The Wahine Disaster
On 1 August 1968, Wellington stipendiary magistrate Mr R. D. Jamieson, the one-man Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Wahine and the fifty-one lives, announced that no cause had been shown why the certificates of the ship's master, chief officer and chief engineer should be cancelled or suspended.
Thus, almost four months after the Wahine foundered, the three men were free to go back to sea.
Mr Jamieson's decision climaxed a lengthy hearing in Wellington that occupied twenty-six days and saw eighty-one witnesses give evidence. The four assessors appointed to assist Mr Jamieson agreed with his ruling.
The Court's decision, given a day after the hearing ended, did not, however, dispose of the charges that had been preferred against Captain Robertson, Chief Officer Luly and Chief Engineer Wareing by Mr R. C. Savage, chief counsel for the Minister of Marine.
Mr Jamieson and his assessors gave lengthy consideration to the charges against the ship's officers as well as to those levelled against the Wellington Harbour Board and the Union Steamship Company before the Court's findings were tabled in the House of Representatives on 13 December, 1968.
Captain Robertson and Mr Luly were charged with causing the loss of the Wahine and fifty-one lives by reason of "wrongful acts or defaults" in terms of section 333 (1) (b) of the Shipping and Seamen Act 1952 in one or more of a number of respects.
Mr Wareing was similarly charged by reason of his "defaults" in terms of the same Act.
The court emphasised that Mr Savage had made it clear there was no imputation whatever suggested against the personal conduct or the courage of the three men and acknowledged that, according to the evidence, they acquitted themselves well in those respects. Mr Savage had stressed the charges related to the men only in regard to their professional duties.
Mr Savage charged at the hearing that the Harbour Board, through the Harbourmaster, failed to take adequate steps in respect of a danger which it should have realised. "The danger was page 203that of a ship without motor power in the terrible weather that existed at that time, riding on its anchors. Had the anchors parted it must inevitably have wrecked upon the eastern shore."
Mr Savage said the Harbourmaster should have provided for such a contingency but had failed to do so. The same applied to the Wahine's owners, though to a lesser degree because the primary responsibility of making such provision rested on the Board through the Harbourmaster.
In its report the Court ruled Captain Robertson and Mr Luly were not guilty of wrongful acts or defaults but noted "certain serious omissions or errors of judgment, occurring under conditions of great difficulty and danger, but not amounting to wrongful acts or defaults as charged".
The Court also rejected the charges against Mr Wareing. Mr Jamieson said he was "somewhat surprised" that charges were laid against the chief engineer.
Charges against the Harbour Board and Union Company were found not to be established.
Although clearing the captain, the chief officer, the Harbour Board and the Company, Mr Jamieson declared: "The Court does find and regrets that it appears that owing to the cumulative effect of errors and omissions on the part of the master, the chief officer, the owner and the Harbour Board ... all craft, suitable for rescue operations, and of sufficient size and seaworthy characteristics to face conditions likely to be encountered, were not clearly placed on standby for possible use, at the shortest notice before 1230 hours [12.30 pm] on 10 April, and thereafter instructed to move, as opportunity offered, as close to Wahine as possible."
The Court added that it considered that while primary responsibility in this respect may have rested upon the Harbourmaster, the desirability of such a step should have been realised and advocated by the Wahine's owners. It emphasised that the Harbour-master was unable to attend the inquiry (for health reasons) and might have taken some steps which could not be known to the Court.
These, the Court's main conclusions, were stated in a two-page report at the commencement of the findings. The remainder of the 140-page document was described as an annex. The four assessors, Mr G. A. Apperley, a naval architect, Captains E. H. Hopkins and page 204W. J. Keane, master mariners, and Mr A. Wall, a former district surveyor of ships, concurred in the report.
Mr Apperley concurred also in the annex. The other three assessors did likewise but subject to certain qualifications.
The Court ruled that the prime cause of the Wahine's loss was that the ship, struck by the worst-ever storm in New Zealand, sheered off course in zero visibility, went out of effective human control and struck Barrett Reef, sustaining serious underwater damage.
Immediate cause of the ultimate capsize was free surface water on the vehicle deck.
