the means of saving a great many lives, while the boats that were launched picked up a number of passengers who had been swept off the deck by the heavy seas. Many more would have been saved but for the fact that the Wairarapa suddenly canted over to port, and the seas coming over her at the same time swept the decks, carrying numbers into the water. The ship was at such an angle that it was impossible to get up to the high side without crawling on hands and knees. When all the boats that could be launched were in the water those who were still on the steamer tried to reach the rigging, but many of them remained on the upper deck to windward of the bridge house. The seas were continually breaking over the steamer, sweeping the decks. At about 2 o'clock in the morning the funnel was carried away, and at 3.30 a.m. the bridge, with all those on it, including the captain, was washed overboard. All this time the boats were doing what they could to save life."

The Wairarapa struck against a cliff some 600 or 800 feet high, with no means of an easy landing. When daylight broke the second officer unrolled the jib halyards and signal halyards, and tried to heave the latter ashore. There were then about 60 people on board in the fore and main rigging, and several more were clinging to the starboard davits. The attempt to throw the halyards ashore failed, and then J. Fraser, a greaser, and J. W. Dunlop, second engineer, tried to swim ashore with a line, but owing to the tremendous sea and backwash they had to let go in order to save themselves. They succeeded, with difficulty, in landing on the rocks. Shortly afterwards B. A. Kendall, the second steward, volunteered to take the line ashore, and succeeded in doing so. The jib halyards was then hauled on shore, and by this means those on board were safely landed by being pulled through the water, with the exception of two lady passengers who lost their hold on the rope and were swept away.

The fourth officer, Mr. W. A. Tulloch, managed to launch No. 5 lifeboat, but was unsuccessful in getting No. 6 clear owing to the heavy list of the steamer to port. The Wairarapa gave a great roll with the sea, and his boat was in considerable danger of being stove in. He had his boat afloat in two minutes, and set about picking up people in the water. After a great deal of trouble, and with much risk, Mr. Tulloch succeeded in picking up a boat load of 19 persons-passengers and crew -and pulled away from the wreck. He came across the boat commanded by the third officer, which was stove in, and towed his boat until 4 o'clock in the morning, when the occupants, numbering ten, were taken on board, making 29 in all in the fourth officer's boat.

After being on the rocks for over 30 hours, with nothing more sustaining than a few cases of oranges which had been washed ashore from the wreck, the survivors were discovered by a party of Maoris in boats, and were taken to Catherine Bay. In the meantime, the third officer and several members of the crew made their way overland to Port Fitzroy and reported the disaster. The steamer Argyle, which had arrived at that port on the morning of October 31, embarked the survivors who had arrived there, and proceeded to the scene of the wreck. The Argyle afterwards went to Catherine Bay, where the remainder of the survivors were taken on board and conveyed to Auckland, arriving there eventually on the morning of November 1.

Usually the steamers trading from Sydney to Auckland follow a course calculated to take them either five miles inside or five miles outside of the Little Barrier Island when approaching the Hauraki Gulf. Evidently the Wairarapa overran her distance and was from 10 to 15 miles-out of her course when the disaster occurred. Steaming at full speed through the fog, the steamer ran bow on into a steep cliff, with a fearful crash. Even the officers did not know where they were until the next morning, and the locality was totally unknown to the passengers. The site of the wreck of the Wairarapa was one mile east of Miners Head, on the north-western corner of the Great Barrier Island.

At the Court of Inquiry, held at Auckland, the purser of the Wairarapa handed in a list of the survivors. There were the names of 85 passengers on this list. The purser, Mr. P. Fenwick, stated that to the best of his knowledge 186 passengers were on board the ship when she left Sydney, in addition to a crew of 65 persons, and that 101 passengers were believed to be lost, and 20 members of the crew were known to be lost, a total of 121 deaths. About 82 bodies were recovered. The finding of the court appointed to inquire into the cause of the wreck of the Wairarapa makes painful reading, as most of the evidence was of a painful character. The court expressed the opinion that the Wairarapa was lost in consequence of the master and first and second officers failing to take the correct point of departure at the Three Kings, and to allow for the current which they should have known was running to the east and south-east. As the captain was in charge and on the bridge or deck at the time, the court found that he alone was to blame for the catastrophe.

The Wairarapa, No. 84,478, was a steel, screw steamer of 1,786 tons gross and 1,023 tons net register, built at Dumbarton, in 1882, by Messrs. Denny Brothers, and was launched in May of that year. Her dimensions were: length 285.2 ft., beam 36.3 ft., depth 23.7 ft., and her two engines were of 292 h.p. The Wairarapa, which was valued at £30,000, was owned by the Union Steam Ship Company, and was under the command of Captain John McIntosh.

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