Wellington Harbour is a magnificent port, but the entrance is notorious, considered one of the most difficult and dangerous to navigate in bad weather. It is about 1,200 yards wide, but divided by a ribbon of rocks located almost in the middle, named Barrett Reef, after Richard Barrett, a one-time whaler who was engaged by the New Zealand Company in 1839 to act as an interpreter with the Maoris. In good weather the rocks can be seen quite clearly, but in poor conditions they are very hard to locate, and ships entering the port have to proceed with extreme care along the narrow channel on the eastern side


Barrett Reef has claimed many victims, the most famous being the 8,944 gross ton inter-island ferry Wahine, built in 1966 for the overnight service operated by the Union Steam Ship Company between Wellington and Lyttelton, the port for Christchurch. On the night of 9 April 1968, Wahine departed Lyttelton with 610 passengers on board, and early next morning was approaching the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The wind was gale force while the sea was extremely rough, and visibility poor, but the decision was taken to enter the harbour. At 6.41am Wahine was blown out of the channel and struck Barrett Reef. The starboard propeller was sheered off, and with holes in many parts of the hull, in-rushing water caused the port engine to stop, leaving the vessel at the mercy of the storm. Wahine was blown over more rocks and began listing to starboard as she drifted into the harbour, and eventually she rolled over and sank, with the port side still above the water. A total of 51 persons lost their lives in the disaster.

Just over twenty years previously, a similar size passenger vessel, Wanganella, also came to grief on Barrett Reef while entering Wellington Harbour, but the weather conditions and outcome could not have been more different. Australian company Huddart Parker Limited had taken delivery of the 9,576 gross ton motor ship Wanganella at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast in November 1932. The vessel had been ordered by Elder Dempster Line in 1928 and was launched on 17 December 1929 under the name Achimota, being completed in September 1931 and running trials. However, by that time Elder Dempster Line was in serious financial trouble, and could not take delivery of Achimota, which was laid up at the Harland & Wolff yard and offered for sale.

At the same time, Huddart Parker Limited had been making preparations to place an order for a passenger ship to be built for their trans-Tasman service, to replace the ageing Ulimaroa. Instead, they decided to purchase the Achimota, which was renamed Wanganella and fitted with accommodation for 304 first-class and 104-second class passengers. On 12 January 1933, Wanganella departed Sydney on its first voyage, which went to Wellington. For the next eight years, Wanganella operated regular services from Sydney to either Wellington or Auckland, in conjunction with Monowai, and from 1936 Awatea, both owned by the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, and also made some cruises.


Remaining in service after war broke out, on 19 June 1940, Wanganella was approaching Auckland on a voyage from Sydney when a distress message was picked up from the Canadian-Australasian Line passenger liner Niagara, which had left Auckland the previous day bound for Vancouver, but early the following morning struck a mine, and in less than two hours had sunk, leaving survivors in lifeboats. Despite the danger of also hitting a mine, Wanganella rescued 340 of the people in lifeboats and took them to Auckland.

On 19 May 1941, Wanganella was requisitioned and converted into a hospital ship, in which role it gave yeoman service, voyaging 251,611 miles and transporting 13,385 passengers, mostly sick and injured troops. At the end of November 1945, Wanganella was released from military control and handed back to Huddart Parker Limited. Work on refitting Wanganella for a return to commercial service was finally completed in October 1946, and it could now carry 316 first-class and 108-second class passengers, with a crew numbering 160.

Instead of immediately resuming the trans- Tasman trade, Wanganella was dispatched on a round-voyage to Vancouver on behalf of Canadian-Australasian Line, as their liner Aorangi was still undergoing its post-war refit. On 31 October 1946 Wanganella departed Sydney on the longest commercial trip it would ever make. The first port was Auckland, then on to Suva, Honolulu and Vancouver. Leaving Vancouver on 27 November, Wanganella returned to Sydney on Saturday, 28 December, and underwent some further alterations before being returned to the Tasman service.

The post-war Tasman trade would be rather different to that of the late 1930s, as with Awatea having been sunk, and Monowai undergoing a lengthy refit, the entire trans-Tasman service would have to be carried by Wanganella alone. On Thursday, 16 January 1947, Wanganella departed Sydney on its first post-war trans-Tasman voyage, going to Wellington. The ship was fully booked for the voyage, and future departures from both Sydney and New Zealand were booked out for several months ahead. Huddart Parker were very pleased to get the ship back into service, and looking forward to a profitable period, but their joy was to be very short-lived.