The Court said that had the order to abandon ship been given earlier, or delayed, loss of life would almost certainly have been greater. And had the ship foundered or broken up earlier in the day loss of life would have been greater.
It was not possible to say the master was not justified in attempting to enter harbour on 10 April, the Court said, and it was doubtful if it would have made any difference had the Wahine received the weather messages that were broadcast, but not received by the ship, after midnight on 9 April.
The Court was critical that Captain Robertson did not tell shore authorities that the ship's draught had increased to 22 feet after striking the reef and that there was water on the vehicle deck.
More could have been done ashore to ensure a suitable rescue fleet was as near to the Wahine as possible when she capsized, the Court declared.
Specific charges against Captain Robertson were:
- (a) That during the period of approximately half an hour immediately prior to the grounding on Barrett Reef he failed to control the ship in accordance with proper and accepted standards of seamanship in that when the ship was beam on to a high wind and rough sea he attempted in conditions of nil visibility to manoeuvre in a narrow channel and failed to use an anchor or anchors to gain proper control of the ship.
- (b) That subsequent to the ship's grounding he failed to ensure that the true extent of the damage to the ship was ascertained, but acted upon assumptions.
- (c) That subsequent to the ship's grounding he failed to ensure
page 205that effective measures to control flooding on the vehicle deck were taken in—
- (i) Not using or attempting to use the scuppers provided on the vehicle deck for this purpose;
- (ii) Not attempting the pumping of compartments from which water was entering the vehicle deck;
- (iii) Not taking or attempting other measures to get the water off the vehicle deck including removing the sill to the engine room door, removing the access plates in the vehicle deck and draining into the freshwater and fuel tanks.
- (d) That subsequent to the ship's grounding he failed to communicate to the shore adequate reports of such information as he had and assumptions that he made as to the nature and extent of the damage with the result that the authorities ashore were misled as to the gravity of the situation.
- (e) That subsequent to the ship's grounding he failed in the circumstances to assess the extent of the danger that existed to both ship and persons aboard and failed to ensure that adequate preparation was made for the safety of passengers in the event of abandonment becoming necessary in the follow-in respects:
- (i) Failing to ensure the distribution of the Salvus life-jackets for the use of children;
- (ii) Failing to ensure that the passengers were adequately instructed as to what they should do;
- (iii) Failing to ensure that special measures were taken for the care and assistance of the elderly and of women with small children;
- (iv) Failing to ensure that an adequate plan was made for the orderly allocation of lifeboats and rafts either in the event of all lifeboats being usable or only those on one side being usable.
The Court said of the charges (the findings are here necessarily abbreviated) :
- (a) ". . . The Court is not prepared to say that the election made by the master on this occasion amounted to the neglect of an obvious duty imposed by the canons of good seamanship. It considers that the decision was a defensible one, but even if it were not of that opinion it would consider that if this page 206amounted to an error of judgment, then it occurred at a moment of great difficulty and danger. The Court, however, is not satisfied that in this particular respect the captain should be regarded as having committed an error of judgment." The Court said Captain Robertson had to react to a sudden and perilous situation and had nobody on the fo'c'sle head (to release the anchors). "The Court is unable to say that in making the decision that he did in the agony of the moment he was clearly wrong."
- (b) In sending the chief officer to make a survey of damage and then acting on the report he received, Captain Robertson was not guilty of any wrongful act or default. He had been criticised for acting in some respects upon assumptions. "He did assume that the damage to the bottom of the ship was such that she was in effect floating on her tank tops. So far as those tanks were concerned he assumed the worst, and in the event it turned out that he was right in that assumption. If he had assumed anything other than the worst he would have been open to valid criticism." The Court added that Captain Robertson had calculated or inferred that about 3,000 tons of water had entered the ship and this had been shown to be a reasonable estimate.
- (i) Captain Robertson was confronted with a situation in which the vehicle deck was, in places, below the level of the sea. When the ship rolled the scuppers on one side would function but the water would be on the other. And water in the scupper pipes might have contained particles of coke [resulting from cargo spillage on the vehicle deck] preventing the valves from seating properly had they been opened. Charge rejected,
- (ii) In view of reports received by the master and the fact that his proper place was on the bridge where he remained until the presence of Captain Galloway enabled him to make a personal inspection, the Court said it was unable to say Captain Robertson was guilty of a'wrongful act or default in this respect,
- (iii) Mr Jamieson declared it was more convenient to discuss this when dealing with the charge against the chief engineer. So far as the master was concerned the Court page 207said it found no wrongful act or default and no error of judgment.
