From SN Guides
Canadian Pacific's Princess Sophia; wrecked in Alaska in 1918 with the loss of 343 lives
This series of articles provides a listing of all major passenger ships that have been lost in service. For comparison, there are also articles covering some the most significant losses of smaller passenger vessels and ferries. The articles also provide commentary on some of the most significant incidents.
For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -
- Part 1. Definitions and the Development of International Passenger Ship Regulations
- Part 2. Fire
- Part 3. Collision,
- Part 4. Other Navigational Error
- Part 5. Structural Failure and Foundered
- Part 6. Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War
- Part 7. Hostilities – World War 2
- Part 8. Ship Safety Analysis – Passenger vessels over 10,000 GRT
- Part 9. Some smaller passenger vessel losses
- Part 10. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in European Waters
- Part 11. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in USA, Canada & Australasia
- Part 12. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in South East Asia & Africa
This article covers some of the ferries below 10,000 GRT that have been lost in US, Canadian and Australasian waters in peacetime.
Smaller Ferries lost in USA, Canada & Australasia
The earlier parts of these articles set out to provide a comprehensive record of all passenger vessels above 10,000 GRT that have been lost. Excluding the effects of hostilities, the world passenger ship fleet has suffered a total of 116 ship losses in the 125 years since the first ship over 10,000 GRT entered service. Of these 43 ships were lost to fire while in port (at a cost of 5 lives) and 73 at sea for all other reasons (7,301 lives). This vessel size was selected for the earlier articles for practical reasons. Many ferries are now over 10,000 GRT and sadly the list of larger passenger ships lost over the past 45 years includes 18 ferries (3,207 lives).
Ferries are defined in these articles as passenger carrying vessels engaged on regular, relatively short distance routes. This definition includes inland waterway craft, excursion, coastal and sea-going vessels, including ships providing passengers with sleeping accommodation for one or two nights. The ferry industry has in the past 45 years also become increasingly devoted to the carriage of motor vehicles using ro-ro technology.
The trade publisher ShipPax Information calculates that on 1 January 2013 there were 1,147 ferries over 1,000 GRT, carrying vehicles and passengers below decks, in service throughout the world. Of these 426 were over 10,000 GRT. It also calculates that this ferry fleet carried 2.183 billion passengers; 258 million cars; 842 thousand buses and 39 million trailers, on 7.5 million trips in 2013.
The sheer volume of ferry traffic has led SOLAS to devote special attention to the safety problems especially those that have arisen during the development of ro-ro ship designs. Those involving ships over 10,000 GRT have been covered in earlier articles; this article will address some of the disasters that befell smaller ferries.
It is in the nature of ferry services that the ships are required to operate in confined and crowded waters in all weathers. This has been a significant factor in many of the disasters recorded in this article.
Free Surface Effect
A ship floats because its weight and form displace water and the force of buoyancy this creates is greater than the gravitational force of its weight. A ship’s stability is a function of its centre of gravity and its centre of buoyancy. Normally when a ship rolls in a seaway, its centre of gravity remains in a constant centre line position, while its centre of buoyancy moves in the direction of the roll; where it exerts an upward force on that side of the hull, which corrects the ship’s roll. It has been a tragedy that ships’ designers and ships’ officers were slow to realise the disastrous impact that the free surface effect, of even a modest amount of water on a vehicle deck, has upon the stability of a ro-ro ship. As the ship rolls in a seaway, the water will rush across the deck in the direction of the roll, moving the centre of gravity as well as the center of bouyancy. One cubic metre of water weighs approximately one ton. What appears to be a small amount of water when the vessel is upright becomes equal to several tons of water thrown against the side of the vehicle deck, greatly increasing the intensity of the ship’s roll and creating dwell. If this violent action allows more water to enter the vehicle deck, the ship will become increasingly unstable, until she adopts a permanent list, then rolls completely over. Unfortunately this can happen very quickly.
Some ferry disasters in USA and Canada
Largely for geographical reasons, North America has not had the same network of ferry services as Europe. During the nineteenth century ferries, or “steamboats”, provided vital transportation links operating as coastal, lake and river vessels. Most were locally built, often with questionable engineering standards that led to many boiler explosions, before the US Government eventually introduced inspection regulations. The death figures given in the following table are in many cases estimates, in the absence of passenger lists for most nineteenth century voyages.
Sample Losses of small US and Canadian Ferries
||Gurdon S Hubbard
||J Cass Mason
||City of Columbus
||Boston & Savannah SS Co
||Portland SP Co
||Knickerbocker SS Co
||Pacific Coast SS Co
||St Joseph-Chicago SS Co
||Grand Trunk Railway
||Northern Navigation Co
||Queen of the North
Sultana was built and operated on the Mississippi during the American Civil War. She was a wooden steamship constructed in 1863 by the John Lithoberry Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati, Ohio and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, which had reopened following the capture of the river corridor by the Union. Although stern-wheel paddle steamers are the traditional image of Mississippi river boats, Sultana was one of the many passenger carrying boats that were side-wheelers. She is recorded as being a boat of 1,719 tons, 260 feet long and registered to carry 290 passengers and a crew of 85.
For two years, the Sultana ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans. The steamship was frequently commissioned by the Union War Department to carry troops. This was lucrative business as the regular payment was $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer. Furthermore the War Department generally ignored any official limitation on the number of troops a steamboat could carry. In exchange the military officials often received a standard kick-back $1.50 per head.
As the war drew towards its end in early 1865, it was realized that a large number of prisoners of war would need to be repatriated from Vicksburg by river boats. On 12 April Sultana received official approval to participate, after inspection in St Louis and sailed for New Orleans. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April 1865, all telegraphic communication between the North and South was cut off by the order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, so the news of his death was fortuitously brought to Vicksburg by Sultana. Her Captain and leading shareholder, J. Cass Mason, took advantage of the situation to reach agreement with the senior local military transportation officers that Sultana would have a full load of soldiers for her return journey.
