Into the arms of strangers

On April 10, 1968, the Wahine foundered in Wellington Harbour in a vicious storm, claiming 53 lives. It was a day of tragedy, and of everyday heroism. From strangers came comfort, hot soup and survival.

WORDS Nikki Macdonald | EDITOR Warwick Rasmussen

Wahine survivor Sue Willoughby.  THE DOMINION POST Wahine survivor Sue Willoughby.  THE DOMINION POST

Wahine survivor Sue Willoughby. THE DOMINION POST

Wahine survivor Sue Willoughby. THE DOMINION POST

John Wauchop was in the shower when the Wahine hit Barrett Reef, at about 6.40am. The graunching lurch that tore a great gash in the ship’s starboard side wrapped him around the taps.

A poor Lincoln College student coming up for the inter-university Easter sports tournament at Palmerston North, Wauchop was sharing a cabin on F deck. Any lower and you’d be in the bilge, he jokes.

By the time he’d slung on longs and a towel, they’d already closed off his cabin, and his dry clothes. The call came to grab lifejackets and head up to muster stations, so Wauchop followed the crowd to the smokeroom on B deck.

The 19-year-old found the rest of his cricket XI and settled in. He traded his towel for teammate Richard Shrimpton’s sports jacket and the lads began playing poker. He was the team’s opening bowler, but never got to bowl a ball.

Through the massive glass windows, the weather looked pretty fierce. It was blowing a howling gale and the waves were steadily building. But the ship was still level and they weren’t particularly worried.

We were in the harbour for god’s sake, how the hell can you have a major accident in the harbour?”

It was a question many would later ask.

Also in the packed smokeroom were Brian Papesch and Lyn Brittain and her 16-month-old daughter Joanne. They hadn’t met yet. In fact, they never actually introduced themselves until 20 years later, when Papesch outed himself as Jo’s saviour.

At 21, Papesch had just finished national service and had been boozing with mates in Christchurch before returning home to Auckland. He was all partied out by the time he boarded the TEV Wahine on the evening of April 9, so had an early night. The ship was rocking and rolling when he awoke the next morning, but he’d grown up with fizz boats and wasn’t alarmed. When they called passengers to muster stations he figured it was a drill.

In the smokeroom, Papesch joined some students, who were entertaining themselves with renditions of Michael Row the Boat Ashore and There’s a Hole In My Bucket. A couple of the women had good voices and it was all very nice. Some elderly people and families with children looked understandably stressed, but there was no panic or sense of impending doom.

6.50am — “Our position is Barrett Reef where we are aground”

Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm in Wellington Harbour. Morrie Hill/NZPA

Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm in Wellington Harbour. Morrie Hill/NZPA

Below decks, things weren’t quite as calm. Fourth engineer Phil Bennett had only been on the ship five days, having been reluctantly transferred from an oil tanker. When he finished his watch at 5am the ship was moving so little the two milk glasses he’d upended on his cabin desk stayed fast. About 6.20am they went flying towards his bunk. Shortly after that the panic bell donged, summoning the engineers to the engine room.

They’d been trying to manoeuvre for 20 minutes before they hit the reef, with Bennett plotting instructions from the bridge in the engine room’s movement book.

Conflicting evidence meant investigating exactly how the Wahine ended up on Barrett Reef was “like putting together a jigsaw of evidence of which some of the pieces are out of shape”, the court of inquiry later found.

The violent weather wasn’t unexpected. The meteorological service filed storm warnings through the night, but Cyclone Giselle outstripped predictions in both speed and ferocity.

An 8pm navigation warning on April 9 expected the centre to hit Hawke’s Bay by noon on the 10th, bringing heavy rain and winds exceeding 40 knots (74kmh) within 150 miles (241km) of the centre. Instead the cyclone bore down on Wellington, tussling with another storm system from the south and creating conditions “of awesome violence”.

By 5am, Wahine’s log recorded a strong south-south-west gale, rough sea, a heavy southerly swell and wind of 40-60 knots (74-111kmh). Wellington airport clocked average winds of 59 knots (109kmh) at 6am, building to gusts of 100 knots (185kmh) from 9am-12pm.

The best guess is that Giselle’s full force hit the ship at around 6.10am, just as it was slowing to half speed to enter the harbour. A huge wave spun it around. Torrential rain had already rendered the radar unusable then they lost control of the ship. The helmsman steered hard to starboard, but there was no response.