(d) It was clear no message was sent ashore advising that the Wahine's draught had been assessed at 22 feet (an increase from a level of slightly more than 17 feet before the impact on the reef). "The Court is bound to be critical of this fact. The Court appreciates the situation in which the master found himself at this stage. All that he could do was to seek to ride out the fury of the weather with the ship riding to her anchors with her head to wind and sea, and if the ship were to break up in the meantime there could be little if any hope for the people on board. The Court appreciates further that once the master had estimated the new draught, and had formed the opinion that the vessel had settled at that, and that she was sitting upright in the sea and behaving well with no sign of instability, he did not regard abandonment before such time as conditions improved as being at all likely. There was no advice which could be offered from the shore which could get him out of his immediate situation. It may be that with such great immediate problems the master did not look further ahead at that stage, and consequently did not give thought to the fact that if, contrary to his opinion, abandonment should be forced upon him, the people ashore would need to have every opportunity to make preparation for the rescue operations even if only for use once conditions improved. It would be plain to him at that stage that there was no chance of rescue vessels reaching Wahine or doing anything effective if the ship should break up or be forced into abandonment in the existing state of weather and sea. But having noted all these matters the Court must hold that the failure to advise the shore of the estimated draught of 22 feet did amount to an error of judgment on the part of the master. It does not regard this as a wrongful act or default within the meaning of the charge, as it realises that this error of judgment did arise at a time when the master and his ship were in a position of great difficulty and danger and the master had many problems to face."
The Court also noted that at no time did Captain Robertson cause shore authorities to be told that water had got on to the vehicle deck. "Having regard to the importance of any page 208free surface water on the vehicle deck it would have been proper for him to have passed on this information once he had it. The master himself could not check the position until after 1230 hrs, although had he fully realised the significance of any water on that deck he might have made an opportunity earlier. He knew that there was a 'small trickle' reported after the chief officer's survey, and later that some water was in the 'dip', and getting through the ventilators. The Court considers that this information should have been passed ashore promptly. Doing so would in no wise have averted the casualty, but it would, or should, have given a greater sense of urgency to those ashore in preparing for the worst. The master, in fact, sent no information about damage until asked for it. This was wrong."
- (i) The Court said it should be noted that even the Salvus lifejackets, carried in deck lockers and claimed to be suitable both for persons over 70 pounds in weight and for those of lesser weight were not of much use to small children. Even a newer type of jacket ordered by the Union company before the disaster but not yet aboard by 10 April did not appear suitable for very small children. "The harsh fact is that there does not appear to be any such thing as a lifejacket which can be used for infants and very small children." Nevertheless, said the Court, it was unfortunate the Salvus lifejackets were overlooked. "It is, however, another matter to say the master, with all the matters to which he had to give attention, should be deemed guilty of a wrongful act or default because he personally did not think of these lifejackets."
- (ii) The Court noted two schools of thought on this question—one that passengers should have been told abandonment was unlikely but that if it should happen they were to follow certain instructions; the other holding that had anything of that sort been done early in the day there would have been a danger of panic developing. "Each view can be supported". The Court said the master's view was that passengers should be kept warm and content and not alarmed and that this was not a matter of neglect. "He was on the spot and had to page 209cope with the actual conditions prevailing, and the Court is not prepared to criticise because he took that particular view."
- (iii) It was unfortunate, the Court said, that it did not occur to Captain Robertson or some other officer directly concerned with passengers, to give instructions to have the passengers checked, to find out what elderly people, women alone with small children, or handicapped persons might need particular assistance and then arrange, if possible, for suitable male escorts. "It is a different matter to say that the master, with all he had to attend to, and all the responsibility that rested upon him in respect of the ship itself, should be treated as guilty of a wrongful act or default because it did not occur to him personally to take this action. The Court is not disposed to censure the master on this account."
- (iv) The Court said that in many cases of abandonment only the lifeboats on one side would be able to be used. The marine regulation for lifeboat drills made no provision for drills recognising this fact.