Sultana continued downstream and arrived in New Orleans on 19 April and departed again two days later with about 100 passengers. Despite official approval of her sound condition, her boilers had been patched or repaired at Natchez, Mississippi and at Vicksburg on the boat’s two previous trips. Steam was discovered escaping from a crack in one of her four boilers as Sultana reached a point about ten miles south of Vicksburg, forcing her to continue up the Mississippi at a greatly reduced speed. Fearing that the crack posed a significant threat to the safety of the steamboat, her chief engineer declared that he would not proceed beyond Vicksburg until necessary repairs were made.
Meanwhile, the Confederate authorities had finally agreed to parole the 5,500 prisoners assembled at Camp Fisk, four miles east of Vicksburg. The Union commander, General Dana ordered that muster rolls listing the names of the men, be prepared as quickly as possible, so that the soldiers who were all half-starved or ill, could be immediately transported by train to Vicksburg to board steamers. His officers began to assemble the rolls and arrange transportation for the war-weary soldiers. The first contingent of 1,300 anxious troops was shipped upriver on the riverboat Henry Ames, followed soon after by 700 soldiers aboard Olive Branch.
Sultana finally docked at Vicksburg early on the evening of 23 April 23, soon after the departure of the Olive Branch. The assistant adjutant general, Captain Frederic Speed, aware that the rolls of only three hundred of the remaining soldiers had been prepared, reported to General Dana that no prisoners would be shipped on Sultana; as he could not complete the remaining paperwork before the steamer’s scheduled departure on the following day. A furious Mason went immediately into Vicksburg and met with the local military officers, including Major General Napoleon Dana, commander of the Department of Mississippi and Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, the chief quartermaster of the Mississippi, who eventually agreed that there was no need to prepare the rolls before the soldiers boarded the steamer. The men could merely be checked off as they went aboard, and the rolls completed after the departure of the boat.
Later that same evening, Speed reported to General Dana that all the prisoners remaining at the parole camp and in the hospital at Vicksburg would be shipped on Sultana. Dana was also informed that the total number of prisoners to be shipped would be between 1,300 and 1,400; the number of men Speed estimated still awaited transport.
Mason knew that time was critical; if Sultana did not leave on 24 April, some other steamboat would carry the remaining troops from Vicksburg. It was imperative that the leaking boiler that had slowed her return voyage from New Orleans be repaired quickly. R. G. Taylor, a local boilermaker who had been called in to solve the problem, told Mason that extensive repairs were needed. Mason implored Taylor to settle for patching the leaking boiler so that the steamer could leave Vicksburg on schedule. Although he initially refused, Taylor finally agreed to place a small patch over the area leaking steam. After completing the job, he warned that the repairs were only temporary and was assured by Mason that the work would be completed when Sultana reached St. Louis.
The next morning Captain George Augustus Williams, the officer in nominal command of the prisoner exchange and Speed travelled to Camp Fisk. The two officers agreed that Speed would remain at the parole camp to supervise the loading of the men onto the trains, while Williams would ride on the first train back to Vicksburg, where he would keep count as they boarded Sultana. Captain William F. Kerns, the quartermaster in charge of river transportation, tried in vain to convince Speed to place some of the men on the steamboat Lady Gay, then docked at Vicksburg that was larger than Sultana. Speed, refusing to divide the prisoners, continued to maintain that they all could travel on the one vessel. Lady Gay, therefore, headed north from Vicksburg without any paroled prisoners on board.
A few minutes after the departure of Lady Gay, Captain Williams and the first trainload of 570 former prisoners pulled into Vicksburg. These men joined 398 soldiers already on board Sultana, who had been sent from the military hospital. Thus, Sultana already exceeded her carrying capacity by more than six hundred. During the day, two more trainloads of men boarded Sultana. Captain Williams, whose responsibility it was to count the soldiers as they went aboard the steamer, was not at the dock when the second group of men boarded Sultana and he was unaware that some four hundred soldiers had been missed from his tally.
After this second load of soldiers boarded Sultana, Captain Kerns warned Colonel Hatch that too many prisoners were being placed on the one steamer and tried to have some men sent north on the recently arrived Pauline Carroll. Hatch sent a telegram to Speed at the parole camp asking if there were more prisoners than could go aboard the Sultana. Speed was still convinced that there were no more than a total of 1,400 to be shipped that day, replied that “they can all go on one boat.” With that assurance, Hatch refused to divide the men between the two vessels.
Repeated unsuccessful efforts were made some of the officers at Vicksburg to convince Speed to divide the prisoners and place some on another boat. By now, the Sultana’s captain, having received many more troops than even he desired, was growing concerned about the stability of his boat. The human load was so great that it was necessary for the crew to install extra supports below the upper decks; to prevent the sagging floors collapsing. Although he ‘thought he could carry them through,’ Mason nevertheless protested any further loading. He too was ignored.
At 21:00 on 24 April, Sultana slowly pulled away from the wharf at Vicksburg and headed north on the flood-swollen Mississippi River. It is not known how many people were on board. Captain Williams had counted 1,996 men on board, but unknown to him a complete trainload of at least 400 troops had boarded in his absence from the dock. In addition there were approximately 100 passengers from New Orleans and 85 crew. The total must have been about 2,600 people on a steamer registered to carry 375. The enormous weight of the passengers and cargo on the decks of the steamer worried her crew; any sudden movement by the prisoners could cause the decks to collapse and too many men crowding to one side of the deck could result in the boat capsizing.
That horrifying scenario almost played out when Sultana docked briefly at Helena, Arkansas. Word quickly spread among the passengers that a photographer was setting up his camera on the west bank of the river. The excited soldiers quickly moved to the port side of the boat, which caused Sultana to list dangerously, before they were ordered back. The resulting photograph, however, is the last picture taken of the steamer, as well as of many of those on board.