Apparently confused as to the ship’s position, Captain Robertson reversed to avoid where he thought Barrett Reef was. Instead, he motored straight into it. In the engine room, it was already like a rodeo, trying to control the motors as the ship bucked and rolled.

It was like a Christmas tree down there. Lights and bells and alarms going off in all directions.
phil bennett, fourth engineer on the Wahine

“The noise when we hit the reef was horrendous. Close to where I was stationed, there was a large electrical cabinet and I swear it appeared to come about two metres toward me and then go back again.”

Bennett’s job was to start the emergency bilge pump and empty flooded compartments. He climbed out of the engine room, up onto the vehicle deck and down into the motor room housing the two electric motors that propelled the ship forward.

The water was already up to his mid-calves - gushing through a 40cm wide gash in the motor room side that stretched for more than 2m. The port motor was still running, but the starboard motor had cut out after the starboard propeller sheared off on the reef.

By the time he got the pump going, the water was up to his chest. He couldn’t help thinking that seawater is a good conductor of electricity. “My head knew it was OK, but my heart said - standing next to a 9000-horsepower electric motor, in seawater, is not a good idea.”

Then the port motor blew out, spraying molten copper. It was time to get out. He half-swam to the ladder. By the time he returned with the chief engineer, the compartment was completely flooded, an oily rainbow slick on the water’s surface from their paint stores. “Dog down the door and leave it,” the chief engineer said.

Bennett estimated 10 of the 14 watertight compartments were flooded. They abandoned the engine room and took stock in the chief engineer’s cabin. He had a bottle of good whisky he wasn’t about to let go down with the ship.


8am — “Slowly drifting on Point Dorset. I think she will be ashore next swing.”

Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

Survivors come ashore in lifeboats after the Wahine grounded on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

In the smokeroom, doubt cut cracks in the forced jollity.

Following the ship’s initial grounding report, the tug Tapuhi left Queen’s Wharf at 7.40am to help. The conditions were so bad it had to shelter off Seatoun, before heading out again around 11am. By then the Wahine’s dangerous drift further into the harbour had been stemmed by a heroic effort to drop two anchors, which eventually held fast just off Steeple Rock.

Papesch and Wauchop watched as the Wahine crew fired a towline to the tug - a task later described by the court of inquiry as “Homeric”. And they watched as it snapped, and snapped again.

When a pregnant mother asked Brian Papesch for help, he was handed a cargo he would never forget. DAVID WHITE/STUFF

“It would be loose for a while and then a big wave would lift the Wahine and then another one would lift the Tapuhi and bang,” Papesch recalls.

Suddenly the rope would be taut and just snap. So that was really dramatic. At that point we knew ‘S..., we’re in trouble here. They can’t tow us.’
Brian Papesch, Survivor

Papesch sat down next to an attractive young woman with her young flame-haired daughter. She was six months pregnant and couldn’t swim. Could he look after her baby if the worst came to the worst, she asked him. He agreed, before wandering back to his mates.

9.37am — “Riding to two anchors. Not touching at all. No danger of sinking”

Survivors on Seatoun Beach after being rescued from the sinking Wahine boat on April 10, 1968. THE DOMINION POST Survivors on Seatoun Beach after being rescued from the sinking Wahine boat on April 10, 1968. THE DOMINION POST

Survivors on Seatoun Beach after being rescued from the sinking Wahine boat on April 10, 1968. THE DOMINION POST

Survivors on Seatoun Beach after being rescued from the sinking Wahine boat on April 10, 1968. THE DOMINION POST

When the ship seemed to have stabilised, Bennett and his fellow engineers went back to work.

He’d been upstairs, seen the conditions - it was “blowing like stink”, gusting up to 120 knots (222kmh). But they still reckoned they could save the ship.

The vehicle deck was a giant eggnog, where trailers of eggs and coking coal had overturned and mixed with seawater leaking in from the flooded compartments. The water wasn’t deep, but it sloshed across the broad deck creating a free surface effect - rolling with the waves and making it harder for the ship to right itself. Bennett made a filter from egg cartons to extract the water without the pump-clogging coke, but it was a losing battle. The ship was leaning further and further to starboard.