Referring to (e) generally, the Court said Captain Robertson was on the bridge, where he belonged, endeavouring to keep the ship afloat. "If he succeeded in that he could reasonably think he would save everybody. If the ship gave up the fight then it would be very doubtful whether anybody would survive. His object was to keep the ship afloat until the weather abated. It is not altogether surprising that with all he had to cope with, and in the state of mind described, he did not turn his mind to details to cope with an eventuality which he did not believe would arise."
Assessors Hopkins, Keane and Wall declared there was default on the part of the master in not having the ship on standby (which would include manning the fo'c'sle head) while entering harbour under weather conditions necessitating maintenance of full control of the vessel; default in reducing speed to a degree that under the conditions the ship became unmanageable through lack of steerage way; and default by the captain in not notifying the Union Company of the true extent of flooding and damage at 8.30 am and requesting confirmation of his assessment of the stability of the vessel. "If this information had been passed to his owners their technical advisers should have been aware that capsize of the page 210 Wahine was imminent and that every available vessel in the harbour should be alerted to give all possible assistance."
The three assessors also considered Captain Robertson committed an error of judgment in not advising passengers and crew of the existence of a very real danger that the vessel might capsize or sink. "We think the excuse of not wishing to cause panic and to keep them warm and happy is in no way justified."
Allegations against the chief officer were:
- (a) That subsequent to the ship's grounding he failed to ascertain the true extent of the damage to the ship but acted upon assumptions.
- (b) That subsequent to the ship's grounding he failed, as damage control officer, to take effective measures to control flooding on the vehicle deck in that:
- (i) He failed to use or attempt to use the scuppers provided on the vehicle deck for this purpose;
- (ii) He failed to attempt the pumping of compartments from which water was entering the vehicle deck;
- (iii) He failed to take or attempt other measures to get the water off the vehicle deck including removing the sill to the engine-room door, removing the access plates in the vehicle deck, and draining into the freshwater and fuel tanks.
- (c) Charged as Captain Robertson in section (e).
In its findings on these charges the Court noted:
- (a) That the chief officer for some reason did not check the shaft spaces abreast of the after fuel and fresh-water tanks and later, when it was found water was coming up through the ventilators to the vehicle deck, did not seem to have checked these shaft spaces although the two forward ventilators on the port side came from the deckhead of the shaft spaces. "These omissions are noted and deserve criticism." However, the Court added, they did not seem to have prevented Captain Robertson from arriving at a reasonable estimate of the water in the ship or to have prejudiced the Wahine's safety. "They did contribute to a lack of realisation of the true peril to the ship and therefore to the people ashore being misled by the optimistic messages sent to them. The Court is conscious of all the many duties which devolved upon the chief officer in the emergency, and does not hold him guilty of a wrongful act or page 211default as charged in this respect, but it is not on that account able to withhold that measure of criticism which it has expressed."
The Court said that allegations against Mr Luly in (b) and (c) had been discussed in relation to Captain Robertson and the same considerations applied.
Although no charge was involved, the Court said it felt the chief officer must share responsibility for the fact that insufficient information was sent ashore and that some of that sent was unduly optimistic.
"He was the damage control officer. He agreed that as such it was within the scope of his duty to suggest to the master the desirability of getting advice from the shore regarding stability and buoyancy, but apparently this did not occur to him. It is plain he did not fully grasp the threat presented by that water which was on the vehicle deck during the morning. The Court merely notes these points. It does not wish it to be inferred that it considers a charge should have been laid, or that, had one been laid, it would have found a wrongful act or default. It does feel bound to note these matters in order to indicate what it considers should be expected of a damage control officer in a comparable situation. He should make it his business to urge, not merely advise, that full and realistic information is sent out."
Charges against the chief engineer were:
- (i) He did not seek the master's authority to attempt to control the increase of water by the pumping of compartments from which water was entering the vehicle deck;
- (ii) He did not remove or attempt to remove the access plates in the vehicle deck;
- (iii) He did not remove or attempt to remove the sill to the engine room door;
- (iv) He did not drain or attempt to drain into the freshwater and fuel tanks.