Photo 1: The heavily overloaded Sultana at St Helena, Arkansas on her final voyage
Sultana continued upriver during 26 April and after a four-hour stop at Memphis that evening, the steamer crossed the river to Hopefield, Arkansas, where she took on bunkers. By 02:00 on 27 April Sultana had reached seven miles north of Memphis. Most of the passengers slept on the crowded decks, as stokers shovelled coal to feed the vessel’s four boilers that were located on the main deck between the paddle-wheels. Rising above the boilers were the upper decks, constructed of light, flimsy wood that was coated with highly combustible paint.
Suddenly, one of the boats boilers exploded, followed immediately by the explosion of two of the remaining boilers. The blasts tore through the decks directly above the boilers, flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks. Scalding water and clouds of steam covered the prisoners who lay sleeping near the boilers. Hundreds were killed in the first moments of the tragedy. There are some reports that the ship’s giant twin funnels fell onto the crowded upper deck killing more of the soldiers. The upper decks of Sultana, already sagging under the weight of her passengers, collapsed when the blast ripped through the steamer’s superstructure. Many were, trapped in the resulting wreckage, as fire quickly spread throughout the hull. Within twenty minutes of the explosion, the entire superstructure of Sultana was in flames, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis.
The first boat on the scene, at about 03:00 (an hour after the explosion), was the southbound steamer Bostonia II, which sailed past the burning wreck and rescued scores of survivors who had been swept downstream. The hulk drifted to the west bank and sank about dawn, off the tiny settlement of Mound City, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Arkansas, Jenny Lind, Essex, and the Navy side-wheel gunboat USS Tyler.
Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to face risking their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi, or burn with the ship; many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were rescued from trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. The Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.
About 500 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 of them died later from burns or exposure. It is not been possible to arrive at an accurate casualty figure, because of the unknown number of soldiers on the second train into Vicksburg, but a conservative estimate is that at least 1,800 people were killed, in the worst maritime disaster in North America.
On November 1, 1865, a court was appointed to try Captain Speed at Vicksburg. Although the government called several witnesses to testify, the prosecution failed to compel the appearance of the key witness, Lieutenant Colonel Hatch. A request by the prosecutor to the Secretary of War to have Hatch arrested and brought to Vicksburg to testify went unanswered. In June 1866, the military court found Speed guilty on all charges and sentenced him to be dismissed from the army. The verdict, however, was later reversed by the judge advocate general, and Captain Speed was honourably discharged.
With Speed’s exoneration, the military closed the books on the Sultana tragedy. In the end, no one was held responsible for the disaster. Speed stayed in Vicksburg, becoming a criminal court judge and a powerful voice in Mississippi politics.
The growth of US railroads deprived the steamboats of much of their traffic, but many companies remained in business transporting vacationers. One such company was the Knickerbocker Steamship Company of New York. This company was the owner of the steamboat General Slocum, which had been built in 1891 by Divine Burtis, Jr., Brooklyn and named after the Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. She was a wooden vessel of about 1,200 tons; 235 feet long, 37 feet 6 inches beam, propelled by 31 feet diameter side-paddlewheels powered by three steam engines, giving her a maximum speed of 16 knots. The ship was usually manned by a crew of 22, including Captain William H. Van Schaick and two pilots and was rated to carry 3,000 passengers.
Photo 2: General Slocum
On Wednesday, 15 June 1904, the ship had been chartered by the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany district of Manhattan. This was an annual event for the congregation, which had made the trip for 17 consecutive years. Over 1,300 passengers, mostly women and children, boarded General Slocum, which was to sail up the East River and then eastward across the Long Island Sound to Locust Grove, a picnic site in Eatons Neck, Long Island.
The ship got underway at 09:30. As it was passing East 90th Street, a fire started in a storage compartment in the forward section, possibly caused by a discarded cigarette or match. The fire was first noticed at 10:00 – eyewitnesses reported the initial blaze at several locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable liquids or a cabin filled with gasoline. Captain Van Schaick was only notified ten minutes after the fire was discovered – a twelve year old boy had tried to warn him earlier, but was not believed.
On board General Slocum, the situation rapidly became hopeless as no effort had been made to maintain or replace safety equipment and the crew had never had a fire drill. The ship's fire hoses were rotten and fell apart when the crew attempted to use them to put out the fire. Although the ship had lifeboats and life preservers, survivors reported that the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands. The lifeboats were so securely lashed up as to be inaccessible. The passengers were mainly of women and children, most of whom could not swim.
Desperate mothers placed life jackets on their children and threw them into the water, only to watch in horror as their children sank instead of remaining afloat. It has been suggested that many of the life preservers had been filled with cheap and less effective granulated cork and brought up to the regulation weight by the inclusion of the iron weights. Canvas covers, rotted with age, split and scattered the powdered cork. Managers of the company (Nonpareil Cork Works) were indicted, but not convicted.
Captain Van Schaick mishandled the situation. He decided to continue the ship on its course rather than run her aground, or stop at a nearby landing stage. (Van Schaick would later argue he was attempting to prevent the fire from spreading to riverside buildings and oil tanks.) By going into headwinds and failing to immediately beach the ship, he actually fanned the fire. The ship’s wooden construction, coated with very flammable paint, helped the fire to spread out of control.
Some passengers attempted to jump into the river, but clothing of the day made swimming almost impossible for women. Many died when the decks of the steamboat collapsed into the fire; others were killed by the still-turning paddles as they attempted to escape over the side.
By the time General Slocum was beached at North Brother Island, just off the Bronx shore, an estimated 1,021 people had been killed by fire or drowning, with 321 survivors. Two of the crew members died and the Captain lost the sight in an eye due to the fire. Reports indicate that Van Schaick deserted the ship as soon as it ran aground, jumping into a nearby tug, along with several crew. Some claimed his jacket was hardly rumpled. He was hospitalized at Lebanon Hospital.
Seven people were indicted by a Federal grand jury after the disaster: the Captain; two inspectors; and the president, secretary, treasurer and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted. He was found guilty of criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. The jury could not reach a verdict on the charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He spent three years and six months at Sing Sing prison before he was paroled. President Theodore Roosevelt declined to pardon Captain Van Schaick, and he was not released until the federal parole board, under the William Howard Taft administration, voted to free him on August 26, 1911. He was pardoned by President Taft on December 19, 1912, and died in 1927.