A starving Bennett had just finished cooking salvaged eggs in a steam drain when the call came to abandon ship. They were too hot to eat. Wet and tired, he scrambled up the slippery steel ladders - already on a 20-degree tilt - to the lifeboat deck. With the port side high out of the water, only the four starboard side lifeboats were usable. Even at full capacity - 99 for the three main lifeboats and 50 for the motorised lifeboat - they could carry less than half the Wahine’s 734 passengers and crew.

Bennett was told to also deploy the 20-man inflatable liferafts. Although they had monthly lifeboat drills, they’d never tested the liferafts because they’re not designed to be regularly inflated. The rafts took off on the wind like giant orange kites.

1.25pm — “We are abandoning ship. Would all passengers proceed to the starboard side of B Deck.’’

A local's truck helped transport exhausted survivors who washed up on the rocky shore beyond Eastbourne. THE DOMINION POST A local's truck helped transport exhausted survivors who washed up on the rocky shore beyond Eastbourne. THE DOMINION POST

A local's truck helped transport exhausted survivors who washed up on the rocky shore beyond Eastbourne. THE DOMINION POST

A local's truck helped transport exhausted survivors who washed up on the rocky shore beyond Eastbourne. THE DOMINION POST

Papesch watched, dismayed, from the smokeroom as the liferafts soared on the storm like helium balloons. Some weren’t even tied on. When the call came to abandon ship, fear quietly took hold.

“I think there were only two doors out of each side. Everyone was like double their normal size because those jackets were huge bloody things. This great band of people trying to get out. That was the first time I saw panic. Still nothing like you might have seen in scenes of Titanic but it was there alright. People started to yell and push and stuff.”

Papesch and others hurled chairs to try to break the plate glass to speed up the exit. Then he remembered that young mum and her daughter - Lyn Brittain and baby Joanne.

Lyn was in quite a panic. There were no children’s lifejackets, so Joanne had been tied into a bulky adult lifejacket. Worried they wouldn’t get out the starboard doors in time, Papesch took the pair to the high side of the ship. They edged around the stern to the starboard side, only to find all the lifeboats and liferafts already gone. They had no choice but to jump.

All these things were happening to make me think - s..., this is for real. This is not a movie.
Brian Papesch, Survivor

“There were a couple of really bad moments making our way hand over hand around that stern rail. The ship was on quite a steep angle. So you’re trying to make your way round a slippery deck hanging onto this rail and you’ve got a baby in one hand and you’ve got a woman who is not very strong as well, and I do remember an older person losing their grip on the rail and sliding all the way down the deck and hitting their head on the way on the rail on the starboard side with a sickening thud. And then they kind of slid through into the sea. I really thought that person probably didn’t survive.”

Wauchop almost suffered the same fate. He, too, came out the high side, too late for the lifeboats. He saw someone floating, spreadeagled in the water below, obviously drowned or unconscious. In the ship’s shadow, the sea was a join-the-dots of floating lifejackets and liferafts, as if an orange freighter had capsized and spilled its cargo.

“We tried to slide down the deck and on the way down somehow I caught one of the bollards or something halfway down and rolled onto my front and whacked my head on the deck, right between the eyes, and thought for a horrible minute - I can still feel the thought I had - ‘For God’s sake don’t pass out and fall into the water, because you’ll drown’. So I didn’t. Sheer willpower I think more than anything else. I caught the rail at the bottom and popped under the rail and dropped into the water.”


1.25pm — “All passengers being put in lifeboats, have all trawlers and small craft available sent.”

The Wahine lists to starboard after grounding on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA The Wahine lists to starboard after grounding on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

The Wahine lists to starboard after grounding on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

The Wahine lists to starboard after grounding on Barrett Reef during a storm, Wellington, April 10, 1968. Morrie Hill/NZPA

John Gibbons had already had a hell of a day. The 24-year-old rower was studying at Victoria University, ahead of competing at the Mexico Olympics later that year.

His Dad Gerald owned a 37-foot motor sailer, Rewanui, that was berthed in the boat harbour in central Wellington. The gales had been tossing yachts off their moorings all morning and he and his Dad had been helping secure them.

“The conditions were horrific. It was blowing; white water. I got in a plywood dinghy to row out a rope to the boats on the outside wall. The wind picked me and the dinghy up and turned me upside down. It was just screaming.”

