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On the 10th April 1968 I was 20 years old and my memories of that day are very clear in my mind. In New Plymouth that morning, sitting around the kitchen table were my father, sister, brother in law, brother and me.
I was due to take the train to Wellington, to catch the ferry to Christchurch, when we heard on the radio that the inter island ferry Wahine, was in trouble in bad weather at the entrance to Wellington harbor. The others at the table joked about the bad weather and that “It was going to sink” and I “shouldn’t bother going if I were you!”
It was the ferry that I was supposed to catch to Christchurch. I didn’t know at the time that my other brother was meant to be on the Wahine and that he missed out on getting a berth on it. He wanted to come to Wellington and surprise me and travel back together.
I caught the train around 9 am and as we got closer to Wellington the weather got worse and I saw trees down on the road and all the traffic held up. Someone on the train had a transistor radio and we were listening to the updates on the ferry situation. It was not good and by the time we reached Wellington, it had indeed sunk!
Wellington railway station was in utter chaos when I arrived and there were bus loads of survivors being brought in to the station as that was the designated place for the civil defence. I was pretty worried by that time, not knowing if my brother had been on it or not and I kept listening to the announcements of the passenger list over the PA system.
It seemed like a long time before I found out from someone that I was able to get accommodation at “The People’s Palace” a hotel in Willis St. The shipping company paid for it for any one holding tickets for the Wahine’s return sailing to Christchurch. My memory fails me at this point but somehow I got word to my family in New Plymouth to let them know that I was going to be returning home the next day. In the meantime, they’d had a telegram from my brother in Christchurch saying that he wasn’t on the Wahine.
That night, I and all the other patrons at the hotel cried as we sat around the television and watched the news report of the sinking. So many heroic stories and so many tragic ones emerged from that terrible day in NZ shipping history. One in particular I recall, was told to me on the bus on the way back to New Plymouth the next day. I sat next to an elderly lady who had been washed up on Seatoun beach. She had been helped ashore by a young man, but he went back into the sea before she was even able to get his name.
51 people lost their lives. That is one day in my life I can never forget.