KAITAWA, motor vessel: The collier was on a passage from Westport to Portland, Whangarei, when, on the night of May 23, 1966, disaster overtook the vessel. The night was very dark, with frequent rain squalls. The sea was very rough, with a heavy swell and the wind from a westerly quarter was blowing at 35 knots. Since not one of her complement of 29 survived, the circumstances leading up to the loss of the ship will never be known and can only be conjectured.
Loaded with 2,957 tons of coal, the Kaitawa sailed from Westport at 10.45 p.m. on May 20 but returned next day to a point outside the bar. The Second Officer, Mr. R. P. Oakton, who had taken ill, was landed and his replacement, Mr. M. G. Jenkins, was embarked, the transfer being effected by the Westport tug. The vessel resumed her voyage at 1.13 p.m. on May 21 and proceeded northward.
On May 23 a radio telegram was sent from the collier, changing her estimated time of arrival from 4 a.m. on May 24 to noon and later another telegram was sent, putting back her time of arrival to 3 p.m. These changes in the ship’s estimated time of arrival were probably due to deteriorating sea and weather conditions.
At 8 p.m. on May 23 the freighter Cape Horn, bound from Ocean Island to Lyttelton, passed the Kaitawa which was then about five miles west of the northern extremity of the Pandora Bank and about 12 to 13 miles from Cape Reinga. Approximately one hour later, at 8.59 p.m., Auckland Radio received by radio telephone a PAN message (an emergency signal denoting urgency but not imminent danger) from the Kaitawa. The ship’s radio operator identified himself and then repeated the word PAN nine times, in three groups of three. This was followed by the ship’s call sign “from Kaitawa ZMVC”, repeated three times. Then, after a slight pause and at exactly 9 p.m., he sent a MAYDAY signal (which denotes imminent danger), followed by the message “Position – words missed – 10 miles Cape Reinga bearing 035 – word missed – 30 degrees. Requiring immediate assistance.” The way the distress signal changed in urgency suggests that the Kaitawa’s situation had suddenly worsened after the radio operator had began to send it. Auckland Radio requested a repeat of the vessel’s position but Adelaide Radio then came on the air and as a result contact was lost. Further attempts to establish communication with the stricken vessel proved unavailing.
(In its report the Court of Inquiry states: “The position given by the Kaitawa in the distress message would place her on the western edge of Pandora Bank. At this point it is sufficient to say that it is clear the Kaitawa was certainly not in that position. Her exact position cannot be fixed with precision but it has been calculated by Captain Milroy as at a point from which Cape Reinga was bearing 080 degrees True to 085 degrees True, and was distant seven to 10 nautical miles. At this time the weather was deteriorating and a heavy sea was running.”)
On receipt of the collier’s MAYDAY call, the Auckland Coordination Centre was advised and air, sea and land searches were organised without delay. The Cape Horn, the only vessel in the area, received a relay of the signal at 9.18 p.m. The freighter, which was about 15 miles to the south, put back and retraced her former course to the position indicated in the Kaitawa’s MAYDAY call, on the western side of the Pandora Bank. At 11.50 p.m. a red flare was sighted from the bridge of the Cape Horn, bearing 23 degrees T. and distant anything between five and 10 miles. The freighter continued on her northerly course as an approach towards the position where the flare had been sighted would have brought the ship into dangerous proximity of the Pandora Bank. A steady deterioration in the sea and weather conditions caused the Cape Horn to be hove-to from just after midnight until daylight. Meanwhile a constant radar scan was maintained, but the sea clutter was extremely bad, particularly on Pandora Bank, and the radar revealed nothing.
At first light on May 24 an extensive and sustained air, sea and ground search began and was continued on a full scale for the next six days. It was then scaled down to a sea and land search. Fourteen vessels, eight aircraft and land parties (in vehicles, on horseback and on foot) participated in the search which covered an area of 66,000 square miles. At 11.25 a.m. an R.N.Z.A.F. Sunderland aircraft sighted an oil slick about a mile north of Pandora Bank, and wreckage drifting towards the coast. Ground parties were directed to Twilight Bay and by 3.15 p.m. the wreckage had been positively identified as coming from the Kaitawa.