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a relatively small fine, despite evidence they may have falsified inspection records. The disaster resulted in federal and state regulation to improve the emergency equipment on passenger ships.
The Eastland was built by the Jenks Ship Building Company, Port Huron, Michigan and delivered to the Michigan Steamship Company in 1903. She was a ship of 1,961 tons; 265 feet long, 38 feet 2 inches beam, 19 feet 6 inches draught; twin screw powered by two triple expansion steam engines, 1,750 shp, giving a contract speed of 16.5 knots. The ship’s authorised passenger capacity varied during her career, but at the time of the disaster was 2,500.
Eastland was the largest passenger ship that Jenks had built, as well as being the first passenger ship they had built for 20 years. The contractual speed requirement caused problems for the ship’s designer, Sidney G. Jenks, leading to the adoption of a very low beam for a Great Lakes steamer, but despite this the ship failed her first speed trials. The speed seems to have been eventually achieved by removing the ships external keel and fitting an elaborate water ballasting system that enabled her draught to be quickly adjusted by 6 feet. Running the ship at reduced draught enabled her to achieve a higher speed.
Photo 3: Eastland in the livery of one of her interim owners - the Chicago-South Haven Line
After Eastland entered service she soon developed a reputation for being unwieldy, cranky and for her questionable stability. She changed hands several times and at one stage the authorities limited her passenger license to 653 people. Her owners removed some of her upper-works and added permanent ballast in an attempt to rectify her faults. On 1 June 1914, Eastland was sold to the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St. Joseph, Michigan, for employment on their service between the two cities incorporated in the company’s name and for excursion work. Considerable modifications were made to the vessel. More upper deck space was added and a complete set of lifeboats fitted to comply with the federal Seaman's Act of 1915, which was passed because of the Titanic disaster. Their additional weight, ironically, probably made the Eastland more dangerous as it worsened the ship’s already severe stability problems. A further operational hazard was the company’s procedure of pumping out the vessel’s ballast tanks to enable her to berth in the Chicago River. Despite all of these problems Eastland’s new owners persuaded the Chicago government inspectors to increase her maximum capacity to 2,500. It was later alleged that bribery influenced this decision.
Photo 4: Eastland in her final ownership
On 24 July 1915, Eastland and the Great Lakes passenger steamers Theodore Roosevelt, Petoskey, Racine and Maywood were chartered to take an estimated seven thousand employees from Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. This was a major event in the lives of the workers, many of whom could not take holidays.
The Eastland was scheduled to be the first of the vessels to leave and the first arrivals began boarding, on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets, around 06.30. By 07:10 officials decided Eastland was filled to capacity and they began directing passengers over the Clark Street Bridge to the steamer Theodore Roosevelt.
Eastland was packed with 2,408 passengers and 72 crew. Many passengers were standing on the open upper decks; although many other passengers had moved below decks, to warm up before the departure on the relatively cool and damp morning. The ship began to list slightly to port (away from the wharf) and the crew attempted to stabilize the ship by admitting water to its ballast tanks. During the next 15 minutes a tug arrived to assist Eastland away from the quay. It is thought that the tug may have begun pulling before Eastland cast off, or the number of passengers on the port side of the upper deck increased to watch a passing canoe race on the river side of the ship, or possibly a combination of the two events overpowered the ships fragile stability. At 07:28 Eastland began to inexorably roll to port.
There was a mad panic as screaming people tried to scramble to the higher side of the ship, but in four to six minutes Eastland rolled completely onto her side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet below the surface. Hundreds were trapped inside the vessel by the sudden rollover and the inrushing water; others were crushed by heavy furniture, including pianos, bookcases, and tables.
Although the ship was only 20 feet from the wharf and in spite of the quick response by the crews of nearby vessels, which came alongside the hull to allow those stranded on the capsized ship to leap to safety, a total of 844 passengers and 4 crew members died in the disaster. Many of the passengers who were killed were young women and children.
Photo 5: Survivors of the Eastland disaster scrambling to evacuate the ship
The exact cause of the disaster was never established. After months of hearings, authorities officially blamed an obscure engineer who they said neglected to properly fill the ship's ballast tanks. An Illinois grand jury levelled indictments of negligence and manslaughter against Captain Harry Pedersen, chief engineer Joseph M. Erickson, two steamboat inspectors and an official of the Indiana Transportation Company; but a federal judge rejected the petitions for lack of sufficient evidence. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed, all without success. In 1935, twenty years after the disaster, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, upheld a lower-court ruling that the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company was not liable for the deaths.
Some ferry disasters in Australia and New Zealand
The vessels included in this group include ships engaged upon coastal and inter-island services. Thankfully, because of the much lower population levels in Australasia, fatalities are lower than those incurred in the other geographical areas covered in this Article
Sample Losses of small Australasian Ferries
||McMerken, Blackwood & Co
||W H Smith & Sons
||Union SS Co
||Union SS Co
||Adelaide SS Co
||Adelaide SS Co
||Sydney Harbour Ferry
||Union SS Co
The Union Steamship Company of New Zealand Ltd was formed in 1875 and soon came to dominate the New Zealand coastal trades, in addition to providing important links to Australia, USA, Canada and the Pacific Islands. The company acquired Tararua in 1878, when it took over the fleet and the Melbourne – New Zealand services of McMecken, Blackwood & Co.
Tararua was built by Gourlay Brothers, Dundee in 1864. She was an iron screw steamer of 828 tons; 226 feet 7 inches (oa) 208 feet (bp) long, 27 feet beam; single screw, powered by a two cylinder compound steam engine of 160 nhp.
