Wreck of the SS Tararua

The second greatest loss of life in New Zealand waters came in 1881 when 131 people died in the wreck of the Tararua.

On a voyage from Port Chalmers to Melbourne, the ship struck a reef off Waipapa Point, Southland, at 5 a.m. on 29 April. A passenger swam ashore to raise the alarm, but the rough sea made it too dangerous to take people off. The ship began to break up, and the passengers climbed the rigging. They hung on until 2.35 a.m. the next morning, when those on the beach heard piercing shrieks. By daybreak the ship had sunk, and bodies were floating ashore. Only 20 of the crew and passengers were saved. Six weeks after the Tararua sank, the papers were still full of some of the strange stories resulting from the event.

The Union Company S.S. Tararua, built and engined by Messrs Gourlay Bros. & Co. Dundee in Scotland in 1864, of 563 tons,
& 155 hp nominal, struck the Otara reef, to the north of Waipapa Point, and to the south of Slope Point, a few miles north of Toi-Tois, the entrance of the Mataura river, 35 miles from Wyndham, Southland, New Zealand in fair weather off about half a mile from shore at 5 o'clock, in the morning 29 April 1881 with the loss of 131 lives (carrying 112 passengers and a crew of 40 plus live geese and pigs) from Port Chalmers to Melbourne via Bluff/Hobart. She was travelling from Port Chalmers to Bluff. Port Chalmers is Dunedin's port. 'The night was dark but clear overhead; a haze hung over the land, the loom of which could be seen, but no distinguishing features could be discerned'. The vessel was close to shore. Three boats were got out but were swamped. One got away to seaward and one came ashore, landing five or six men. The steamer parted amidships and a large number of those on board perished. The distance from the Bluff to Otara Reef is 26 miles.

Sailing from Port Chalmers, Dunedin at 5 pm on 28 April 1881, the Tararua was en route to Melbourne via Bluff and Hobart. Steering by land on a dark night, with clear skies overhead but a haze over the land, the captain turned the ship west at 4 am believing they had cleared the southernmost point. After breakers were heard at 4:25 am, they steered away to the W by S-half-S for 20 minutes before heading west again. At around 5 am, the ship struck the Otara Reef, which runs 13 km (8 mi) out from Waipapa Point.

The first lifeboat was holed as it was launched, but the second lifeboat carried a volunteer close enough in to swim to shore and raise the alarm. A farmhand rode 35 miles (56 km) to Wyndham to telegraph the news. However, while a message reached Dunedin by 1 pm, it was not marked urgent, and it took until 5 pm for the Hawea to leave port with supplies. Meanwhile the wind and waves had risen. Around noon, six passengers who were strong swimmers were taken close to shore; three managed to get through the surf, with the help of the earlier volunteer, but the others drowned. On a return trip, one man attempted to get ashore on the reef, but had to give up; another three drowned trying to swim to the beach. Another boat capsized trying to get a line through the surf. Eight of its nine crew survived, but the boat was damaged, and the locals who had gathered on the shore could not repair it. The remaining boat could no longer reach the ship, due to the waves, and stood out to sea in hope of flagging down a passing ship to help. The Tararua took over 20 hours to sink, with the stern going under around 2 pm and the rest disappearing overnight. The last cries of the victims were heard at 2:35 am. Only one man managed to swim safely from the ship to shore.

About 74 bodies were recovered, of which 55 were buried in a nearby plot that came to be known as the "Tararua Acre". Three gravestones and a memorial plinth remain there today.