On the evening of 19 January, Wanganella entered Cook Strait, and at about 11 pm turned to port to pass through the entrance to Wellington Harbour. This could be quite a tricky passage, especially in bad weather, but on this night the sky was clear and the seas calm. Despite this, at 11.43 pm Wanganella ran aground on Barrett Reef. It later was found that a lighted buoy that marked the front of the reef had been mistaken for the light that guided ships into the harbour. Immediately, attempts at refloating began by putting the engines full astern, but to no avail. It was clear the liner was caught firmly by the rocks and would require extra help to be refloated. Life jackets were distributed to all the passengers and preparations made to lower lifeboats, but as there appeared to be no immediate danger of the ship sinking, they remained on board for the rest of the night. The next morning the harbour ferry Cobar and other small craft took off the passengers in relays, starting with women and children, and 60 non-essential crew. They were brought to Queen’s Wharf, where Wanganella had been due to berth, and the usual Customs inspection was made, while the Cobar returned to the ship to load their luggage.


Once all the passengers were removed, the first attempt to pull Wanganella off the rocks was made by the tug Toia, formerly the St Boniface, a Royal Navy deep-sea rescue tug with a 1200 hp engine that was on loan to the Wellington Harbour Board. When that failed, the Union Steam Ship Company tug Terawhiti, joined forces with Toia, and they tried to free the liner at high tide by alternately pulling on the port and starboard quarter to slew it off the rocks. When they were unsuccessful a third tug, the Kahanui, was sent to the scene from Wanganui.

On 21 January 1947 the Wellington newspaper, The Dominion, carried a lengthy report that included:- The disaster happened quietly, and with the same sense of unreality as this morning’s spectacle of unworried passengers disembarking from 5.10 o’clock onwards from several small vessels. There had been an excellent crossing of the Tasman, apparently a happy augury of the Wanganella’s resumption of her civilian life. The night was dark but mild. The sea was smooth. Many of the passengers had retired, but others were about the decks enjoying at a late hour their final night aboard ship and the serene conditions.

A bump was felt by nearly all on board, but it was not sufficient to cause alarm or to disturb some sleepers. There are conflicting stories about its severity, but most agree that the shock was slight, and rather gradual. Certain it is that the passengers did not generally realize that the Wanganella had struck Barrett’s Reef and was in a position which would have been perilous in unfavourable weather.

Within a few minutes, the report spread throughout the ship that the Wanganella was on the reef. To the passengers who assembled on deck, wearing life-jackets at the instructions promptly given by members of the crew, it seemed incredible that a disaster had occurred. The peace of the night in no way suggested the reality.

The reactions of the passengers were well described this morning by a visitor from Brisbane, Miss E L Dickson, “I had just retired, and had put out the light,” she said. “There was a shock, but it really did not seem to be alarming. Indeed, I thought that the anchor had been dropped, and I remarked to another woman in the cabin: ‘Haven’t we arrived in port early? ’

“Then a steward came around and said we must put on our life-jackets. I asked him, ‘Is this official?’ and he said it assuredly was. We could not believe that anything serious had happened. We all went up on deck. There was not the slightest sign of panic. Everybody was calm and good-humoured, and there was hot tea for all within five minutes, it seemed. It was quite a harmless sort of shipwreck, and I went down to the cabin after a while to complete my packing. The worst thing is that everybody had a sleepless night.

”The sound as the liner struck the southern end of the reef did not awaken many residents of Breaker Bay, about a mile from the scene of the disaster. The first indication which most of them had that anything was amiss was the steady flow of cars, beginning in the early hours today, along a road which is usually deserted at night. A woman resident said she was to have left for Sydney in the Wanganella this week. Her husband, who was awake, heard the crash as the ship struck. The sea was perfectly calm, and the liner, ablaze with lights against the velvety black of the night, made an unforgettable picture.

Usually, the persistent sound of the whistling buoy at Barrett’s Reef could be heard throughout the night on a calm evening or when a southerly wind blew, the resident said. The buoy could not be heard from the shore last night or early this morning, presumably because of the light northerly wind, which would have carried the sound out to sea.

With the coming of daylight, sightseers arrived in crowds at Breaker Bay. They came on motorcycles, bicycles and foot, and scrambled for vantage points. Traffic notices to the effect that no parking was allowed in the Pass of Branda were ignored at first, but a traffic officer quickly restored order.

A woman passenger stated that a dance was being held on deck when the liner struck. She felt a shudder pass through the ship, but she thought that the anchor had probably been dropped at the entrance of the Heads. The dancing continued, and that fact reflected the unconcern of the passengers. All of them were quiet and orderly, and patiently waited their turn before transferring to the vessels which brought them into port.

Until the ship was approached quite closely from the direction of Wellington, she appeared to be simply another liner making port in the normal way. The list to starboard was almost imperceptible. But within half a mile of the Wanganella it was possible to see that the dark brown patch right against the bow was a rock and the rock was part of a submerged reef on to which the liner had slid evenly. The bow was lifted slightly – about four or five feet – above normal.