- (i) the Court said the allegation was that Mr Wareing should have asked for permission to attempt pumping in the page 212transverse machinery space and in the shaft space. "The chief engineer was an exceedingly busy man trying to take measures which lay within his sphere. His tools were in the flooded motor propulsion room and consequently he was having to improvise. The Court does not accept this allegation."
- (ii) The Court said the method of securing the access plates, which covered holes for use when turbine lifting gear was lowered into the engine room below, suggested permanency. With suitable tools it had taken two hours to lift the plates a year earlier. On 10 April, the Court said, no suitable tools were available. "It is thought that this charge accuses the chief engineer of failing to attempt the impracticable and the allegation is rejected."
- (iii) The engineering assessor, Mr Wall, did not accept the suggestion of attempting to remove the sill to the door leading to the engine room, said the Court. The only tools available were a hacksaw and a small electric drill and Mr Wall estimated ninety-six holes would have had to be drilled with the tool exposed to water, and then the spaces between holes cut with the hacksaw. "It seems to the Court that the major question might well have been whether either the drilling machine or the hacksaw would have lasted long enough to complete the job."
- (iv) The Court said it was advised that it was at least doubtful whether any useful quantity of water would have reached the after freshwater and oil fuel tanks and added that Mr Wall considered air locks in the sounding pipes, running to the bottom of the tanks, would have prevented any appreciable quantity of water getting into either tank.
All charges against the chief engineer were rejected.
Discussing the allegations against the Harbour Board the Court declared the actual charge appeared to be based on an alleged failure to take precautions against an event, a wreck on the eastern shore, which in fact did not take place. For that reason the charge was not considered to be established.
However, a question of real significance to be considered was whether at some time before abandonment steps could have been page 213taken to see that as many rescue vessels as possible would be close to the ship in case of a sudden disaster.
The Court said that had suitable rescue vessels been close to the ferry when the decision to abandon ship was made, survivors ultimately carried to the eastern shore might have been intercepted while still reasonably close to the Wahine. "It is a reasonable inference that had this been possible the loss of life would have been reduced."
The Court said that earlier in the day it was clearly out of the question for small rescue craft to be sent to sea. On the information available to him, the Harbourmaster was justified in believing an order to abandon ship was unlikely. But he and the owners knew certain basic facts. The ship was without engines, holed, beset by violent wind and seas, and dependent for her safety on her anchors and cable. If they failed, disaster in one form or another could be anticipated and then a rescue fleet, provided it could operate in the conditions, would be needed to save life.
"When, at noon, the attempt to tow failed, one would think the possibility of taking preparatory steps would have been emphasised."
Because the Harbourmaster was unable to give evidence and no fishing craft skippers were called to testify, the Court said it had no evidence as to what exactly was done during the morning to alert suitable rescue craft.
"Unfortunately it seems that no steps were taken to have private vessels such as Tirohia, Rewanui [their skippers Bill McQueen and Gerald Gibbons testified at the inquiry] and the like alerted and standing by for use at short notice. The Court said the Tirohia left the city wharves at 2.10 pm, but certainly could have left much earlier had she been alerted in the morning.
"The evidence of Mr Gibbons and Mr McQueen shows that it was not practicable for even wellfound craft to leave before 12.30 pm, but after that time it became possible. It does appear to the Court therefore that at that point the skippers of suitable craft, whether commercial or private, could have been asked to move as close to Wahine as the weather conditions and the capabilities of each vessel would permit." The Court added that some craft would then have been in or near Seatoun by the time the order was given to abandon ship.
Assessors Hopkins, Keane, and Wall declared that any relaxation from the degree of alertness of possible rescue vessels which occurred page 214during the morning was due to incorrect information from the Wahine. Had the Harbourmaster been aware at 11 am that abandonment was a distinct possibility, and that the weather was abating, dispatch of rescue ships to the Wahine would have been made much earlier and rescuers would not have had to operate in the dangerous waters on the eastern side of the harbour.
The assessors said that because the Harbourmaster had no information from the Union Company's technical officers his subsequent actions could not be criticised. "It would appear that from the outset he made provision for all possible contingencies as he saw them."
Mr Jamieson said he felt the Union Company could have done more. "It was their ship and the whole tragedy was taking place very close to the head office doorstep."
