by Helen Martin
On 10 April 1968, John Glasson, a young man just a month shy of his 24th birthday, was a passenger on board the Union Steamship Company’s Lyttelton to Wellington ferry Wahine. John had grown up on a farm in Helensville and was in his third year at Lincoln College in Christchurch, where he was studying for a Diploma in Valuation and Farm Management. He and the rest of the 15-member Lincoln College cricket team, along with teams from the Otago and Canterbury universities, were on route to Palmerston North to take part in the NZ universities’ Easter Tournament. “We had a pretty good team,” John says, “but we never got the chance to play.”
The Wahine left Lyttleton Harbour for Wellington at 8.40 p.m. on the evening of 9 April. John and his teammates had a drink in the bar then turned in. John had pre-ordered breakfast (20 cents for a plate of bacon, eggs, sausages and chips), and remembers eating at 6.20 am and watching waves smashing into the stern, not knowing then that the Wahine had sailed into one of the worst storms ever recorded in New Zealand. “The top metre of the wave was being whipped off by the wind and the swells were huge. But there was nothing to alarm us until the ship gave a violent roll and there was a crunching noise. The stewards in the cafeteria said it was the propellers coming out of the water, but we’d actually crashed into the rocks on Barrett Reef on the western side of the harbour entrance.”
The next few hours are indelibly imprinted on John’s memory. There were emergency lights but no power. Confusion as passengers and crew tried to understand what was happening was heightened by the loudspeaker’s silence. What was happening? “We couldn’t see very much because it was so foggy with the spray and rain and the wind was blowing very hard” says John. Around 10a.m. most of the team went up to the TV room. As they sat and chatted, with the ship constantly rolling, they saw the Wahine try several times to fire a line to the tug Tapuhi. Success was fleeting, as the hawser (towing cable) snapped. “At 12p.m. we listened to the News on the radio and learned more about what was happening than we’d been told by the ship. At 1p.m. we listened to the News again. I was sitting down with my back against the wall and noticed the lean was getting steeper. I put my lifejacket on and did the tape up in bows, so I could undo them in a hurry. Then the ship gave three rolls and didn’t come back. When the announcement came for all passengers to go to the starboard lifeboats my only thought was, where the hell is starboard? I was disorientated because of the misty rain. We could never see the land even though we were only 400metresoff Seatoun.”
The passengers formed two lines at the doors that faced towards the bow. To get into the queue John, who was topside, swung across the curtains, then slid down the carpet towards the back of the queue. A couple of the team grabbed him as he slid past. “Outside on B deck people didn’t know what to do. The ship was on a huge lean and people were sliding down the deck to the bottom side.”
When John was outside he knew he could try and save himself. He waited for the swell, jumped into the water and pulled himself into a life raft. A woman threw in her baby before struggling in herself. “The two life rafts were filling up. There was a guy leaning out the front of ours doing breaststroke, trying to pull us away from the Wahine. It looked as though it was going to fall over on us. If it hadn’t been on the sandbank it would have tipped over and there would have been hundreds dead. I would probably have been one of them.” John was one of the lucky 174 rescued by the Tapuhi. “I got onto the tug by jumping into a tyre on its side, putting my hands over the gunnel and rolling into the boat. About six of us held onto a large woman who kept going down as the boat rolled. Eventually we pulled her onto the deck. Her husband didn’t help, but once she was on board he came up and said, “Good on you girl”.
The Tapuhi’s passengers disembarked at the wharves at 3.30 p.m. Others who had boarded life rafts weren’t so lucky - some of those who drifted to Eastbourne’s rocky shore were smashed onto the rocks, while others drowned. Fifty-one people died that day, two others died later from injuries received in the wreck.
After being taken by taxi to Wellington railway station, John’s next anxious moment was when he and the other seven from his team who were present realised seven were missing. By nightfall John was safely ensconced at his Aunt Lorna’s in the city, drinking brandy and thanking his lucky stars. A welcome phone call came at 8.30 p.m. with the news the missing team members had been found safe and well at Eastbourne.
Apart from six years at Lincoln College, John has spent his life on Helensville dairy farms. The other 14 from the cricket team are scattered around the country, but their connection, initiated through sport but cemented through a shared tragedy, has been lifelong. They have played as the Lincoln Wahines in several Golden Oldies cricket tournaments and their most recent reunion was in April this year, at the 50th anniversary of the sinking. “I doubt whether we would’ve stuck together like that had it not been for that experience,” says John. “It’s been a huge thing in my life. It’s always there.”