Wednesday, April 10th, 1968 dawned overcast and windy in Wellington. I had the day off to attend a funeral.
That evening, Judy and I were taking our two young children on the overnight ferry to Christchurch to visit my mother for Easter. Since my father's death just over two years earlier, we had taken every opportunity to visit nana. Usually we had flown with SPANZ, an airline which started up in opposition to NAC, and flew cut rate flights in old DC3s between Wellington and Christchurch. Once on board these planes, you needed crampons to climb up the steep cabin to your seat. In flight, they were noisy and the rivets on the wings moved, but the views flying low between the Seaward and Inward Kaikouras in winter were fantastic. Now SPANZ had gone and we were taking the ferry.
When I left Johnsonville at 9-30 that Wednesday morning for the funeral at Karori, the wind was strong, but I didn't take much notice as strong winds were not unusual in Wellington. Even when I dodged sheets of roofing iron on the road, I didn't think much about it. At the crematorium, I was blown over walking through the car park. In the chapel we were told that the Wahine had not yet berthed but no one was sure what had happened. There was some debate as to whether the service should be postponed as many of the deceased's family were on board.
In the service, the minister could hardly be heard for the wind squealing and whistling around the building.
After the service, the wind strength had increased, and I wondered whether I could hold our Morris 1000 on the road. At home the power was off. We were sheltered by a hill from the full force of the wind but the whine overhead was frightening. I had always thought that the sound in films of hurricanes was exaggerated but learned otherwise on that day. We watched in fascination as the trees on the farm opposite were bowled over one by one. Houses along the road had their roofs sucked off. Our church lost its roof. We were unaware then that some gusts of wind reached two hundred and forty kilometres an hour. We didn't have a transistor at that time and as many wires were down, the remaining lines were so overloaded that it was almost impossible to make a connection with anyone by telephone.
We lit a fire in the lounge fireplace as the temperatures plummeted. This was our only way of heating and cooking. We moved fitfully around the house not knowing what to do. What had happened to the Wahine? Would she be sailing tonight? Could we still go to Christchurch?
After an hour of trying, I finally made telephone contact with the Union Steamship Company at about three o'clock.
"Would the Wahine be sailing tonight?", I asked eagerly.
"No." was the blunt reply and the phone was put down. We still did not know what had happened.
What now? The wind had dropped. Would it be possible to fly to Christchurch? It was worth a try. We were all packed and had nothing else planned.
After a further half hour of dialing, I reached NAC.
"Any chance of two seats to Christchurch tonight? What has happened to the Wahine?"
The questions all tumbled out.
"The Wahine has been wrecked off Seatoun but many have been saved."
"Sorry, all flights to Christchurch today have been cancelled as the storm has moved south. Ring again at about 5pm and we might know by then what our plans for tomorrow are."
So now we knew.
When I rang later we were offered seats on a flight leaving at five am the next morning.
Would we still go? Why not? We were all packed and had made the plans to stay with Mum. We rang Mum and told her that we'd be arriving in Christchurch at 6am. She promised to meet us at the airport.>/P>
That evening, after the power was restored, we learnt the full horror of the Wahine disaster. The ship had finally foundered off Seatoun. 51 were dead any many were seriously injured. Some had come ashore at Seatoun but many had ended up on the Eastbourne side of the harbour. All the family who had missed the funeral were safe.
The next morning was still, deathly still. Driving around Evans Bay to the airport, the reflections of the lights from the Hutt Valley in the harbour were beautiful. The calm was eerie.
Many attempts were made to start the engines on the Viscount in the cold. While we were waiting, the hostesses gave out rugs and asked if any of the passengers going to Christchurch wanted to get off as the storm had moved south and the chances of landing at Christchurch were slight. We would probably land at Dunedin, and would be brought back by bus. Nobody moved.
We had the two rear seats on the right and both Judy and I each had a child to hold.
We took off about an hour late. Circling out of Wellington we could see the Wahine on end, surrounded by a sea which looked more like a millpond. A grim reminder of the drama of the previous day.
The flight down was uneventful. North of Christchurch, the captain announced that he was going down to have a look. As we descended, we felt the full force of the wind as we went from air pocket to air pocket. We dropped suddenly, we went sideways, we bumped and slid. Children all over the plane were sick. Craig, who was three, almost vomited again and again, but each time we hit another bump, Kristin who was one, laughed and squealed and distracted him.
Touching down at Christchurch, I was scared that both wing tips would touch the tarmac as we tipped from side to side in the gale force wind. Stopped on the tarmac in front of the terminal, I wondered whether the pilot could hold the plane on the ground. He left the engines going and we were ushered quickly into the terminal. Mum wasn't there to meet us. She had rung the airport and had been told that the height of the storm had just hit Christchurch and there was no show of getting any sort of plane in. She went back to bed.
We caught the bus into the city. The bus zigzagged through Hagley Park missing the numerous trees lying on the road. At the city depot we phoned mum and she came and crammed us all into her mini. Looking at what babies need today, I don't know how.
That evening, the airforce started emergency airlifts to get stranded passengers across the straits. We were the only transport that had succeeded in travelling between Wellington and Christchurch during the previous two days. If we had landed in Dunedin, we would have been stranded there as flooding and slips north blocked all the roads.
It was a good family Easter and we arrived safely back home in Wellington on the Tuesday evening.