The Wreck of the SS Wairarapa, wrecked at Miner's Head, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand
The Wreck of the SS Wairarapa, wrecked at Miner's Head, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand
National Library of New Zealand - Source
License: Public Domain

Sinking of the SS Wairarapa

The SS Wairarapa was a first class steamer owned by the Union Steam Ship Company that carried both passengers and cargo between Australia and New Zealand.

On the 29th October 1894, the Wairarapa was sailing between Sydney and Auckland when it struck Miners Head, off Great Barrier Island. Of the 235 passengers and crew on board, it is thought that 130 people lost their lives, making this the third worst shipping disaster in New Zealand’s history.

Rescue was difficult because of the remote location of the shipwreck and the rough conditions. In the hours immediately after the wreck, two lifeboats rescued 50 people from the sea but other lifeboats were smashed by waves or rocks. Those survivors left on board either clung to the rigging or climbed to the ship's bridge. A steward swam to shore with a line and about 50 people were able to be hauled through the water to safety. The survivors huddled on the rocks for over 30 hours before being rescued by Ngati Rehua at Katherine Bay.

Late on the night of October 29/30, it had passed the North Cape of New Zealand, when it suddenly encountered dense fog. However, Captain John McIntosh was so sure of his bearing that the ship continued at full speed, to pass Great Barrier Island on the final run to Auckland Harbour.

Suddenly, there was a deafening crash as the ship was flung by the heavy swell on to a rocky ledge. For a moment, all was confusion; the passengers rushed from their beds; Captain McIntosh ordered the boats to be lowered, and the tremendous seas pounded the grounded ship. At 2 a.m., its funnel was carried away, then the boat listed to port and the bridge collapsed. The Captain and many others were swept away into darkness. The life-rafts were cut adrift, and saved many people, and the rest fought for their lives.

THE agonizing story of the loss of the fine steamship Wairarapa and the sacrifice of the lives of 140 of the passengers and crew is almost without a parallel in the history of marine disasters on the coast of New Zealand. It is a heart-rending story. The ship was scarcely fifty miles from her journey’s end. She was crowded fore and aft with passengers bound to New Zealand, some of whom were intent upon a pleasure tour of this colony; others were returning from a trip abroad, and were looking for ward with eager impatience to the moment when they would be restored to the arms of their loved ones at home; while others, again, were approaching New Zealand for the first time, intent upon making a home and seeking a fortune in this distant land, or of joining relatives already here. The vessel was crowded with such passengers. There were nearly 200 of them. And in the darkest hours of the night, in the midst of a dense fog, and with an angry sea on either hand, the Wairarapa Crashed at full speed on to the north- western point of the Great Barrier Island. She was on rocks of iron. There was a precipitous cliff immediately ahead, and a boiling sea surging around and breaking over the already doomed vessel, and cruelly swallowing up its victims in scores. Oh, it was awful. And, from all accounts, there were lack of organization, want of discipline, and absence of command that intensified the horrors of tile disaster and hastened the work of death and destruction.