Bitter Sweet Endings - 40 Years Ago Today

Not all stories have fairy tale endings. For cultural reasons, most of us grow up expecting such, reinforced by books, movies and TV programs where all conflicts are solved in 30 or 60 minutes. Much of religion is based on the promise of some kind of salvation or rescue or happy ending afterlife. (I'm not knocking anyone's personal beliefs, just making an observation.) Perhaps that is why most people tend to filter out news that doesn't fit their "happily-ever-after" paradigm or live in constant denial of ongoing problems and injustices that go on all around them.

Some stories have both a happy and a sad ending. That is reality. That is life. Some philosophies/religions encourage people to embrace things as they are. Perhaps there is value in that. A case in point...

On this day in 1968, a young woman of 19, Katherine McGibbon of Queensland, New Zealand, was making passage on the beautiful new ferry, the TEV Wahine.

Only two years into service with the Lyttelton-Wellington line, the Wahine was making its way toward the Capitol of New Zealand, Wellington. At 488 feet, she was, at the time, the largest roll on/roll off ship in the world and could carry 950 passengers and 200 cars. I can say "she" not only because of maritime custom, but because the word "wahine" (wah-hee-neh) is Polynesian for "woman".

At 5 am she was hit by a hurricane. The hurricane was actually two storms that had merged and formed one of New Zealand's worst storms, with winds of over 100 knots (115 mph). The ship's radar was knocked out and she wandered off course and struck the Barret's Reef, damaging her steering. Soon, she would not answer the helm at all and then as wind and waves pushed her further into the reef, lost the starboard propeller and propulsion from the port engine as well. Dead in the water and at the mercy of the storm, the Wahine was pushed over the reef, the ship's anchors were dragging and a tug valiantly tried, but failed, to get a line to her and tow her to safety. It was decided to ride out the storm right there (was there any other choice?).

Roll on/roll off, or "RoRo" ferries, have an Achilles heel - the car deck. In calm seas, the car deck is above the water line, but are often open at the stern, and in order to allow easy loading and off loading of vehicles, they do not have bulkheads or compartments. If water gets into that deck it is free to slosh about, and the weight of the water plus the location above the center of gravity, can cause the ship to list heavily to one side or the other. This is one reason that car ferries are one of the more dangerous means of transport. About one in the afternoon, this was the fate of the Wahine. As the stormy sea sent water through the open stern into her car deck, she rolled onto her starboard side and within thirty minutes was in danger of capsizing. The captain ordered the 734 passengers and crew to abandon ship.

Most of the passengers got into life boats and made it to shore. 51 people, mostly those who tried to swim to land, died. When the order came to abandon ship, Katherine McGibbon, who did not know how to swim at the time, jumped into the water. Luckily for her, a Fijian man, Eroni Vaceucau, was there to save her. She met Vaceucau on the deck and he told her to follow him into the sea. However, she had not put her life jacket on properly and it flipped over her head. He pulled her into a rubber boat and took charge, telling the ten other passengers where to sit to keep the boat stable and showing them how to get the boat safely to shore. According to Katherine McGibbon (now Kate Watson) "Other dinghy's around us capsized and people died in the process but through his guidance we got back to shore. As we got out he went back into the treacherous seas and pulled out a young boy who was sitting on a rock." Newspapers of the time carried stories about his efforts and he was given special mention in the board of inquiry for his heroism.

Katherine McGibbon (Kate Watson) was sorry that she never got to thank the man who saved her life that day. Today, Wellington Museum will commemorate the disaster. Last week national television in New Zealand featured shots of the young Eroni and Ms MacGibbon.

Ms Watson, now an artist, had been searching recently for Mr Vaceucau after not seeing him again, and had released the photo of the two on the beach in hopes of finding him. She knew him only as Eroni Vaceucau, but his full title is Ratu Eroni Vaceucau - "Ratu" means "chief" in Fijian. A chiefly man from a chiefly family.

Last night, in a phone call to Suva, she learned that he died five years ago.

"If I had found him after the incident I would have flown all the way to Fiji just to say thank you," she told the Fiji Times. "I feel really sad about this (his death). I feel devastated. I hoped and prayed that he was still alive so that I could say thank you."

The ferry "Maori" passes the capsized "Wahine" in 1968

For more about this poignant story, see the blog "Babasiga".


Don Snabulus said...

If she is an artist, maybe she can honor his memory through her art.

ladybug said...

Wow, I remember hearing about this a couple years ago on a Discouvery or other cable channel.

It was awful, and because the storm was so bad, there was little anyone could do. I hope the lady in question will perhaps be able to honer his memory through his relatives, if they are amenable to that.

jam said...

The moral: Go out and do what is in your mind before you leave it too late to regret. Thanks for sharing.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

I hadn't heard of this story until a few days ago and I posted some of it on babasiga blog. The hero apparently was Ratu Eroni Vakacequ who died in later years. He had one daughter, known as Ditui. Peceli says his behaviour at the scene of the disaster was typical of a young Fijian of chiefly family - to take responsibility and to help others.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the ferry between Sweden and Estonia, that sank on September 28, 1994, in a severe storm in the Baltic Sea.

Some 500 Swedes were among the 852 reported dead. Only 137 people survived when the ferry sank while crossing from Tallinn to Stockholm. The sinking is said to have resulted from water rushing into the ship's hold, but it remains unclear how and where on the vessel the breach occurred.

Read more: New Statesman, Death in the Baltic: the MI6 connection, suggesting that the British and Swedish governments were secretly using public transport to smuggle stolen Russian military equipment.

There is even a link to Rockwater, a British-based division of the American Halliburton group, run between 1995 and 2000 by you know who...


Robin said...

hmmm.. wondered why I could not comment on momo's post above..

and you have comment moderation enabled too..

oops.. hope you are not infested by something or someone..

Pandabonium said...

Robin - sorry. I had a spam problem and then some screw ups with my template that messed things up a bit. I got busy with other things and didn't work on it for a week. Just got it sorted out today and turned off the moderation and got my links straightened out. Everyone should be free to comment again.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.