Tararua sailed from Port Chalmers, Dunedin, South Island, at 17:00 on 28 April 1881, bound for Bluff, Hobart and Melbourne, with 111 passengers and a crew of 40 on-board. Steering close to land on a dark night, the ship passed the lighthouse at Nugget Point, south of Dunedin, just before 01:30 on 29 April, with clear skies overhead but a haze over the land. Captain Francis George Garrard turned the ship west at 04:00, believing he had cleared the southernmost point of South Island, New Zealand. After breakers were heard at 04:25, he steered away West by South-half-South for 20 minutes before heading west again. At around 05:00, breakers were again heard, Captain Garrard tried to turn the Tararua out to sea, but as she was coming around her stern struck on some rocks, breaking the propeller and unshipping the rudder; the ship had struck the Otara Reef, which runs 8 miles out from Waipapa Point.
Passengers crowded the deck in confusion. The crew tried to launch the lifeboats, but were slowed in their efforts by panicking passengers. After the first lifeboat was holed on launching, it was decided to await daybreak before taking any further action, other than firing distress rockets and the signal cannons. The second lifeboat was successfully launched at 06:00 and carried a volunteer passenger close enough in for him to swim to the shore and raise the alarm. A farmhand rode 35 miles to Wyndham, to telegraph the news. When the message reached Dunedin at 13:00 however, it was not marked urgent and it was not until 17:00 that the Union SS Co’s Hawea left port with supplies.
Meanwhile the wind and waves had risen. Around noon, six passengers who were strong swimmers were taken close to shore; three managed to get through the surf, with the help of the earlier volunteer, but the others drowned. On a return trip, one man attempted to get ashore on the reef, but had to give up; another three drowned trying to swim to the beach. Another boat capsized trying to get a line through the surf. Eight of its nine crew survived, but the boat was damaged and the locals who had gathered on the shore, could not repair it. During the day a further seven managed to reach safety, but the remaining boat could no longer reach the ship, due to the increasingly strong waves and stood out to sea in hope of attracting a passing ship to help. Tararua took over 20 hours to sink, with the stern going under around 14:00 and the rest of the ship disappearing overnight. The last cries of the victims were heard at 02:35 on 30 April. Only one man managed to swim safely from the ship to shore overnight. Of the 151 passengers and crew on board Tararua, only the 20 who had made it to shore survived.
Photo 6: A contemporary engraving of the wreck of Tararua
A Court of Inquiry found that the disaster was primarily caused by the ship's captain failing to establish his correct position at 04:00 on 28 April, before changing course to head west. An able-bodied seaman was also blamed for not keeping a proper lookout, from which breakers would have been heard in time to avoid the reef. The court recommended that steamers should carry enough lifebelts for all their passengers (there were only twelve on Tararua) and that a lighthouse should be built at Waipapa Point. The lighthouse began operating in 1884.
The Adelaide Steamship Company was formed by a group of South Australian businessmen in 1875. Their initial aim was to control the transport of goods between Adelaide and Melbourne and profit from the need for an efficient and comfortable passenger service. For the next 100 years of its life, the main activities of the company were conventional shipping operations on the Australian coast, of primary products, consumer cargoes and extensive passenger services.
The passenger steamer Koombana was built for the company by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Linthouse, Glasgow in 1908. She was a ship of 3,668 GRT; 340 feet 2 inches long, 48 feet 3 inches beam; single screw powered by a triple expansion steam engine, 423 nhp giving 12.5 knots.
Photo 7: Koombana
Koombana left Port Hedland (Western Australia) on the morning of 20 March 1912 for Broome (WA) a voyage of about 300 miles. There was a fresh north easterly blowing as she departed, following the steamer Bullarra, which was also engaged in the north-west Australian passenger and cargo trade. Before sailing, the captain had reported a falling barometer and suggested that the voyage may take longer than normal. The two ships altered course and they became separated several hours after departing, as a heavy north easterly gale set in. The storm increased and Bullarra suffered damage, but was able to limp into Cossack. She later returned to Port Hedland, minus her funnel, reporting that the eye of the cyclone had passed directly over. Koombana exchanged signals with the steamer Montoro on 21 March, but was not seen again. She had 125 people on board, including 48 passengers.
After the ship became overdue in Broome, several days later, public concern was raised and a search organised. On 3 April, one of the search ships steamed through a quantity of wreckage, about 25 nautical miles north of Bedout Island and 55 miles offshore. Among the items seen were a lifeboat and a stateroom door identified as being from Koombana.
On board Koombana was a Broome resident and pearl dealer, Abraham de Vahl Davies, who had just purchased a famous black pearl, called the Roseate Pearle, for £20,000. Legend has it that seven of its previous owners died after acquiring the jewel.
Any loss of life at sea is a tragedy for the friends and families of the victims. Although the loss of life in the sinking of Wahine was thankfully lower than many of the disasters listed in these articles, the event became notorious outside the maritime world, because it happened to a new ship in an age where many think that such disasters have been eliminated and because it took place in the full glare of media attention. It was also yet another example of a ferry being lost because of the free surface effect of water accumulation on the vehicle deck.
The Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand announced its proposal to build a new ferry for its inter-island service in 1961, but tenders were not called until 1963. Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd was awarded the contract in February 1964, with contractual completion set for 31 October 1965. The shipbuilder was in difficulties however and when Wahine was launched on 14 July 1965 it warned that the delivery date would not be met. Matters came to a head when the shipbuilder was placed in receivership on 15 October 1965. The contract to build Wahine was terminated as a result and all work ceased on the ship. The Union Steam SS Co moved to find another ship builder, but this became unnecessary when a new company, called Fairfields (Glasgow) Ltd, was formed by the receivers in November 1965. Work to complete Wahine was financed by the Royal Bank of Scotland, after a fresh contract was signed on 6 January 1966. A succession of promised delivery dates was not met however, but she was eventually taken to sea for the very first time on 27 May. Like all Union SS Co’s post-war inter-island ferries Wahine’s machinery arrangements were unusually (and probably unnecessarily) complex, so the series of technical problems experienced on sea trials was not too surprising. Completion of the new ship was now nearly eight months behind schedule and Union SS Co was satisfied that the company's technical staff could rectify the remaining problems, once the ship had reached New Zealand; so it was decided to accept Wahine on 18 June 1966.
