Survivor’s tale 50 years on

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How many people can vividly recall an event 50 years earlier? Queenstowner Kate Watson sure can. A survivor of New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster, on April 10, 1968, she shares her memories, and the impact it had on her, with Philip Chandler

Among Queenstowners who’d say they’re lucky to be alive, artist Kate Watson’s experience takes some beating.

Fifty years ago this coming Tuesday, she was aboard the Wahine ferry when it ran aground, then sank, in atrocious weather at the entrance to Wellington Harbour.

Fifty-three people lost their lives in New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.

Watson, then 19, had never been on a ship before boarding the Wahine in Lyttelton, after staying with her parents’ friends in Christchurch.

“I just remember it was a dark and gloomy night – I thought, ‘should this ship be sailing?’

“I called out to the people I’d been staying with, ‘I hope this ship doesn’t sink’.

“When I got up on the deck, I saw this tall Fijian man, with really curly hair, and our eyes kind of locked.”

Watson recalls the thud, early next morning, when the ship must have hit Wellington Harbour’s Barrett Reef, the impact tossing her across her cabin.

After everyone assembled on the deck, the ship listed badly and the order to abandon ship was given.

“It was chaos, there were people pushing. There was no ‘women and children first’, I can tell you.

“I honestly thought I was going to die ‘cos I went to the wrong end of the ship.

“I was so confused and panicking, I suppose.”

The Fijian, whom she’d earlier clapped eyes on, found her and told her to follow him.

“I can remember climbing down something.

“We didn’t really have to jump that far into the sea, ‘cos the boat was slowly going down, but my lifejacket flipped off my head.”

The Fijian, who’d jumped ahead, grabbed her and put her into a rubber dinghy with about nine others.

It seemed to take ages to get to shore, she says.

“It was going up and down – he was telling us all to hold on to the edges when the waves hit.”

The rescued passengers sang songs like Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag to raise their spirits.

Watson says it’s fortunate the dinghy came ashore at Pencarrow Head rather than hitting rocks which claimed others’ lives.

On shore a policeman gave her his jacket as she was freezing. She was wearing it beside her rescuer Eroni Vakacegu in a photo run in a Wellington newspaper.

“Later on I found [the cop’s] whole pay packet in there.

“I handed it to the Salvation Army people and they found that cop, he was so grateful.”

Survivors were taken to Wellington Railway Station where Watson was reunited with her parents – “they really thought they weren’t going to see me again”.

She went home to her parents’ Hawke’s Bay farm to recover. They also took in an elderly Scottish woman who’d been on the dinghy.

“I was a nervous wreck for a little while, there was no counselling, and you just had to get on with it. I’ve always been a little bit nervy, ever since.”

The experience made her chuck in her Wellington job and go see the world instead. She later moved to the Coromandel, raising three daughters, but her husband died young and she moved to Queenstown 17 years ago.

She still catches the odd interisland ferry, “but I’m a bit nervous if it gets rough – I need a gin and tonic”.

If she has a regret, it’s that she never caught up with her rescuer, who died young of cancer.

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