They were showering in the yacht club to get warm when the phone rang. How many boats were going to rescue people from the Wahine, they asked. None, Gibbons said. Why not? They asked. Because no-one knew. He was angry no-one had alerted them earlier - many potential helpers had already headed home. Gibbons’ father later told the inquiry he and others could have safely sailed as early as 12.30pm if they’d known, rescuing survivors before they reached the treacherous Eastbourne coastline.

John Wauchop was a university cricketer, John Gibbons was an Olympic rower. One became the other’s saviour on April 10, 1968. ROSA WOODS/STUFF

Gibbons had no qualms about setting out into the storm. They’d crossed Cook Strait’s treacherous seas often enough to know the yacht could handle the rough stuff. And Gibbons had learnt all he knew about boats from his grandfather. “He was a sailor from way back, and he said the ship is always braver than the crew.”

As Rewanui motored into the unknown, a handful of craft became a small flotilla. Yachts, fishing trawlers, motor boats - Wellington’s mini Dunkirk.

Jim Toulis and Billy Bell launched their 5m home-built kauri dinghy, against police advice. Worser Bay Surf Lifesaving Club unleashed their rowboat and motorboat. Two hopefuls even braved the waves on surf skis (they had to turn back).

By the time the volunteer armada set out about 2.15pm, the weather had suddenly turned. The wind had twisted from south to north, dropping from a 50-knot gale to light. But that was little comfort to the orange figures left bobbing in the waters like little oblong buoys.


The water was warmer than Wauchop expected. He was in the lee of the ship and the waves weren’t that terrifying. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

A couple of liferafts were still within easy reach. Ten minutes after jumping, he’d clambered into a raft. They felt safe enough, until they drifted into the lurching seas. There were no oars - to steer they had to paddle with their hands.

There were waves on top of waves, so high you got vertigo on the crest. The foamy curl was as big as your average breaker. It wasn’t long before the seas upended the raft, dumping him back in the water.

You couldn’t see anything of the shore when you were in a trough, and when you were on top you felt like you could see the whole country.
John Wauchop, survivor

“You could see right across Wellington. They were pretty big waves.”

Minutes floated by - 15, 30, 45. Wauchop drifted towards Eastbourne and the inhospitable craggy coast that claimed 49 of the 53 lives lost as a result of the disaster.

A Zodiac rubber dinghy threaded its way among the floaters. They’d set out from the airport with volunteer fire crew, carrying more inflatable liferafts, one of which they released near Wauchop. It was only youth, strength and bareback horse-riding experience that dragged him aboard the slick-skinned craft.

It was colder out of the water than in. The wind gnawed at sodden fatigue. They tied on to another raft carrying a steward and a married couple with two or three kids.

“He was thunderstruck and she wasn’t much better - one of the kids had got caught under their raft when they got flipped over. One of them didn’t look very good. I still don’t know if that was one of the children that died. I wasn’t sure whether she was very unwell, unconscious or had drowned.”

Their raft of rafts drifted into the swirling mash of debris just before the breakers, about 50m off the eastern coast.

There was no sand to land on, just brutal rocks. The ferry Aramoana was standing off, but too far to be of any use. Rescue looked a forlorn hope.

By the time Rewanui reached the Wahine, the ship was nearly right over. Gibbons couldn’t believe the bloody thing had tipped over in the harbour.

They headed for the eastern coast and its orange drift of survivors. Gibbons edged in to a small liferaft close to the pounding surf, holding fast into the wind. Inside were four young girls, a boy of about nine, two women and two men, with another two men hanging off the side ropes. One of the men was Wauchop. He was overwhelmed with instant, enormous relief.

John’s father Gerald hauled the raft’s occupants on board, before setting off to pluck survivors from the water. They seemed dazed, bewildered.

Gibbons worried about one woman sitting with hoisted skirt and no knickers. He relaxed when, after about 20 minutes, she snapped out of her fug enough to rearrange herself.

Another bloke demanded Gibbons abandon those still in the water and take them immediately back to shore. He tried to calm him, but over the space of 20 minutes he became increasingly agitated.

He tried to grab the wheel. Well this was hopeless. I had to concentrate like hell, so I actually punched him.
John Gibbons, rescuer

“They did say later somebody had a broken jaw, which I might have done. He crumpled to his knees down there and I thought ‘Well, that’s sorted him out’.”