The new ship measured 8,944 GRT; 488 feet 9 inches (LOA) 440 feet (BP) with a beam of 72 feet 7 inches and a draught of 17 feet. She had twin screws. The machinery arrangement consisting of two AEI turbo-alternators, each with a steam turbine driving an alternator generating a maximum of 6,900 kW, which were used solely to provide electricity to drive the ship’s propulsion motors. These were located in a separate propulsion motor room, immediately aft of the main turbo-alternator room. Two double unit, AEI electric motors each with a maximum rating of 9,000 shp were coupled directly to their propeller shafts and able to function independently of the other. The ship’s contract speed was 22 knots, but the maximum achieved on sea trials was 21.7 knots.
Photo 8: A Union SS Co publicity post-card of Wahine
Three separate AEI Auxiliary turbo alternators, each generated 650kW of electricity for the ship's hotel, lighting and domestic needs, plus the ship's four lateral thruster units and there was also an emergency Paxman diesel generator, located on the boat deck. Wahine had a maximum capacity for 200 cars; 924 overnight or 1,100 day crossing passengers; plus 126 crew. Her main vehicle deck was accessed through the ship’s stern door and extended the full width of the ship. It was 380 feet long, from Wahine's stern to within 90 feet of the ship's bow. When at her loaded draught the main vehicle deck was approximately five feet above the waterline at the ship's stern and 3 feet 6 inches above the waterline amidships.
Photo 9: The main vehicle deck in Wahine
The Union SS Co had good reason to be disappointed with the performance of her builders. Wahine had failed to reach her contract speed of 22 knots and the lateness of her completion meant she had not been ready, as intended, for the 1965 Christmas holiday peak season. Also, numerous leaks and defects were found in the ship’s high pressure steam plant and these had to be rectified by the company’s own engineering staff following Wahine’s arrival in Wellington. Problems continued for the remainder of 1966 and at one point a special team of engineers was assigned to the ship to help deal with them. All of the faults were traced to inferior workmanship. Initially the Union SS Co sought £602,000 compensation from Fairfields (Glasgow) Ltd for breach of contract. In view of the continued parlous state of the builder’s finances, compensation of only £50,000 was finally agreed in late March 1967, after many months of negotiation and subsequently paid by Fairfields.
On 9 April 1968 Wahine prepared to leave Lyttelton (South Island) for a routine overnight voyage to Wellington (North Island) with 610 passengers – plus 1 stowaway; 123 crew; 75 cars; 4 trucks; 24 “Seafreighters” (trailer mounted general cargo pallets) and 114 bags of mail. Her regular master, Captain Gordon Robertson was in command of the ship.
She was scheduled to depart Lyttleton at 20:00, but was delayed by the late arrival of the connecting express passenger train from Invercargill and Dunedin. At 20:30 the New Zealand Meteorological Service weather forecast, for the next 24 hours, was received by radio aboard Wahine. A storm was expected, but there was no indication that it would be any worse than those often experienced by vessels crossing the Cook Strait. Wahine sailed at 20:43 and by 05:00 the following morning she was in Cook Strait, on schedule for her 07:00 advertised arrival in Wellington. The Radio Officer called up Beacon Hill Signal Station by VHF radio telephone. He requested and was given, weather advice for the harbour entrance area: winds were southerly and blowing at 40 to 50 knots. At Pipitea Wharf in the inner harbour, near the Inter-Island Terminal, the wind was up to 60 knots and a tug was made available to assist the ship in berthing if needed. These conditions had been previously been experienced by Wahine at Wellington without trouble.
At 06:00 Wahine was correctly lined up with the navigation lights inside Wellington harbour that mark the entrance channel. Wind and sea conditions were unchanged. Three minutes later visibility decreased to approximately one mile. Captain Robertson ordered "stand-by" on the engines because of the reduced visibility and ordered the Third Officer, Mr Noblet, to report immediately to the bridge, ahead of his usual time at 6.10 am. Wahine began veering away from her correct heading as she came up to Pencarrow Head, which marks the start of the entrance channel into Wellington harbour. To regain full steering control, Captain Robertson ordered "half ahead both engines", reducing Wahine's speed from 15.5 to about 10 knots. The wind remained steady from the south-south-west at 50 knots.
Photo 10: The sketch map of Wellington Harbour published in the Police report of the disaster
Visibility reduced further at 06:10, down to half a mile. Wahine continued to hold her correct course as she steamed past Pencarrow Head. Captain Robertson looked at the radar screen to confirm the ship's position, but found that the ship’s only radar was malfunctioning. (Modern passenger ferries have at least two radar systems) He ordered all navigating officers to the bridge to provide maximum coverage. With Pencarrow Head receding astern and the light at the southern end of Barrett Reef off the ship's port beam, Wahine again began veering away from her correct course, turning to port. The Quartermaster immediately turned the wheel to starboard to bring her back on course. To help bring the ship back on her correct course, Captain Robertson ordered "full ahead both engines", with the wheel hard-to-starboard. The ship now increased to full speed.
At 06:14, with Wahine still refusing to answer her helm, she was struck across her stern by a huge rogue wave, unseen in the darkness, rolling the ship violently to starboard. Captain Robertson and all of the bridge personnel (except for Quartermaster who clung to the wheel) were flung headlong across the bridge into the starboard wing. The great storm of 10 April 1968 had struck. It came totally without warning and with catastrophic force, overwhelming Wahine while she was off-course and lying almost beam-on to the winds and seas, at the narrowest part of the entrance channel with Barrett Reef close-by on the port bow.
Two violent storms had merged over Wellington, creating a single extra-tropical cyclone storm that was the worst recorded in New Zealand's history. Cyclone Giselle was heading south, after causing much damage in the north of the North Island. It hit Wellington at the same time as another storm, which had driven up the West Coast of the South Island from Antarctica. The winds in Wellington were the strongest ever recorded. At one point they reached a speed of 150 knots and in one Wellington suburb alone ripped the roofs off 98 houses.