The Court said, as it had of the charge against the Harbour Board, that the allegation could not be upheld, but agreed that the Company should have sought more information from the ship and that its officers should have impressed on the Harbourmaster the real dangers of the situation and the possibility of a sudden climax. On what was known, despite the reassuring messages from the ship, a tanktop or a bulkhead could have gone at any time. It should have been apparent that from the time the ship hit the reef the situation was serious. The Company knew the ship was holed.
An obvious question, the Court said, was "what is your draught?"
"The officers of the company ashore were in a much better position than the senior officers of Wahine to consult and discuss plans of the ship and other data and it is hard to understand why they did not ask for this information.
"The answer must surely have been of great importance to them and would have revealed how great the danger was. It is not forgotten that at no time did the Company receive any indication that any water had entered the vehicle deck and it is believed that had such information been received the importance of this would not have been missed.
"Nevertheless, there is room for criticism and had the correct conclusions been drawn from the estimated draught then surely these conclusions would have been conveyed to the Harbourmaster. They might have made a great difference to his assessment of the urgency of assembling and disposing a rescue fleet," the Court said.page 215
The Court declared that there could have been more suitable rescue craft nearer to the Wahine at the critical period, and if there had been, some of the loss of life would have been averted.
Assessors Hopkins, Keane, and Wall maintained the Union Company was in default in not taking positive action to ascertain the extent of the damage and flooding when it was known that the Wahine's motors were out of action due to flooded after-compartments. The Company should have asked for the ship's draught. Had it been known to the Company, their technical officers should have advised Captain Robertson that in spite of his assessment of the ship's stability the Wahine was flooded beyond the degree which she was designed to stand. He should also have been told his ship was in an extremely dangerous condition and that abandonment was a distinct possibility.
Even with the extent of the damage known at 10.10 am the owners should have assumed the vessel was damaged over its entire length and that failure of a tank top or bulkhead was also a distinct possibility that would have disastrous consequences, the assessors said. And they stated that the Company should also have kept the Harbourmaster fully aware of possible consequences in spite of any reassuring messages from the Wahine.
In the course of his findings Mr Jamieson said the decision to enter harbour on 10 April, or more correctly the absence of any recognition of the existence of a question arising on that point, could not be regarded as unjustified in view of the information then available.
The Court said the manner in which the cyclonic disturbance changed course and intensified and accelerated during the night, created a dangerous situation in the Cook Strait area. The Meteorological Office could not reasonably be expected to foresee or recognise this at a sufficiently early stage to affect its forecasts. The Court said it doubted whether it would have made any difference had the three weather messages sent after midnight on 9 April been received by the Wahine. The storm had changed direction and character, and with the facilities available to it, the Meteorological Office could not tell the Wahine any more than it did in the messages which were received.
The weather deteriorated sharply between 5 am, when the weather message was passed to the Wahine by the Beacon Hill page 216signalman, and 6 am when the Wahine was approaching the harbour entrance, the Court said. By 6 am the assessment given the ferry an hour earlier was no longer valid.
"It does seem, in retrospect, to be unfortunate that the signalman did not think to tell the Wahine what was happening at the harbour entrance. He said he had never been instructed that way."
The Court also declared that in view of evidence from a meteorological officer at the Wahine inquiry it could not take the view that merely because of the drop in barometric pressure in Cook Strait the Wahine's officers should have realised that the disturbance had intensified, accelerated, and changed course.
The weather, the Court said, built up to a climax and struck the Wahine when she was in or entering the most vulnerable position of her entire voyage—the narrow waters between Barrett Reef and the shoreline north of Pencarrow. The vessel suddenly sheered off course and failed to answer her helm "when buffeted from astern by wind of great violence and seas of great turbulence".
Mr Jamieson stated it was "well-nigh impossible" to say how and why the Wahine sheered off course originally. There were two conflicting theories, he said. One was that the ship had lost so much way that in the conditions encountered her rudders became ineffective, suggesting that in such extreme conditions her design rendered her vulnerable at low speed with a following sea. The other theory was that the Wahine's speed was rather too high in relation to the characteristics of the seas, so that she broached to.
