Wairarapa shipwreck

Letters Recording His Experiences in the Fires on the Steamer Wairarapa Near Gisborne and at the Albion Hotel in Invercargill [1888], Archive 459
Letters Recording His Experiences in the Fires on the Steamer Wairarapa Near Gisborne and at the Albion Hotel in Invercargill [1888], Archive 459
Just after midnight on 29 October, 1894, the steamer SS Wairarapa crashed onto rocks near Great Barrier Island, in the Hauraki Gulf. 121 people out of the 235 on board died.

What happened?

On 28 October, 1894, the SS Wairarapa made its way towards Auckland with 170 passengers and 65 crew on board. Only weeks before it had set a record for crossing the Tasman Sea from Sydney to Auckland.

On this trip the captain again kept up a fast pace despite a thickening fog as the ship moved south from the Three Kings Islands. Both passengers and crew began to get worried at the speed of the Wairarapa.

At midnight the watch was changed, and only minutes later the steamer crashed onto rocks at the bottom of the over 200 metre-high cliffs of Great Barrier Island. Water began to flood in through a hole ripped in the hull of the ship, and the steamer tilted to one side.

Passengers who had been sleeping below ran to the deck only to find themselves sliding down the steep slope into the sea. Horse, sheep and other cargo were swept by giant waves into the sea. Many of the people in the sea struggled to avoid being hit by wreckage or the drowning horses.

Two lifeboats were launched and rescued 50 people, most with lifebelts, from the sea. Other boats were smashed as they were launched or were swamped when they hit the water.

Passengers and crew clung to the rigging, or climbed to the ship’s bridge where the captain still remained. About 3:30am a giant wave smashed the bridge, sweeping away the people on it, and an hour later the ship lurched again, sending more people into the sea.

Some stronger swimmers were able to reach the rocks on Great Barrier Island, and later when daylight came some of the crew managed to get a line from the shipwreck to the people on the shore. About 50 people crossed from the ship to the rocks by clinging to the line.

After waiting on the rocks for about 30 hours, eating pineapples and oranges retrieved from the wreckage, the survivors were found by some local Māori and taken to safety.

How many died?

121 people died.

Other events and outcomes

A court of inquiry found that the captain of the Wairarapa was at fault. He had taken the wrong course from Three Kings Islands and not made allowance for the sea currents.

More information and sources

Disasters

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