WILTSHIRE, steamer: In one of the most sensational shipwrecks in New Zealand’s maritime history, the Wiltshire was totally lost on the night of May 31, 1922, on Great Barrier Island. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, and her entire complement of 103 officers and men were eventually rescued after almost 48 hours’ strenuous efforts on the part of the various rescue parties. It was a dirty, black night when the steamer struck at Rosalie Bay, three miles north of the southern end of the Great Barrier Island-at this point one of the rockiest and wildest of the Hauraki Gulf islands. Heavy weather and torrential rain had been experienced for 10 hours, and it was impossible to see a ship’s length ahead. There was a terrific bump as the Wiltshire struck, and she gave four distinct jumps as the impetus forced her on the rocks.
The whole complement was summoned to the boats, and rockets of distress were sent up. Boats were ‘swung out on the lee side, and all hands stood by for an hour and a half. Heavy seas were breaking over the vessel, particularly aft, and it became apparent that any attempt to land by the boats would see them smashed against the cliffs by the terrific seas. After a night of uncertainty in the saloon, every man, except the officers, went forward at dawn. The position was extremely precarious, as the ship had listed to starboard, and the after part was in deep water. This was the condition of affairs until about 11.30 a.m., when, with a noise like a thunderclap, the Wiltshire snapped in two, abaft No. 4 hatch. The captain jumped from the bridge, and the officers swung themselves down to the forecastle on a rope. The Wiltshire struck, bow on, about her length from the cliffs, against which the heavy seas were breaking. The forepart of the ship held fast to the rocks, and the hull of the steamer was broken clean in two. The after part, from just abaft the bridge, swung with the wash of the sea at an angle from the rest. The stern of the vessel was under water.
News of the disaster was received by wireless at Auckland at 11.11 p.m. on May 31. The first message stated that the danger was imminent and serious, as the ship was listing more and more. At 11.35 p.m. another wireless message from the ship requested assistance at once, as the crew were in grave danger. The Union Steam Ship Company’s steamers Katoa and Arahura started at midnight to the assistance of the Wiltshire. The Katoa was then 25 miles and the Arahura 90 miles away. At 1.35 a.m. on June 1 a further message stated that the ship was badly on shore. Nos. 1 and 2 holds were full of water, and the vessel was knocking about heavily. Immediate assistance was required to save life.
The Arahura arrived alongside just before daylight, but was unable to communicate with her up to 8 a.m. owing to the heavy sea. The weather was very thick and a tempestuous sea was running, and the only hope seemed to remain on board until the weather moderated. The Katoa missed the wreck in the storm, but the Arahura, with 100 passengers on board, stood by the wreck, tossed by huge seas. The Arahura transmitted a message by wireless to the Katoa to land a rescue party. A first party, comprising the chief officer, purser, third engineer and two seamen, landed at Tryphena, and at 9 a.m., fully equipped and guided by settlers residing in the vicinity, the party set out on the five-mile journey overland to the wreck. A few hours later a second party, consisting of the boatswain and a seaman, left with storm appliances and blankets.
At 11 a.m. on June 1 word was received in Auckland that all the crew were still hanging on. The ship had a large number of holds, all separated by massive bulkheads, but the pounding on the rocks had so knocked her about that she was full of water from end to end. Wireless communication was still uninterrupted. The position was then most critical, owing to the volume of the seas. Cries could be heard by the watchers on the high cliffs above the steamer. Eye-witnesses described the scene as heartrending. One man on board attempted to swim ashore with a line, but the attempt had to be abandoned. At 1.45 p.m. a wireless message was received in Auckland from the Katoa that the Wiltshire had broken in half, the stern had disappeared, but the bow was still crowded with people.