Captain Robertson next tried to turn the Wahine to port, to head back out into Cook Strait. She still refused to answer her helm or engines, in huge frenzied seas and in hurricane winds. Visibility in the darkness and torrential rain was nil. It was impossible for the Captain to determine precisely where the ship was in the entrance channel until 06:41, when the flashing orange light of the buoy marking the southern extremity of Barrett Reef was sighted in front of the ship. Captain Robertson gave last desperate engine orders to try and turn Wahine, all of which prove futile. Second Officer Shanks on the starboard wing of the bridge called "rocks ahead" and then "rocks astern." Captain Robertson ordered all water-tight doors to be closed and instructed the ship’s Radio Officer to send an SOS distress message.
Wahine was carried sideways onto the southern extremity of Barrett Reef, striking the western side of Pinnacle Rock with her starboard quarter. The starboard propeller and tail shaft were snapped off; the starboard rudder bent, split and crushed up into the ship. All Wahine's stern compartments below the main vehicle deck immediately flooded and sea water filled the propulsion motor room. All steering and propulsion was lost. Wahine was driven northwards by the hurricane winds and seas, over the jagged rocks along the eastern edge of Barrett Reef, incurring extensive damage to her underwater hull. Captain Robertson ordered Chief Officer Luly to inform Beacon Hill Signal Station by VHF radio telephone and then to release the ship's anchors.
Daybreak came at 06:46. Wahine's Chief Engineer reported to Captain Robertson that all compartments aft of the main turbo-alternator room were flooded. Numerous compartments forward also contained water, including the passenger accommodation on F deck. All propulsion and steering was disabled.
The pressure of the hurricane winds and the amount of water on the foredeck, made it impossible to open the normal access door to the windlass. Chief Officer Luly and Wahine's Bosun, Mr G H Hampson, made their way in these conditions across the exposed roof of Wahine's forward superstructure, then climbed down to the foredeck, where they crawled forward to the windlass at the bows of the ship. By 07:10 Luly and Hampson had let go both anchors, just as Wahine was blown off Barrett Reef at its northern end. She was now back in deep water at the eastern entrance to Chaffers Passage. The ship started moving; drifting north, stern-first, dragging her anchors under the force of the wind.
Chief Officer Luly and Bosun Hampson returned to the bridge from the Wahine's foredeck at 07:30. Captain Robertson ordered them to prepare the ship's lifeboats and life rafts. At this time Wahine's Purser reported to Captain Robertson that the muster of all 610 passengers and checking of all passenger cabins had been completed. Chief Officer Luly reported back to Captain Robertson that all lifeboats and life rafts were ready at 07:50 and was ordered to go below and make a full assessment of the flooding inside the ship. Third Officer Noblet was also ordered by Captain Robertson to go below to the main vehicle deck, make a quick inspection of the stern door for any leakage and report back to the bridge. The stern door was undamaged, but Mr Noblet saw that water was finding its way onto the main vehicle deck. On returning to the bridge he advised Captain Robertson that there was flooding, approximately 12 inches deep, at the after end of the main vehicle deck.
Wahine was now sheering out of control from side to side on her anchor cables, being blown toward the rocks of Point Dorset. At 08:30 Captain Robertson ordered the evacuation of the engine compartments, as he feared the ship would be driven ashore on the next swing to the west. Entirely by good fortune this did not happen; Wahine drifted slowly past Point Dorset and by 09:37 was clear. The harbour tug Tapuhi and pilot launch Tiakina came out to provide assistance; they were however forced to run for shelter in Worser Bay, north of Seatoun as the winds and seas continued to deteriorate. The storm reached its peak between 10:00 and 11:00.
Captain Robertson advised the Union SS Co at 10:00: "Forward and after thrust compartments flooded also steering flat flooded and water in engine room." A few minutes later he added: "Flood control in hand. Steeple (Beacon) bearing north 2 degrees 3 cables." Captain Robertson made no mention of the water on the main vehicle deck, an omission which was afterwards determined to be a serious error of judgement on his part.
Photo 11: Fourth Engineer Philip Bennett, taking a photo of the water on the Wahine main vehicle deck
Even if Captain Robertson had better appreciated the risk from the water on the main vehicle deck, there was very little that anybody aboard Wahine could have done about it. The designers’ concentration on containing vehicle fire hazards, had led them to ignore the equally great Free Surface Effect risks. The ship was not equipped with portable water pumps. A few of these, set to work on the main vehicle deck, could have cleared the flooding. There were big fixed pumps located in the boiler and turbo-alternators rooms, but the hoses and couplings for these were all stored in a locker inside the propulsion motor room, which was completely flooded.
The doors along the sides of the main vehicle deck, which gave access to the compartments in the bottom of the ship, were not water-tight. Nor were the ventilation trunks that allowed air to circulate into these lower compartments from the main vehicle deck. This was all due to shortcomings in the ship's design. Water from the flooded lower compartments came up onto the main vehicle deck via these doors and trunks. In the floor of main vehicle deck were man-holes through which this flood water could have been drained to the pumps in the boiler and turbo-alternators rooms, but the tools needed to open these man-holes were also stored in the flooded propulsion motor room. The primary means for removing water off the vehicle deck was through a system of small scuppers, but the outlets in the ship's hull for the scuppers were by then well below her waterline. The Chief Engineer and his men started work at 10:30 attempting to clear and contain the water on the main vehicle deck. Chief Officer Luly, Bosun Hampson and a party of seamen joined them. The flooding on the main vehicle deck shorted out the electrical switchboard adjacent to the stern door at 11:00, cutting power to the vehicle deck lights and to the mooring winches at Wahine's stern.