Mr Jamieson said his nautical assessors inclined to the first theory; Mr Apperley preferred the second. "The Court finds that neither is sufficiently established, on the state of the evidence given at the Inquiry, to permit it to be put forward as the truth. It is accepted that she was pooped before she sheered . . . but whether that was related to the sheer cannot be established."
At a time when Captain Robertson had no visibility, either visual or instrumental, the ship went out of effective human control, and was never again under such control. Assessors Hopkins, Keane and Wall said they did not agree the ferry went out of effective human control or that the master had no instrumental aid. There was no evidence that his compass was not effective. They maintained that had the master referred to his compass heading instead of manoeuvring by instinct, and persisted with his endeavour to turn to port at 6.20 am when, as had been established from the evidence of page 217Mr Young [of Breaker Bay] the ship appeared to be in her normal position but heading out to sea, "it would appear that the manoeuvre the master states he was attempting was practically completed." (In a note to this statement by the assessors, Mr Jamieson said that at 6.20 Captain Robertson did not have, and could not have had, the benefit of Mr Young's observation of the ship's position.)
The Court said that faced with the need for immediate decision Captain Robertson elected to complete a swing to port to get the vessel's head to wind and sea, and then regain the open sea.
"This was a defensible decision, made under circumstances of great difficulty and danger at a time when a swift decision was called for. Whether a decision to drop the anchors taken at that point would have led to a different result is uncertain."
The Court and assessors were critical of the fact that the fo'c'sle head was not manned as the Wahine approached harbour with the anchors cleared away for immediate use. Mr Jamieson said Captain Robertson had given reasons for not using the anchors before the ship struck the reef. "As he had to react instantaneously to a perilous situation, and act on facts as they were, without time for reflection, it must be difficult indeed for him to say later whether he would or would not have used the anchors had they been available to him for immediate use. If that had been the situation the nautical assessors consider his reaction should have taken that form."
The Court added that whatever the reason (the assessors considered Captain Robertson was conditioned by all the circumstances of the service and established practice) it was disturbing to find the fo'c'sle head was not manned on the morning of 10 April. "The Court expresses its disapproval of the situation. If it is right for ships under the charge of a harbour pilot to take such precautions then it is surely right for vessels such as the Wahine, which are not under the charge of a harbour pilot, to observe the same precautions."
The starboard quarter of the Wahine struck, or was flung by the sea on to, the south-west extremity of Barrett Reef, the Court found. It seemed possible that before she hit, the ferry passed between the southern extremity of the reef and the lightbuoy, page 218taking her into Breaker Bay where she was seen by the Youngs from shore.
Contact with the reef caused serious underwater damage, beyond the point at which she was intended to survive. Engine power was lost and much water entered the ship.
Mr Jamieson said the weather reached its greatest fury while the Wahine dragged her anchors north past Point Dorset. It was impossible to evacuate passengers and crew from the onset of the crisis and this continued to be the position until the eventual order to abandon ship was given. "Had the order to abandon ship been given earlier, or delayed, the loss of life would almost certainly have been greater."
The Wahine capsized when she did, according to the Court, because of loss of stability caused by free surface water on her vehicle deck, which gained access following impact on the reef. Possible minor contributing causes were the force of the prematurely outgoing tide on her starboard side, the forces of wind and sea on her port side, and the shifting of weight to the starboard side on abandonment. (Assessors Hopkins, Keane, and Wall said they could not agree that any "couple" between wind and tide would have had any significant influence on the actual capsize of the ship. They said they believed the actual capsize was accelerated by water rushing into a starboard forward compartment due to failure of a bulkhead or inner bottom. This they said would account for the movement of water to the forward end that was noticed by the engineers before they left the turbo-alternator room.)
(Water which accumulated on the vehicle deck during the morning came largely through ventilators leading from flooded areas beneath the deck. The ventilators terminated on the vehicle deck which in the Wahine's case was the bulkhead deck. The water was most noticeable in the "dips" on both sides of the engine room casing, where the deck slanted before inclining up again. Water was first apparent on the deck some time after 8 am. Various witnesses at the inquiry gave different estimates of the depth of water.)
The Court said the chief engineer testified at the inquiry that after 10 am water was slopping over the 24-inch sill of the door in the engine-room casing when the ship rolled. Two pumps work- page 219ing on the bilges to the main turbo-alternator room were quite able to cope with this water.