The Auckland Harbour Board’s tug Te Awhina reached the scene on the afternoon of June 1. The tug got within 200 yards of the wreck, but the sea was too heavy to effect a rescue. A party was landed with rockets and other life-saving gear. The Union Company’s steamer Moeraki, which left Auckland at 1 p.m., landed rockets and other life-saving appliances at Tryphena, and residents set out on horseback to the scene of the wreck to render assistance to the Wiltshire’s crew. The Moeraki also had on board an officer and 16 ratings from H.M.S. Philomel, who spent the night at Tryphena and had a terrible journey across country, wading through flooded creeks breast high and scrambling through dense bush. They were badly knocked about before they reached the wreck.
At 3.40 p.m. the crew were.still on the forepart of the vessel, and the sea was very rough. The Katoa’s party was on shore opposite the wreck. The settlers had also arrived on the cliffs above the wreck, and every manner of effort was made to get a line ashore. Rockets were all carried adrift, while floating objects met with a similar fate. Eventually a hatch cover was floated to the shore and the line secured by a heroic descent of the cliff by seaman Kehoe, of the Katoa. Hours passed before an endless line had been made fast from a tree on the cliff to the wreck, and the first man was drawn foot by foot to the shore. At intervals three of his companions followed him before operations were suspended for the night.
The mental strain of those on board was now aggravated by the strain of physical endurance. With the exception of a little beef no provisions were available until supplies were sent over the lifeline on the morning of June 2.
After a night in drenching rain the rescue work was resumed at daybreak and an additional 12 men had been landed when the Philomel’s party arrived. With their assistance the work of rescue proceeded more rapidly, ten men hauling on an endless rope and bringing the remainder of the crew ashore. The rescue party landed two men in every six minutes, and food and water were transferred to those still on the wreck. At 2 p.m. a total of 63 men had been landed, 58 of whom were on the Katoa. All the Wiltshire’s crew were landed by 10 p.m., two full days after the vessel had struck. The last 30 men camped near the landing place, as the bush tracks were too dangerous to negotiate at night. There were no casualties, and all were recovering from their exhaustion.
The Wiltshire’s crew expressed the opinion that the man who risked his life to secure the line which was drifted from the ship deserved the Victoria Cross. They were convinced that seaman Kehoe alone made possible their relief. But they were not unmindful of the work performed by the party from the Philomel, settlers on the island, and those on board the Katoa and the tug Te Awhina.
The Wiltshire loaded at Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool in April, 1922, for Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin. She left Liverpool on April 22 for Auckland, via Panama Canal. Her cargo consisted of general merchandise estimated at 10,000 tons. She also carried 460 postal packages. A quantity of cargo and 100 mail bags were recovered and landed at Auckland.
The Court of Inquiry found that the casualty was due to two errors of judgement on the part of the master. Had the ship made the course set and travelled at the speed estimated the vessel would, according to the master’s evidence, be within range of Cuvier Light at 10 p.m. The light was not picked up. To continue at full speed for an hour after this time, while unable to pick up the light, was an error of judgement. At the end of an hour a sounding was taken, which indicated danger and the necessity for immediate action. Failure to accept this was a grave error of judgement. The casualty might have been avoided by greater caution when unable to pick up Cuvier Light as expected, and, later, by acting immediately upon the indications of danger given by the sounding taken about 20 minutes before the vessel struck. The master’s certificate was returned to him, but he was ordered to pay the costs of the inquiry. The court expressed appreciation of the conduct of the master and his officers after the ship struck. The great work of the rescuing parties was also commended.
The Wiltshire, No. 132,675, was a steel, twinscrew, five-masted steamer of 12,160 tons. gross and 7,801 tons net register, built at Clydebank, Glasgow, in 1912 by Messrs. John Brown and Company, and her dimensions were: length 526.5 ft., beam 61.4 ft., depth 33.3 ft. Her engines were of 1,264 nominal horsepower. She was of the shelter-deck type, with accommodation for passengers. The Wiltshire was owned by the Federal Steam Navigation Company, and was under the command of Captain G. B. Hayward. (See plate 90.)