The wreck of the S S Wairarapa

Historic shipwreck on Aotea Great Barrier Island

It’s two weeks ago and I am on a boat heading to a small beach on the edge of a remote bay on Aotea/Great Barrier Island. A Pōhutukawa tree fills the seaward side of the bay: in bloom and gloriously arched across a deep blue sky. We jump out on the sand and pull up the boat, looking up at a small house in the cove painted by the afternoon sun; quiet, unpeopled, and breathe a ‘thank you’ to the occupiers who tend this place with so much care. Through the lower branches of the tree, up a steep bank, a white picket fence is visible.

This the resting place for some of those who lost their lives when the SS Wairarapa wrecked against the cliffs of Miner’s Head, the northern tip of Great Barrier in October 1894. New Zealand’s coastline has many wrecks, and each is a unique tragedy.

The board beside the communal grave in Katherine’s Bay begins the story with “At 8 minutes past midnight…”

Before the age of modern navigation equipment, shipwrecks often happened at night. The sticky-out bits of our islands are not given proper attention and ship after ship smacked into them to their peril. In the 1800s the crews relied heavily on visual bearings, compass headings and/or dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is the system by which the captain reckons he knows where he’s come from, how far and in which direction he is going and therefore where he is, which forms the basis for the next reckoning. Lots of room for the interpretation of the word “dead”. You’d think possibilities of mishap arising from the compound errors on a dark night and in thick fog would have unnerved the captain of the Wairarapa, but unhappily for the 271 souls aboard, Captain McIntosh barrelled along at top speed of nearly fourteen knots and took no advice from his crew to slow down. And he was way off course.

Why he was so awry is not known. It could be the iron load in the ship’s hull was playing havoc with the compass, or he didn’t check the compass. Their last sight of land was Spirit’s Bay when the fog closed in and got thicker through the afternoon. Sometimes they couldn’t see a mile ahead. They were “running on the log” —literally tossing a bit of wood on a string overboard and counting how fast it played out to determine speed. The officers were uneasy but the captain did not slow, and the Wairarapa was too far to the north and east when she turned south for Auckland.

Just after midnight, the Wairarapa smashed onto rocks at the base of Miner’s Head, where she remained fast, buffeted by heavy seas. The crew had no idea where they were. They were wrecked and sinking. The Magisterial Enquiry, after questioning surviving passengers, crew, expert witnesses, engineers and a local lighthouse keeper, determined that the fault lay entirely with the captain. Captain McIntosh, who was sober by all accounts, stayed with the ship as the chaos of rescue went on, and then was washed overboard and lost.

Two life boats were freed and launched as the ship listed and the crew fought through the dark hours to get others away but they were inaccessible or smashed. People were picked off by waves and washed over the rails. There were sixteen crated horses on deck who broke free and panicked in the churning water, thrashing helpless passengers who fell from the tipping deck and quickly drowned. A young witness reports life rafts with people clinging to them with no one in charge. He says:  “I went back, a wave came and washed me to leeward. There I met a woman with a baby, and gave my lifebelt to her. The stewardess, Mrs McDonald, helped me back to windward. The woman and baby were both drowned.” Another stewardess, Miss McQuaid, reportedly gave up her life jacket—and her life—in a vain attempt to save a young child.

The witness says he climbed in to the rigging where he spent the night, pushing against the men there before him to climb higher. “They would not move an inch, they could not in fact, so I crawled over them and got into the cross-trees.” He stayed the night and next day in the rigging as crew and passengers worked together to get a line from the ship to shore.

The first officer reports: We sent Miss Flavell first, the Salvation Army lady. From the starboard rigging to the nearest rock was 20 yards. Miss Flavell got just touching the rocks when she let go and was drowned before our eyes. … It was the back wash that did it. Two or three others got ashore by means of the line. Then we made a bowline of the signal halliard and put it under their arms. When Miss Williams got on to the rocks she let go and the line slipped from underneath one arm and caught her neck. She could not regain the rope and she was killed against the rock by the heavy seas.

The inquiry recorded “It was a sad fact that many of the lost were women and children. Perhaps one of the saddest things in connection with this catastrophe was that out of the whole lot only one child was saved, and perhaps one of the most significant things in regard to the calamity was that not a single mother who had a young child with her was amongst the saved.”

I stand at the graveside for a while under the pōhutukawa. The air is warm and smells of earth and sea and we’re a hundred and twenty eight years from the tragedy that was New Zealand’s third worse maritime disaster (yes, it’s been worse). Here the metamorphosis from the worst place in the world to surely one of the loveliest has left the Wairarapa spirits peaceful.

The notice board explains how locals, both Ngati Wai Māori and Pakeha, helped at the wreck and cared for survivors with food and shelter. Also recorded is the bravery of the three stewardesses who were praised for their selflessness—“they preferred death to neglect or dishonour.” Later, I learn their names and want to record them here: Annie McQuaid, Elizabeth Grindrod, and Charlotte McDonald.


UPDATE (Can’t really call it a NEWS FLASH after 128 years but very exciting). I’ve just received a wonderfully salty book with a picture of our heroes, Charlotte McDonald and Annie McQuaid. I wished they’d lived to tell their stories–imagine a night out with these girls!

Photo from the Museum of Wellington, City and Sea 7934, and reproduced from Crew Culture, New Zealand seafarers under sail and steam, Neill Atkinson, Te Papa Press 2001.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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