With a slight improvement in the weather, the tug Tapuhi ventured out from Worser Bay and reached Wahine at 11:30, manoeuvred into a position just off her stern and stood by to receive a messenger rope by line-throwing gun from Wahine. This was successfully fired by Chief Officer Luly. A four-and-a-half inches thick steel towing wire was hauled manually onto the Wahine's stern from Tapuhi and made fast (there was no power on the mooring winches). Towing commenced at 11:50, but at 12:00 the wire parted before Wahine was brought under control. The broken towing wire was jettisoned and Tapuhi withdrew to the shelter of Worser Bay to prepare a second towing wire.
Wahine's stern was now directly off Steeple Rock and coming closer with each swing about the anchors. To add to this fresh crisis, Captain Robertson now observed that Wahine, instead of coming promptly back upright, was beginning to hang to starboard on each roll. This was an indication that the Free Surface Effect was increasing. The Captain ordered Third Officer Noblet to go below and check that all portholes and vents along the ship's hull are closed.
The Wellington Harbour Board pilot launch Tiakina, manoeuvred alongside Wahine at 12:15 and Captain Galloway, Deputy Harbour Master, was able to jump aboard the ferry. He joined Captain Robertson on Wahine’s bridge and offered his assistance. Wahine drifted very slowly to within a few metres of Steeple Rock, but as with Point Dorset, she again went past and avoided going aground. After being upright all morning, the ship has now begun to list very slightly to starboard.
Still sheering out of control on her anchor cables Wahine drifted into shallow water just north of Steeple Rock and at 12:30 she touched the harbour bottom. This caused more water to enter the ship resulting in a change in her fore-and-aft trim and she went deeper by the bow. Flood water on the main vehicle deck ran into the forward garage, which up to this point had been dry. Roughly 80% of the main vehicle deck was now covered with sea water moving freely about. Captain Robertson left the bridge to inspect the vehicle deck and on his return at 12:50 the list was worsening, so that by 13:00 when Tapuhi returned it had reached 15 degrees.
Two further attempts to secure a tow rope failed, but Wahine’s list was now becoming so alarming that continued attempts to tow the ferry to safety were abandoned. By 13:20 the list had reached 25 degrees; then the easterly set of the newly out-flowing tide, turned Wahine on her anchors, so that she swung slowly round, until her bows were facing Steeple Rock by 13:25. She was now lying broadside to the wind and seas, so that her starboard side formed a sheltered lee and her wild sheering movement stopped for the first time since coming off Barrett Reef. Captain Robertson seized this first moment of comparative calm to abandon ship. Only four lifeboats could be launched. One lifeboat was swamped when it hit the water and people were lost into the sea. Some managed to hold onto the boat as it drifted across the harbour to the eastern shore. Other boats were also swamped but many of the passengers were able to reach rescue boats, which by now were surrounding the vessel.
Photo 12: An AP Wire photograph of the first lifeboats leaving Wahine
By 13:55 all passengers had been evacuated and the ship’s list had past 30 degrees allowing more water to reach the vehicle deck from Wahine’s tonnage openings. These were common features in ships built up to the 1960s. A ship’s gross tonnage is a measurement of the volume of the permanently enclosed space within a ship, with 100 cubic feet being one ton. Net tonnage is the ship’s gross tonnage, less the space occupied by the machinery, crew’s accommodation, store rooms and other non-revenue earning areas. Port dues were based on the net tonnage figure. Openings were made in the sides of ships that only had canvas covers for weather protection. In Wahine these reduced the permanently enclosed space and reduced the fees paid every time she entered Lyttleton and Wellington. They were located beside the car ramps that connected the upper garage to the main vehicle deck. Once the list got to about 30 degrees, water poured through these openings, flowed into the upper garage and down the car ramps onto the main vehicle deck. There was no provision for sealing the car ramps and the upper garage from the main vehicle deck.
Photo 13: Wahine berthed at Greenock, on the Clyde, between sea trials. The openings of the stern mooring deck can be seen on either side of the stern door. The port tonnage opening is midships, on the same deck and is visible next to the dockside rail-crane; above the accommodation ladder.
Captain Robertson was the last person to leave the ship, jumping into the sea from Wahine's stern at 14:10. Very gradually Wahine rolled onto her starboard side, floated for a minute or two in this position, before sinking to the harbour floor at 14:30; 800 feet south-east of Steeple Beacon. By then the first of the survivors were reaching the western shore, but the wind and tide carried many of the survivors across to the rocky, unpopulated eastern side of the harbour.
On the eastern side, the only road was blocked by land slips caused by the storm and was also impassable because of the huge seas breaking over it. Some of the survivors reached the shore only to die of exhaustion or exposure. Fifty-one people died at the time, and two others died later from injuries sustained in the shipwreck; fifty-three victims in all. Most of the victims were middle-aged or elderly, along with several children. All died from drowning, exposure, or injuries after being battered on the rocks; 566 passengers were saved, as were 110 crew.
Ten weeks after the shipwreck, a court of inquiry found that errors of judgement had been made, but stressed that the conditions at the time had been difficult and dangerous. Free surface effect caused the ferry to finally capsize, after the build-up of water on the vehicle deck. The report of the inquiry stated that more lives would almost certainly have been lost if the order to abandon ship had been given earlier or later. The storm was so strong that rescue craft would not have been able to safely help the passengers any earlier than about midday.
The author is indebted to Murray Robinson, the godson of Captain Gordon Robertson, for the information provided in his highly detailed and well illustrated website: -
A complete Bibliography for all of these Articles is given at the end of Part 12.
Many of the photographs used to illustrate these articles are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. Many others are from Wikimedia Commons or are in the public domain. The individual photographs used in Part 11 are from the following sources: -
Frontispiece - Ships Nostalgia - Bruce Carson
- Wikimedia Commons
- Wikimedia Commons
- Wikimedia Commons
- Google Images – UrbanSophist
- Wikimedia Commons
- Wikimedia Commons
- Ships Nostalgia – KPC
- Ships Nostalgia – Emmanuel Makarios
- Ships Nostalgia – Emmanuel Makarios
- Ships Nostalgia – gadgee
- Ships Nostalgia – japottinger
Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson