The first New Zealand shipwreck recorded by Europeans was that of the sealing supply vessel Endeavour in Fiordland’s Dusky Sound. On the 18th of September 1795, Endeavour left Sydney for Dusky Sound, accompanied by the 150-ton brig Fancy.  The pair of little ships had scarcely cleared Sydney when the captain discovered Endeavour had shipped 41 stowaways, including one woman.

The voyage was a nightmare with the stormy Tasman Sea inflicting much damage to the two ships. On reaching Dusky Sound, the two captains noticed a partially completed ship on a slipway. It had been abandoned by sealers at some earlier date but it was in much better state than Endeavour. All hands turned to building huts to accommodate the crews of Endeavour and Fancy, as well as the stowaways and the passengers that Endeavour had been carrying. Those up for the hard work turned to stripping the badly damaged Endeavour of everything of value and this was accomplished except for the loss of two cannons. These weapons lay in the deep water of Facile Harbour until 1984 when they were recovered by Kelly Tarlton.

Meanwhile, carpenters were finishing off and caulking the little vessel left by the sealers. She was finally declared seaworthy and launched as Providence, displacing about 70 tons and rigged as a schooner becoming the first vessel in New Zealand constructed from local timber (rimu). Shortly afterwards, the Endeavour came to a sad end when she broke from her moorings on the 25th of October 1795 during a violent storm. Two days later she struck a rock and sank.


The greatest wreck in New Zealand waters was that of HMS Orpheus on the 7th of February 1863 at the Manukau Bar, Auckland. Orpheus left Sydney on the 31st of January 1863. Her approach to Manukau Harbour ran through a series of dangerous sand bars. The weather was clear and sunny. Although the bars had been charted in 1836 and again in 1856, a revised pilotage guide from 1861 was available that indicated that the middle sand bar had moved northwards and grown considerably in the intervening time. Orpheus carried both the 1856 chart and the updated guide but the ship proceeded according to the older chart.

As the ship approached the submerged bar, a navigational signal was received instructing her to turn north to avoid a grounding. Soon after, Frederick Butler, one of only two men on board to have previously entered Manukau Harbour, alerted the senior officers to the improper course they were taking. Despite finally attempting to correct their course, a few minutes later, at approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, Orpheus hit the bar. The force of the surf soon caused Orpheus to swing around, exposing its port side to the waves. The hatches burst open, cabin windows were shattered, and Orpheus began to take on water. The crew attempted to abandon ship, but the power of the sea’s surge made escape extremely difficult, and many sailors were swept away. Of the 259 naval officers and men aboard, 189 died, including the captain.


The second greatest maritime tragedy in New Zealand waters occurred on the 29–30 April 1881, when the passenger steamer Tararua struck a reef at Waipapa Point, Southland, about a kilometre from shore. The ship was sailing from Port Chalmers to Melbourne. 131 passengers and crew died including 12 women and 14 children. Only 20 people survived. One passenger managed to swim ashore to raise the alarm while terrified passengers clung to the masts throughout the night as the ship began to break up around them. Most were washed overboard and drowned while the rescuers were held back by high seas. The Court of Inquiry into the tragedy concluded that the ‘negligent failure’ of Able Seaman Weston to keep a proper look-out was the immediate cause of the grounding, but that the wreck and loss of life was largely due to the master, Francis Garrard, who failed to ‘accurately ascertain the ship’s position’ in the hour before the Tararua struck the reef.


On the 29th of October 1894 the steamer Wairarapa, travelling in thick fog from Sydney to Auckland, sailed into cliffs on Great Barrier Island, about 55 miles (90 km) north-east of Auckland. Although some lifeboats were launched, the seas swept other people to their death. In all, 101 of the 186 passengers and 20 of the 65 crew were lost. This disaster sent the people of Auckland into a period of mourning. It is still remembered today for the suffering the people onboard the ship endured during the sinking.


There were a number of other 19th-century wrecks with significant loss of life. This was a time before watertight compartments had been invented so any breech of a ship’s hull inevitably resulted in the sinking of the vessel. The Maria broke up on rocks near Wellington on the 23rd of July 1851, with the loss of 26 lives. As it neared Wellington Harbour the barque crossed a reef, and then, a few minutes later, struck a rock which pierced the hull. The ship soon separated into two halves about 1,300 ft (400 m) from shore. The crew tried to free a small boat, but the lowering mechanism gave way and it was smashed to pieces. Those not killed in this incident then salvaged material to use as rafts. Only two men reached the shore.


The paddle steamer City of Dunedin left Wellington at around 5 p.m. on Saturday 20th of May 1865, bound for Nelson and then Hokitika. It was never heard from again, and no trace was ever found of Captain Boyd or his 24 crew and at least 22 passengers. As darkness approached, a young local girl saw a steamer near the rocks off the south-western tip of the North Island. The ship appeared to be ‘going round and round and would not steer’. The girl ran home and asked her mother to go and see what was happening, but she couldn’t be bothered. This was the last reported sighting of the ship. Wreckage was found the following day on the south coast, and confirmation that it was the City of Dunedin came when the ship’s figurehead washed up on the beach at Palliser Bay.


On the 14th of February 1869, the fully rigged St Vincent was wrecked. It had sailed from Wellington on route to load wool in Canterbury when it was caught in a squall and ended up hitting a point of Palliser Bay. It quickly sank. Wreckage was strewn along the coastline for 2 miles (3.2km). Only 2 people survived the sinking when they were washed ashore. 20 died in the disaster.


The steamer Taiaroa struck rocks at the mouth of the Clarence River north of Kaikoura on the 11th of April 1886. 15 passengers and 21 crew drowned. The Taiaroa was sailing from Wellington to Port Chalmers when the wind increased to a strong north westerly then suddenly swung round to a very strong south-easterly with heavy rain and fog. As night approached, the mate advised the captain that he could see land on the port bow. The captain stopped the vessel and then ordered full astern but it was too late. The Taiaroa grounded 50 yards from shore. The chief engineer advised the captain that the ship was making water.  An unsuccessful attempt was made to get a line ashore so the captain ordered everyone into the four lifeboats and wait in them until light before setting off for the beach. The boats were attached by lines astern but three soon capsized in the heavy seas. Most of those thrown from the capsizing lifeboats were drowned having been overcome by the cold. Sadly, had they remained on board the ship they would most likely have all survived.

SS Taiaroa (Wikipedia)

Today, with modern navigation equipment available and ships built with watertight compartments, there are few mishaps around the New Zealand coastline. Having said that, ships do still sink and lives are lost but these marine disasters are now thankfully few and far between.

Ceidrik Heward

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