Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lessons from the Wahine

The 10th of April saw the 40th anniversary of the Wahine disaster. The Wahine was a ferry travelling from Lyttleton on the South Island to Wellington. During the night while the ferry sailed north the wind increased dramatically. Cyclone Giselle, met another storm over Wellington and caused some of the worst weather in New Zealand's history. The ship was driven onto Barretts Reef at the entrance to the harbour and subsequently had to be abandoned. Of the 610 passengers and 123 crew onboard 53 lost their lives. It is a poignant memory for Wellingtonians. Many remember the storm, their helplessness at the ship being so near but so far and the tragedy unfolding right in the middle of where the normality of life is conducted on a daily basis. Acts of heroism and sacrifice took place against the backdrop of tragedy and loss. The official inquiry concluded that the storm was the primary cause but that some mistakes had been made. 40 years on watching some of the survivors reflect I was struck by three lessons.

First is the danger of leadership that does not appreciate what is actually happening. When the Wahine ran aground all propulsion was lost. The captain ordered the anchors to be dropped. The crew were sure that the vessel was safe and the passengers, although at muster stations in life jackets, were told that there was nothing to worry about. Refreshments were served. When the harbour master came out in a tug the message was again relayed that everything was under control. Below decks the vehicle deck was flooding causing the vessel to list. When the captain eventually left the bridge to inspect the damage below decks for himself he realised the severity of the situation. If the big picture had been grasped sooner the evacuation could have been smoother and potentially more lifeboats could have been launched.

Second is the problem of jargon. When the order was eventually given the order was given to "abandon ship from the starboard side". People were confused and panicking. Many did not know which side was starboard. Some jumped from the high side of the ship, in some cases to their deaths. If the order had been given to "abandon ship from the low side" the passengers would have understood. Information can be technically correct but functionally limited.

Thirdly is the danger of misreading the signs. The wreck was very close to the city side of the harbour. Some lifeboats made it ashore at Seatoun, others were plucked from the water by boaties going out in the storm. What most of the rescuers and watchers failed to appreciate was that the wind and the current was driving many to the far side of the harbour. Over 200 survivors washed up on the Eastbourne side and many who died, perished on that rocky shore. Many rescuers were not where the people needing rescue were.

The faces of the survivors bother me. They have the look of those who have suffered a trauma that might not have been avoidable but could certainly have been managed better. I am sure that all involved in making decisions that day did their best. But people died. Names on memorials now but their loss to those who loved them cannot be counted these 40 years. It would be easy to point the finger at governments but I think my concerns lie nearer to home. How many mission agencies and churches have leaders who do not grasp what is going on, communicate in language that is not understood and do not grasp where the most needy people are heading. As I reflect on my own leadership I find myself having sympathy for Hector Gordon Robertson, Robbie to his friends, Captain of the Wahine.


Komata said...

I have just read your piece about "leadership that does not appreciate what is actually happening". What you say about the Wahine's Master, Captain Gordon Robertson, is utter uninformed rubbish. The situation on the Wahine's vehicle deck was under the personal command and control of the Wahine's Chief Engineer, Mr Herbert Wareing, and the Wahine's Chief Officer (First Mate) Mr Rod Luly, He was also the Wahine's Damage Control Officer. 61 year old Mr Wareing was, in 1968, the most experienced and most highly qualified marine engineer in the Union Steam Ship Company's fleet. Captain Robertson was fully justified in accepting the reports that Mr Wareing was personally giving to him during regular visits to the wahine's bridge, that the flooding on the main vehilcle deck was "under control." See if you want to get it right next time.

Komata said...

Your next comment: "If the big picture had been grasped sooner the evacuation could have been smoother and potentially more lifeboats could have been launched", is also just plain WRONG. The lifeboats could not have been launched any sooner than when they were, because of the heavy breaking seas running along both sides of the Wahine. This would have swamped and overturned the lifeboats. Hundreds would have drowned in the sea. I invite you to go to to get the facts

Anonymous said...

After learning that my Robertson's were living in Lower Hutt for some time; and the Captain was Hector I thirsted for more information. I borrowed from the Canberra Library ACT the book "The Wahine Disaster" 1969 by Max Lambert and Jim Hartley. I came to the conclusion that many factors came into play. In such dire circumstances I think Captain Robertson did his best to save many lives. With the severe, side on, winds, listing ship and extremely rough seas; it must have been very difficult to get the lifeboats out beside the Wahine and then out to sea. Memory of the book, they mentioned some of the lifeboats capsized going to the rocky shore. Captain Robertson may very well be a relative of mine, my mum was born in Lower Hutt in 1934. She has a pleasant, sedate, cool thinking, sort of personality, it must be a Robertson trait, Leadership her father Alex was adept at in the First World War. Please give Captain Hector Robertson; benefit of doubt, he did his best on a foundering ship. Some died, many survived. The New Zealand courts dealt with the inquiry. Let the good Captain rest in peace.