During the period of the search wreckage came ashore from the North Cape to Ahipara, on the southern extremity of Ninety Mile Beach. Most of the wreckage was found in Twilight Bay, south of Cape Maria van Diemen. The wreckage included several doors from the ship’s superstructure; several lifebuoys, still clearly marked with the ship’s name; 18 of the 32 lifejackets known to be on board, some of which showed indications that they may have been used; parts of a liferaft, with evidence that it had been inflated and occupied by someone who had opened the emergency pack which contained two parachute flares; and buoyancy tanks from the Kaitawa’s two lifeboats and wreckage from one of them.
These various items of wreckage were to play a significant part in a reconstruction of what could have possibly have occurred at the time of and subsequent to the disaster.
On the afternoon of May 29 a body was seen floating in the sea off Te Waiawa Bay, but because of adverse sea and weather conditions was not recovered until next morning. It was later identified as that of John Easton Wright, a motorman on board the Kaitawa.
An oil slick reported by the tug Parahaki gave an indication as to where the wreck could be located. At 4.15 p.m. on June 8 H.M.N.Z.S. Tui, using an underwater television camera, located the Kaitawa at a point 246Â° 20′, 4.77 nautical miles from Cape Reinga light. The wreck lay at a depth of about 24 fathoms, completely upside down, with the starboard side sitting flush with the sea bottom and the port side resting hard against an outcrop of rock. The superstructure was completely gone, having either been torn off while the vessel was drifting capsized or crushed into the hull as she settled on the sand and rock bottom.
A Navy diving team, commanded by Lieutenant N. Merrick, R.N., under extremely difficult conditions made two successful dives – to inspect the wreck. They found the hull holed and dented on the bottom of the port side, one dent being 80 feet long and six inches deep. As far as could be seen, all the hatch covers were missing and there was no sign of the cargo of coal, nor was any found in the vicinity of the wreck.
At the inquiry into the loss of the vessel, the Court found: “It is impossible to arrive at what happened to the Kaitawa on any basis of certainty. There was no survivor and no message was received from the ship which would explain the nature of the crisis which suddenly overtook the vessel and caused her to founder. The Court can only do its best to arrive at an acceptable theory which is of necessity based on inferences, probabilities and assumptions.”
Further in its report, the Court states: “It appears that first a position arose in which the Master considered he should give a PAN message so that he was not then facing imminent danger. Then some other factor entered causing the message to be changed to a MAYDAY message; finally, almost immediately thereafter for some reason or other all contact with Kaitawa ceased. We must therefore look for (i) A reason for the PAN message. (ii) A reason for the change to a MAYDAY message. (iii) A reason for the sudden silence which followed.
“The reason for the PAN message can only be conjectured. It could possibly have been a loss of power from one engine or a leakage of water into the holds through the hatches while the vessel was shipping heavy seas.”
Captain E. Milroy, Nautical Surveyor, who had been appointed by the Marine Department to assemble evidence for the inquiry, had made a thorough examination of all wreckage found. In addition, he had made a close study of information furnished by Lieutenant Commander G. B. W. Johnson, R.N.Z.N., concerning times and directions of tides and rates of drift. As a result, Captain Milroy was able to put forward what the Court considered to be the most acceptable theory of what occurred after the PAN message.
Captain Milroy’s theory as to what happened next is; that while the Kaitawa was labouring in the trough of the sea, she was swept by a great wave or waves which burst in a teak door on the port side leading to
the crew’s accommodation. Through the doorway
tons of water entered the accommodation and could
have caused a sudden, marked list to port. Because
of static interference or fading, several words in the
MAYDAY message were missed by Auckland
Radio, including one word preceding “30 degrees”.
Captain Milroy concluded that the only appropriate word was “List” – list 30 degrees. The Court accepted this view and was of the opinion that if at that point a list of that magnitude developed, the Master would be justified in sending a MAYDAY message without further delay.
As the vessel rolled heavily with that list she would become more vulnerable to seas on her port beam or quarter. Wreckage recovered included teak woodwork from the bridge structure and it was clear that these fittings had been torn from their places by a tremendous force operating from the port side of the ship. This is consistent with the Kaitawa being swept by seas which poured through and shattered the woodwork of the superstructure. From the fact that 18 lifejackets were found out of a total of 32 known to be on board, the majority of which would be stowed below deck in the crew’s accommodation, it was possible that at that point the crew would be mustering. It was likely that those on the bridge and others of the crew who were attempting to muster would be swept overboard by these seas. This would explain the sudden silence.