An examination of the Wanganella’s bows and port side, as seen from a launch, revealed that the foot of her straight stem had been torn and buckled for a distance of about five feet. Below the buckle, so far as could be seen, the receding portion of the hull, which is of a semi-arc-form design, had not been damaged, but further aft there appeared to be a rupture of her plating below the water line. The white line separating her black hull paint from the underwater red suggested that the decks and side had suffered at this point.

On the starboard side of her bow, and hard against it, is the outermost rock of the reef, projecting about 16 feet from the water at low tide. Another rock, just visible above low water, is hard against the vessel’s side at a point immediately below the bridge. The Wanganella appears to be lodged in a cleft between the two rocks. She is not noticeably down by the stern; her uneven appearance at noon today appears to be due to the fact that the falling tide has left her bow slightly raised on the reef, while the after part is afloat.

As soon as the Cobar left the Wanganella’s side with luggage, the Harbour Board tug Toia, which had been standing by, came up astern of the stranded ship and passed a line up to her quarter. She then took the strain and at 11.40 am was pulling hard. Shortly after this the Wanganella began to run her engines astern as well in an apparent endeavour to free herself. About a quarter of an hour later the Union Company tug Terawhiti arrived as extra assistance. These initial attempts to pull Wanganella free of the rocks proved unsuccessful, and it quickly became clear that a major salvage operation would have to be mounted to refloat the liner.

Inspection of the damaged area of the ship revealed that the hull had been punctured by rocks on both sides of the bow. Most damage was on the port side, which had been ripped open as far back as the bridge, causing the forward holds to flood. A major threat was posed by the weather, because a storm sweeping in from the south at that time could have proved fatal to the liner.


Wellington is known as the “windy city” because of the frequency of strong winds blowing in from the south, which can whip up high seas at the harbour entrance. These conditions would usually be experienced several times a month, and should such a storm hit while Wanganella was aground it would almost certainly result in the loss of the liner. With this in mind, salvage attempts continued without a break.


When it was realised that the three tugs alone would not be enough to pull Wanganella free, mushroom anchors were laid off the stern of Wanganella and attached by hawsers to winches serving the holds. However, the combination of tugs towing, winches pulling and the powerful thrust of the Wanganella’s twin propellers going full astern still could not shift the liner. It was apparent that desperate measures were needed, and several hundred tons of fuel was pumped overboard to lighten the liner, a most unorthodox procedure to be allowed at a harbour entrance. It sent a long brown streak into Cook Strait, and some oil slick returned the next day on the flood tide.

The grounding of the Wanganella was headline news in Australia. A report sent from Wellington on 22 January and published in numerous Australian newspapers next day stated:- Attempts to refloat the Wanganella again failed today. Powerful tugs and other means were used. The liner’s fuel and water ballast are being pumped away.

A conference of salvage experts, under Captain Eade, Marine Superintendent of Huddart Parker, who arrived from Sydney, took place on the vessel today in preparation for a major attempt to float the liner at high tide this evening. The weather is expected to be favourable for this attempt this afternoon, but the further outlook is unfavourable, fresh southerly winds being predicted for tomorrow. Salvage experts fear that a heavy southerly would spell disaster to the vessel.

The two forward holds are now practically flooded, and the work is difficult for divers who, with acetylene torches, are burning away the plates and jagged steel which grip the rocks. The vessel has settled down further, indicating that the bottom has suffered additional damage. It was hoped to get powerful pumps aboard the ship today.

The (New Zealand) Minister for Marine (Mr O’Brien) is discussing with experts the possibility of using explosives to dislodge the rock holding the ship. Explosives also have been suggested for blowing off the ship’s bows if she cannot be shifted.

Also on Thursday, 23 January the following report was published:-

Chances of saving the Huddart Parker liner Wanganella, aground at the entrance to Wellington Harbour, are today considered brighter. The wind has changed to a light southerly and the sea is moderately calm. The ship has been lightened by dumping 600 tons of oil fuel and several hundred tons of ballast. Captain McDonald, of Melbourne, Huddart Parker, marine underwriter, is due in Wellington today to examine the ship.

Divers report that a jagged rock has ripped through the hull from near the bow almost to the bridge and there is a 12ft hole in the plating in number two hold. Number three hold is reported to be making water and there is more than 17ft of water in both forward holds. At low water, the trough of the swell shows the bottom of the bow torn away.

Lightening of the ship gives a chance of preparing vulnerable parts for any consequences contingent upon her removal from the rocks. If bulkheads or the bottom further aft gave way the ship might sink nose first in 60 feet of water. Three tugs are in constant attendance.

The same day the Sydney Morning Herald carried another report sent from Wellington the previous day:-

Further all-out attempts to shift the Tasman liner Wanganella have failed. When preparations were well advanced to get the ship off this morning along, rolling swell caused suspension of the operations. Three tugs had to stand by impotently.

