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'Here, catch!': The harrowing tale of a Wahine survivor and her baby

Sharon Major and daughter Sarah after their rescue. Photo/Supplied

Sharon Major – who appears with her husband and their baby on one of the stamps issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wahine sinking – recalls the frightening events of the day. 

On April 10, 1968, Cyclone Giselle swept down the east coast of the North Island and, as dawn broke, collided with a front moving up from the south. Wellington was caught in the middle of the mayhem, then the worst storm recorded by the Meteorological Service.

At 5.50am, as the interisland ferry Wahine entered the harbour, winds gusted between 100 and 150km/h and, within 20 minutes, had increased to 160km/h. The ship lost its radar and a huge wave pushed her off course and, at 6.40am, onto Barrett Reef, a cluster of rocks to the western side of the channel, where at least 20 ships had foundered or been wrecked.

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It was after 1pm when the captain gave the order to abandon ship. Of the 735 people on board, 53 would die, from drowning or exposure or injuries.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking, our worst maritime disaster since 1909 and our seventh-worst overall, New Zealand Post has released a set of stamps. The $2 one features a photograph taken by a steward of me, my husband, Murray, and our six-month-old daughter, Sarah.

In the photo, we are alone, shielded from the noisy muster station by a folding door. Unaware that the Wahine has been fatally gored, we look almost cheerful, but Murray is badly concussed.

Sharon, Sarah and Murray on the coast beside Wahine Memorial Park in Wellington’s Breaker Bay. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

I am eating breakfast in the cafeteria when we hit the reef. I have just noticed how close we are to some rocks when, with a sickening crash, we are on them.

Bells ring. The captain orders passengers to put on life jackets and go to muster stations. I run downstairs to the cabin where I’ve left Murray looking after Sarah.

Dashing along the gangway against the human flood rushing in the other direction, I come upon a man lying flat on his back, clasping a baby to his chest as other passengers swirl past.

It is Murray. He has been knocked unconscious. Needing two hands to hold the baby, he had no hand free to grip the handrail, so when the ship lurched, he crashed to the floor.

Life rafts move away from the grounded ship.

As I take Sarah, others lift the groggy Murray to his feet and half-drag, half-carry him along the gangway and up to a muster station. He can’t sit on a chair, so people help him to a leather sofa behind a folding door. I perch on the edge with Sarah. At some stage, the steward takes his picture.

We can hear the other passengers chatting and singing. As the morning wears on, the ship leans more and more and the cheerful singing dwindles. Hungry babies are crying, anxiety is rising. The ship is drifting down the harbour as the storm rages outside. We wait.

The shipwreck has started – but this is before. Before many passengers leap or clamber into life rafts or the few lifeboats or jump into the sea. Before I have to throw my baby so we can both survive.

As the morning wears on, Murray emerges from his fog of concussion. He stops asking, “Where are we?” and “Why haven’t we berthed yet?” By the time the order comes to abandon ship, he knows what’s happening.

Sharon and daughter Sarah. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

We emerge onto the high side of the ship and inch our way along the steeply sloping deck. Murray holds the rail with one hand and firmly grips my upper arm with the other. I am holding Sarah as tightly as possible against my bulky life jacket. Moving slowly, we will be among the last people to leave the ship.

As we make our way along the deck, people fall and slide in front of us. When we reach the low side, an orange inflatable raft is below us. I can’t jump holding my baby. A man urges us on from the raft below, so I yell, “Here, catch!” and throw Sarah to him. He staggers a little as he catches her, and I jump down, crawl across and grab her back.

I cuddle her closely as we drift away from the ship and into the grey murk. We can see people – bodies – floating in the water, and other rafts far away. It is so quiet. The wind has eased now, the rain sweeping across us, and part way across the harbour. Looking back through the mist, we see the surreal sight of the Wahine sinking into the sea, until just one side of the hull, like a stranded whale, is visible above the waves.

We drift closer and closer to the jagged Eastbourne rocks, raft rocking and swirling, then to our astonishment a tugboat comes alongside. Rescuers! A rope ladder splashes down the side. But how can I climb it with life jacket-shortened arms full of baby? A seaman’s head is visible at the top of the ladder, so again I yell, “Here, catch!” and hurl my baby bundle up and over the side of the boat.

Photo/Hagen Hopkins

I grab the ladder and clamber up, fall over the railing, and yes! The sailor has caught Sarah. He hands her back to me.

Women and children and a few elderly men are packed tightly into the small cabin. All are in shock, some quietly weep. Others vomit or smoke. I ask a fellow survivor to hold Sarah while I search for Murray. We became separated when I jumped.

To my great joy, I find him, crammed in with other rescued men on a narrow ledge in the hot, noisy engine room. He has been in the sea, gripping the rope edging the life raft. All three of us have survived.

The tugboat brings all its passengers to safety and we are not broken on the Eastbourne rocks. The boat chugs right up to the wharf closest to Wellington Railway Station and we set foot on land again at last.

This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.