Restored by whisky, Wauchop helped with the rescue. Both he and Gibbons remember the couple bound together by a handbag. “My everlasting memory will be trying to get elderly women through under the running rail round the boat. You have to climb through it. Trying to get elderly women from other rafts under that rail, still holding onto their handbags is a frigging nightmare. They just wouldn’t let them go. I can remember distinctly smacking one elderly lady on the back of the hand - sorry lady, you’re going to have to let this go. I can’t get you through here holding onto this bag. I had to promise her I wasn’t going to throw it away.”

Like all the rescue boats that day, Rewanui carried a heavy cargo of sadness and survival; of gratitude and grief. The men who had lost their wives. The mother - Judith Hicks - whose 2½-year-old son Phillip had suffocated when a wave folded their liferaft in half. They desperately slashed a hole in the skin, but the child was already dead. She shelved her grief and took the boy handed to her for safekeeping without a word.

And the tragedy wasn’t over. Beyond the breakers on the coast beyond Eastbourne, Gibbons watched waves dumping survivors on the beach. A road block meant there was almost no-one to help them in. Police said the road was dangerous and compromised by slips, but would-be rescuers were angry. 

A lifeboatman who stayed to help compared the scene to images of people fleeing the Blitzkreig - vacant faces, staring eyes, utter exhaustion. Reinforcements did arrive, but for many it was too late. The inquiry estimated 12 people made it ashore alive, but died on the beach.

All they needed was to be pulled out of the water. They’d crawl up and waves would take them out again. They’d crawl up again and then they’d give up.
John Gibbons, rescuer

“I’m sure one or two drowned there. It was pretty horrific watching them getting weaker and weaker.”

Having safely delivered his cargo to Seatoun wharf, Gibbons and his father went out again to search for stragglers. It was the only time he feared his number was up.

“We were cruising along the coast looking for anyone else and I looked ahead and suddenly saw the tide was roaring out and we suddenly saw there were huge breakers ahead, right at the entrance to the harbour. Big breakers. So I panicked and gave the throttle full ahead and hard to turn around. One of the breakers caught us and tipped us over. People watching on another boat said the mast was actually downhill. So it was touch and go.”

The Tahi Miranda pleasure yacht was not so lucky, a wave smashing it against the rocks. Its volunteer crew barely made it ashore with their lives.

Papesch hit the water without going under, baby Joanne still in his arms. The rushing tide and swell quickly divided them and Jo’s mother Lyn. Too bad - he could only focus on the baby.

The 1960s was a time of abundant World War II movies and Papesch couldn’t shake the image of plunging warships sucking everyone down with them. He was getting away from that ship and fast.

He lay on his back, Joanne riding on his lifejacket like a raft, and kicked out for the lights of Seatoun, which he could see behind him. A sailor, surfer, swimmer and surf lifesaver, Papesch reckoned he could make it. He knows now he couldn’t have.

Joanne was bright and looking around. When she fell quiet he slapped her - her crying a welcome relief.

An hour, maybe 90 minutes went past before Papesch saw his saviour emerge from the gloom.

Fourth engineer Bennett was assigned to take charge of starboard lifeboat No 2. He grabbed his uniform jacket - at 23, he hoped the sleeve’s two gold stripes might lend him greater authority.

Passengers seemed more stunned than panicked as they jumped the 50cm from ship to boat. A woman in a red wool suit refused to jump. He hoisted her in by the shoulder and crotch - there was no time for niceties.

They pushed off with 60-65 people aboard - any longer and the davits would have pinned the boat underwater.

Phil Bennett faced down a mutiny on his lifeboat, answering passenger threats to throw him overboard with an axe. KEVIN STENT/STUFF

They were the last lifeboat to leave and Bennett could still see people jumping from the ship. He, too, faced a mutiny from passengers when he hung around, picking people from the water.

A young man threatened to throw him overboard. Bennett was having none of it. “After I had threatened to knock him unconscious with the axe he was quiet,” he noted in his official report.

An elderly gentleman offered a congratulatory hand smeared with vomit and clutching false teeth, and loudly reckoned it was damn lucky Bennett was in charge and not that shower of bastards. Bennett was glad of the support.

The three big lifeboats could be steered only by a hand crank turning a propeller. The theory was the one motorised lifeboat would tow the others. But the motorised lifeboat was swamped then smashed.

Among the waterlogged survivors, Bennett spotted a baby lying on a lifejacket like a raft. Unfamiliar hands reached down and plucked Joanne from her perch. She was handed into the arms of another stranger - passenger Lesley Morgan, who would become a precious friend.

