A large ship has hit a reef. A smaller boat is nearby.

70 Years Ago – Wanganella Strikes Rocks in Wellington Harbour

19 Jan 2017
70 years ago, on 19 January 1947, the trans-Tasman passenger liner TSMV Wanganella hit Barrett Reef in Wellington Harbour

By Ellen Pullar

Coming into port at 11.30pm, the ship’s captain mistook the buoy in front of the reef for a light guiding ships into the harbour. Subsequently the ship, which was carrying 400 passengers from Sydney, stuck to the rocks.

Fortunately, the Wanganella’s passengers were rescued the next day. Rescuing the vessel, however, was not so easy. In spite of several attempts by tugboats to unstick the ship, it remained firmly attached to the reef for 18 days.

The ship was finally freed on 6 February. This film, held in the collections of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, shows tugboats attempting to shift the vessel and eventually succeeding.

Aside from being shipwrecked in Wellington, the Wanganella had a long and storied seafaring career. The ship had been a passenger liner, serving a Sydney – Melbourne – Auckland – Wellington route, since the early 1930s. It was well appointed with a library, a Grecian style main lounge, smoking lounges with intricately carved wooden furniture, cards and games rooms, a formal dining room, and a café.

You can see more photos of the Wanganella’s luxurious interior here.

In addition to being a luxury passenger liner, the vessel transported its share of interesting cargo. This included shipments of 350 sheep and 450 tons of export onions (in a consignment said to be the “largest to leave the Dominion”).

Stowaways seem to have been quite common on-board. These included (as reported in the Press) the 16-year-old boy, “Sun,” who stowed away on the Wanganella in 1939 “to see the world.” Unfortunately for him, he was discovered – and accommodated in a small room in the ship’s dummy funnel until the ship returned to New Zealand.

During WWII, the Wanganella was put to service as a hospital ship, carrying soldiers injured in warfare in the Middle East and Europe home to New Zealand and Australia. In 1940, the Wanganella went to the assistance of the trans-Pacific liner Niagara, when it struck a German mine off the coast of Northland and sunk. The passengers and crew were rescued and carried back to New Zealand on the Wanganella.

A crowd of people are watching a man in a soldier's uniform and a woman embracing.

World War II servicemen being embraced after his return to Wellington. Photograph taken by Government Film Studios. Pascoe, John Dobree, 1908-1972: Photographic albums, prints and negatives. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

A grainy image of female nurses coming off a boat in uniform.

Nurses on the Wanganella, Evening Post, 15 August 1945

After the war, the Wanganella was refitted as a passenger liner. But, unfortunately, on her first post-War voyage on the trans-Tasman route, with a full load of passengers, she hit the reef in Wellington!

In 1948 the Wanganella was repaired. The ship would continue to transport passengers across the Tasman, and on wider cruises around the Pacific, until the 1960s.

A man and a woman are holding a young child.

Passengers for a Pacific cruise on the Wanganella. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/1889-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Learn more about the history of the Wanganella on ssmartime.com.