Although firmly lodged on the reef, the Wanganella was surging badly in the swell, and the effects of this were depressingly visible by late in the afternoon. Seeming almost to sag from a point under the bridge, the bows of the liner had settled by at least three feet; and her stern had been raised higher out of the water. Even at high water glimpses of her rudder were seen, and her list had increased to at least 10 degrees. Tonight, the liner is being pounded by a heavy and direct southerly swell. Salvage efforts will be continued tomorrow.

The shelf of rock under her bow extends as far aft as the bridge. Jagged holes have been torn in her two forward holds, and she is also making water in No 3 hold. Immediate prospects of salvaging the liner are not regarded optimistically. When the tide was at flood this afternoon there was 20 feet of water in Nos 1 and 2 holds.

The cause of the grounding of the Wanganella is unknown. There was no pilot on board the liner when she went aground. The master, Captain R Darroch, held a special exemption certificate permitting him to enter port without one.

Many solutions to ease the Wanganella’s plight are being considered. One suggestion is to release the liner by cutting off her bows, a salvage practice found successful during the war. Another suggestion – made by the Minister of Marine, Mr O’Brien – is to blast the rock beneath the Wanganella’s bow, and thus release the ship.

Each day more contractors, technicians and labourers were taken out to Wanganella, along with mechanical and technical equipment that was installed on the decks until the liner was a mass of humming auxiliaries. Powerful air compressors, supplied by the Wellington Harbour Board, ran noisily and continuously to keep down the water in the flooded forward holds. Sometimes Wanganella yawed a little and lifted slightly in the southerly swell coming in from Cook Strait, but that was the only movement, and another attempt to refloat Wanganella on 26 January was also unsuccessful.

As if the problem of refloating the Wanganella was not difficult enough, on 27 January a dispute arose with the crews of the three tugs involved in the salvage, a report stating:-

The stranded Wanganella is at present precariously unattended on the notorious Barrett’s Reef. Three tugs, which had been standing by since the vessel was stranded, refused to put to sea last night. While still immediately prepared to meet an emergency, they demanded a special salvage payment of 17/6 an hour. After several hours’ negotiations no settlement was reached, and the tugs remain alongside a Wellington wharf. Although salvage is still a race against the weather, no further attempts to move the liner will be made until the flooded holds have been sealed. For the moment, a fresh northerly is blowing this morning, but a change to the dangerous quarter, the south, is forecast for later today.

The tug dispute was resolved on 29 January when the crews agreed to a special extra payment of 7/6 an hour. Meanwhile, it had been decided to send a specialist diver down to inspect the hull, and the rocks on which the liner was resting. Huddart Parker Limited engaged the services of John Johnstone, a well-known Melbourne diver, and the following report, fi led from Wellington on 28 January, appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the following morning:-

A vivid salvage drama has been enacted in the past two days, giving experts more optimism than they have shown since the liner went aground nine days ago. The central figure was the Australian diver, Mr John E Johnstone, who earned fame in the war-time salvage of the Niagara’s gold. He has made a complete survey of the damage to the ship and also the contours of the rocks which have been holding her fast. Working underwater in a fast-running tide and a six-foot swell, he examined every foot of the reef with a courage and efficiency described as ‘almost beyond words’. The examination has shown that three ledges of rock grip the hull firmly, but Mr Johnstone has found parts of the reef crumbling under the liner’s weight. This weakness may prove a decisive factor when buoyancy is added in the liner’s forepart. Forty welders and boilermakers have toiled night and day to make Nos 1 and 2 holds airtight. By tomorrow it is hoped to be able to force out the water in these holds. All bulkheads are holding firmly.

The next attempt to refloat the Wanganella was planned for Thursday, 30 January, when the sealing of the liner’s flooded holds was expected to be finished. However, this work took longer than anticipated, and the next attempt to pull Wanganella free of the rocks was made on Saturday, 1 February, but it was not successful. It was decided a different approach was needed, and on 5 February it was widely reported:-

The biggest temporary repair job on the liner Wanganella is proceeding. A type of coffer dam is being constructed with which it is intended to try to seal off a huge hole in the liner’s side. The dam will be fitted underwater–a task probably unique in salvage efforts. The dam will be in effect a false side fitted inside the ship’s hull. It is being made ashore in steel sections. It is designed to cover a hole in the ship’s side at least eight by four feet.

For seventeen days, Wanganella had remained firmly aground on Barrett Reef, and throughout this entire period the windy weather Wellington was famous for stayed away. In fact, since that time, a long period of mild conditions in Wellington has been referred to as “Wanganella weather”. However, the forecast for 6 February caused major concern, as it seemed the weather was about to take a turn for the worse, and unless Wanganella could be refloated that day the liner could well become a total loss… to be continued


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