Papesch was also hauled into the crowded craft. They watched as the Wahine exhaled for the last time.

It’s a funny feeling when a ship dies. She went over and water went down the funnel and the next thing a big cloud of rusty coloured steam came out of the water.
phil bennett, fourth engineer on the Wahine

Starboard lifeboat No. 2 caught a tow with Jim Toulis’s kauri runabout, then fishing trawler Ho Ho, before being handed back to Toulis to pull in to Seatoun wharf. It was about 3.45pm.

Papesch watched as an ambulance carried Joanne to safety. His job was over. He caught the free Limited Express back to Auckland with no money. A fellow passenger shared his bourbon in a paper cup. His brain raced and he remembered his beloved Triumph Tiger motorbike, now swallowed by the sea.

Bennett was quickly bundled into a Union Steam Ship Company blanket and sent off to get clothes. He was given a terrible tweed jacket, then billed for it - only passengers got free threads.

Gibbons and Wauchop got on with life. There was no counselling or insurance; no apologies or accountability. Just memories that have endured for 50 years.

It was 25 years before Joanne Finlayson met the man who held her life in the balance. Papesch saw Jo’s photo in the paper the day after the disaster and knew her mother Lyn was looking for him, but he didn’t want to get involved. He didn’t understand then how traumatised Lyn was.

She told Finlayson that after drifting away from Papesch she was in a group who linked arms: “One of the hardest things was realising the person next to you had drowned and that you couldn’t keep holding onto them.”

She was rescued by a lifeboat crewed by Aramoana volunteers, but that smashed on the Eastbourne coast. Her feet were so cut from the rough landing and long walk past the dead that she was taken to Wellington Hospital, where she spent the night consoling Shirley Hick, who had lost her 3-year-old daughter Alma, and whose son Gordon suffered brain damage, eventually dying 22 years later and being added to the Wahine death toll.

Eventually Lyn found her daughter, and the husband who’d been frantically searching for them all day.

Joanne Finlayson would not be here today if it wasn’t for the safe embrace of strangers. MARK TAYLOR/STUFF

While Finlayson was growing up, Lyn refused to stand on the sand - she hated the drag of surf under her toes. Grant - the baby Lyn was carrying, who was born in July 1968 - couldn’t bear having water over his head as a kid.

Finlayson now works as a theatre nurse in Tauranga and has two boys of her own. She still has the toy train they salvaged from her cabin, and the whistle off her mother’s lifejacket. She doesn’t much like swimming in the sea and is freaked out by fish.

I’m lucky to be here really and have the life I’ve now got, have the job I do that I love, and have kids of my own.
Joanne Finlayson, survivor

Wauchop farmed by the sea at Tokomaru Bay, had two kids, and kept up with his teammates, who all survived. In 1998, they played together for the first time, at a reunion game. The bodies are now too brittle for cricket, but they’ll meet again in Wellington for the 50th commemoration.

Bennett also returned to the water. He once had so many boats they nicknamed him commodore. We talk at Paraparaumu RSA - passable coffee and a million-dollar sea view.

Gibbons runs a car parking building. He’d do it all again today in a flash. He no longer owns Rewanui, but her reassuring bulk still floats in Wellington’s boat harbour. They’ve made a few changes, repaired the broken plate glass window and the guard rail bent by feet fending from Seatoun wharf.

Papesch lives in the Bay of Islands, where he’s a member of the yacht club and helps with kids’ sailing. He still rides Triumph motorbikes and every year on April 10 he calls Finlayson for a chat.

Like many who put others first that day - from the schoolkids spooning soup on the beach to the volunteer armada of rescuers - he dismisses talk of courage and life-threatening drama.

“It was just a day of following your instincts and doing what was right.”

SOURCES Dominion and Evening Post archives; Interviews with John Wauchop, Brian Papesch, Phil Bennett, John Gibbons and Jo Finlayson; The Wahine Disaster, by Max Lambert and Jim Hartley; T.E.V Wahine (O.N. 317814), Shipping casualty, 10 April 1968; and Report of Court and Annex Thereto, November 1968. Illustrative maps based on maps from the LINZ Data Service licensed by LINZ for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand licence. Map data courtesy of Captain John Brown.

WORDS Nikki Macdonald

EDITOR Warwick Rasmussen