It would follow that from that point the Kaitawa, listing heavily to port, was out of human control and that thereafter she merely drifted. At some point water from the sea would pour into the engine room and all power would be lost.
Accepting the 9 p.m. position calculated by Captain Milroy and his theory of what occurred up to that time, Lieutenant Commander Johnson worked out the likely line of drift assuming the Kaitawa to be unmanned and drifting. He made allowance for the direction and force of tidal flow and the effects of sea and wind. Commander Johnson charted courses assuming rate of drift at one knot, two knots and three knots, but in his opinion a rate between one and two knots would be most probable. The significant point was no matter which of the rates of drift be adopted, the vessel might well cross the line of 23 degrees T. from the Cape Horn at about 11.50 p.m. This suggested that the red flare was fired either from the Kaitawa itself (which seemed unlikely) or from the liferaft which was still in company with the Kaitawa.
After the tide changed, it was calculated that irrespective of the rate of drift adopted, the Kaitawa would drift on to the Pandora Bank some time after midnight. In the state of wind and weather this was an area of wild turbulence. It seems likely that in that event the vessel, already listing heavily to port, would strike the bank in such a way as to account for the long indentation on the port side of the bottom of the hull later found by the diving party. At that point or soon afterwards, the Kaitawa probably capsized. She would lose her hatch-covers and her cargo, but just where the coal cargo was lost it is not possible to say. Having capsized, the Kaitawa would still have some residual buoyancy from air trapped inside the hull so it was not likely she would sink. Commander Johnson calculated that after drifting south, when the tide changed at 1 a.m. on May 24, the Kaitawa, still capsized, drifted northward to a point about five and a-half miles W.S.W. of Cape Reinga light where, having lost all buoyancy, she plummeted with considerable force to the seabed.
The Kaitawa carried two liferafts and portions from at least one of them were found on the beach. Captain Milroy was able to demonstrate most convincingly that somebody had been in the liferaft. To the Court it seemed probable that Motorman Wright was in the raft and it seemed a tenable theory that the raft drifted with the Kaitawa until after she capsized and the raft broke away or was cut adrift after the ship had struck on Pandora Bank. It was therefore possible that the flare seen from the Cape Horn was fired from the liferaft which at that time was attached to the Kaitawa.
The finding of the Court was that the T.S.M.V. Kaitawa was lost as a result of being overwhelmed by the sea at a point from which Cape Reinga was on a bearing of 080 degrees T. to 085 degrees T. and distant 7 to 10 NM at about 2100 hours on May 23, 1966. Thereafter the vessel drifted out of control until the early hours of May 24, 1966, when at some time before daylight, she, having capsized, sank to the seabed, coming to rest at a point 246Â° 20′, 4.77 miles from Cape Reinga.
The Kaitawa, No. 173,888, was a twin-screw motor vessel of 2,485 tons gross and 1,317 tons net register, built at Leith, Scotland, in 1949 by Henry Robb, Ltd. Her dimensions were: length 293.75 ft., beam 43.2 ft., depth 17.33 ft. Her two engines were of 1,450 IHP. She was owned by the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Ltd. and was commanded by Captain G. R. Sherlock, an experienced master mariner who had joined the company in 1949, and had made 33 West Coast round trips as master of colliers.
The other members of the crew were: Chief Officer, Mr. R. C. C. McEwen; Second Officer, Mr. M. G. Collins; Radio Officer, Mr. P. D. Mowat; Chief Engineer, Mr. O. P. Horrobin; Second Engineer, Mr. G. Emmerson; Third Engineer, Mr. J. W. Fox; Fourth Engineer, Mr. R. Williams; Electrician, Mr. W. Underwood; Leading A.B. (Bosun), Mr. R. I. Hill; A.Bs, Messrs. B. Oliver, A. Meekin, T. F. Walker, G. G. Casey, J. Wilson, V. Clarkson; O.S. (Acting A.B.), Mr. K. Sheldon; O.S., Mr. C. Pulekula; Deck Boy, Mr. I. A. Hayward;Crew Orderly, Mr. T. W. Byrne; Motormen, Messrs. J. E. Wright, J. McLean, J. McLeary, C. Fletcher; Chief Steward, Mr. J. Pickles; Assistant Stewards, Messrs. G. Jones, J. O’Connell; Chief Cook, Mr. B. W. E. Smith; Assistant Cook, Mr. D. Collett. (See plate 124.)