Mr Jamieson said in his findings that it would appear that the attitude of mind of the ship's senior officers towards the position on the vehicle deck as the morning went by was that the amount of water was something about which they should be concerned, but which did not warrant alarm. "It was left to the chief engineer and his staff to deal with the problem of getting rid of that water, and they did the best they could, particularly seeing that their tools were out of reach in the flooded motor propulsion room, and it was the general consensus of opinion that the scupper valves normally provided for draining water off the vehicle deck could not be used because the outlets from them were under the surface of the sea."
Mr Jamieson noted: "The Court does not think that the master or the chief officer properly appreciated the danger of that quantity of water which in fact was on the vehicle deck before the end. The lesson for seafarers on similar ships is that any free surface water on an area such as a vehicle deck is a cause for immediate and great concern, as being a serious threat to the stability of the ship."
The Assessors stated that although there was conflicting evidence of the amount of water entering the vehicle deck the weight of evidence suggested there was a considerable build-up of water from 8.30 am "in such a degree that it should have been of the utmost concern to the senior officers ... in view of this serious development precise information should have been sent ashore instead of the mesages stating the 'flooding was under control' which had no foundation in fact."
Recommendations and suggestions made by the Court included the following:
- (a) Some arrangement could be made for crew members to wear distinctive dress which could be recognised at a glance by passengers, particularly during a crisis.
- (b) Important weather information becoming available during the night and which the inter-island ferries should have, should be passed on by means of the auto-alarm system.
- (c) Consideration should be given to amending the Shipping Musters Rules 1968 to require boat drills to cover the page 220possibility of abandonment of the ship from one side only.
- (d) There should be practical training for seamen in the use of liferafts including inflation of the craft in the water and the opportunity for seamen to learn how to cope with an overturned raft.
- (e) The Wellington Harbour Board should consider instructing its signalmen on Beacon Hill that if they passed weather information to an approaching vessel, and if there should be a marked change in conditions at the harbour entrance before that vessel reached it, they should so advise the ship.
- (f) The Harbour Board should give immediate consideration to the question of a salvage or deep-water tug for Wellington.
- (g) Consideration should be given to increasing by one the number of senior officers on ships comparable to the Waldne. In an emergency a senior officer should be freed from all duties save those of a damage control officer.
- (h) In designing another ship or future ships consideration should be given to improved fo'c'sle head access, protected from the weather as far as possible.
- (i) Any other means enabling anchors to be available for an unexpected emergency should be given all consideration.
- (j) Thought should be given to the duplication of at least some tools and equipment for storage in a different position above the bulkhead deck.
- (k) Every possible practical means of removing water from a ship's vehicle deck be provided.
- (1) In future design consideration should be given to the possibility of providing means for the effective closing or sealing-off of openings on a vehicle deck liable to allow water from below to find its way on to that deck in the event of underwater damage.
The Court also adopted suggestions from the Institute of Marine and Power Engineers made during the Inquiry. They were:
- (a) That ventilators from void spaces below should not necessarily terminate at the vehicle deck, but wherever possible be carried to a deck higher in the ship.
- (b) That consideration be given to providing double skins or side tanks around vital machinery rooms where this was possible.page 221
- (c) That spillable cargo (such as the coke and eggs thrown on to the Wahine's vehicle deck) be securely lashed and covered with tarpaulins or other effective means. Coke and eggshells strewn about the deck became a cause of concern to the Chief Engineer because of possible interference with the efficient operation of his pumps.
- (d) That electrical switchboards, whenever possible, be centralised and placed in an inboard position.
- (e) That portable salvage pumps or other flexible pumping arrangements be provided.
- (f) That gas welding apparatus, or, if that be not permitted for reasons of safety, pneumatic cutting equipment be carried.
Among recommendations by assessors Hopkins, Keane, and Wall:
- (a) A full radio watch be maintained on the inter-island ferries while at sea.
- (b) The disadvantage of totally enclosed bridges should be investigated and if shown to exist should be eliminated. (The assessors felt that on such a bridge as that on the Wahine it would be difficult for a navigator under conditions similar to those of 10 April to get a true appreciation of weather conditions.)