TARARUA, steamer : Few, if any, wrecks on the coast of New Zealand have been attended by such tragic incidents as those connected with the loss of the steamer Tararua-hours of what must have been heartrending suspense, as those on board waited for the succour which never arrived; ever-increasing danger as the seas rose and swept the decks, until, in the hours of darkness, death mercifully ended their sufferings. Only once-in the wreck of H.M.S. Orpheus-has the loss of life been exceeded in a shipping disaster in the Dominion, and on that disastrous occasion the 189 lives lost were those of men and boys, but among the 131 victims of the Tararua wreck were women and children.
The Tararua sailed from Port Chalmers at 5 p.m. on April 28, 1881, bound for Melbourne, via Bluff and Hobart, gnd cleared Otago Heads at 5.40 p.m. At that time the second officer took charge of the bridge from the master, and at 6 p.m. was relieved by the chief officer. Cape Saunders was passed at 6.40 p.m., when the log was streamed. No course had been given, the vessel being steered by the land, and making a course of SW. b S. quarter S. From 8 p.m. the second officer was on watch till midnight, when he was again relieved by the chief officer, and, in accordance with instructions, the master was called. The log was read and showed the distance run to be 49 miles, the Tararua being then abreast of the Nuggets. At 1.30 a.m. on the 29th, when the log showed that 15 miles had been steamed since midnight, and the steamer was believed to be off Long Point, the master altered the course to WSW., and gave orders to call him at 3.45 a.m. This order was carried out and, and the master, judging by the distance run that the Tararua was then off Slope Point, allowed the vessel to continue on the WSW. course until 4 a.m., when he altered the course to W. At this time the second officer again took charge. The night was dark, but clear overhead; a haze hung over the land, the loom of which could be seen, but no distinguishing features could be discerned. At 4.25 a.m. the second officer called the master and reported the sound of breakers. The course was immediately altered to W. b S. half S., but 20 minutes later was altered back to W., and shortly after 5 a.m. the Tararua struck on the reef off Waipapa Point, at a spot about three-quarters of a mile from the shore. The engines were reversed, but were stopped almost immediately, as the impact had unshipped the rudder and broken the propeller. Ten minutes after striking the steamer had filled with water, and, pivoting amidship, lay with her head pointing to the north.
At 5.40 a.m. a boat, in charge of the second mate and manned by four seamen and a passenger named G. Lawrence, was lowered in an attempt to find a landing place. When the boat was halfway to the shore Lawrence, taking advantage of a lull in the breaking surf, dived overboard and swam ashore. He was severely buffeted in the surf, but, having restored his circulation, Lawrence made his way to a house half a mile distant, and at his request Charles Gibbs rode 35 miles to Wyndham to telegraph news of the wreck and to summon assistance. Shortly after noon an attempt was made to save six passengers who were strong swimmers by cpnveying them in the second mate’s boat to the outer line of surf and then to try to swim the intervening distance to the shore. The passenger, Lawrence, faithful to his promise to return and render what assistance he could, returned in time to assist three of the swimmers ashore, but the other three were drowned.
The sea was then sweeping right over the after part of the vessel, two boats being washed out of the davits and smashed, and the women and children were removed for safety to the smokingroom, forward of the bridge. Attempts were then made to find a landing place on the reef itself, Lawrence, in his attempt from the shore, being washed off. An attempt was then made from the second mate’s boat, which had returned to the Tararua and embarked three more passengers and a stoker named James Maher. The latter swam from the boat to the reef, but was forced to return, greatly exhausted and badly bruised. During the stoker’s effort to find a landing place the three passengers in the boat, thought to be strong swimmers, attempted to reach the shore, but were drowned. The boat was unable to return to the steamer owing to the high seas which were making a clean breach over the Tararua, and the second officer decided to stand out to sea in hopes of intercepting a passing vessel and obtaining help. At 2 o’clock on the morning of April 30 the boat’s crew were picked up by the ketch Prince Rupert, commanded by Captain W. Hanning.
Meanwhile a boat in charge of the chief officer tried to get a line ashore, but capsized, and of its complement of nine persons eight gained the shore safely, the other occupant, a lad who had joined the Tararua at Port Chalmers as a lamp-trimmer, being drowned. At 2 p.m. on April 29, about nine hours after she had struck, the Tararua was breaking up fast, and had been driven closer inshore. The women and children were carried on to the forecastle-head, the master assisting in this work. A particularly heavy sea swept over the forepart, and nearly a score of people were washed overboard. Only one person, the chief cook, succeeded in reaching the shore safely, after making a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to save a lady passenger. Towards evening those still surviving were forced to take refuge in the rigging, and on one occasion were heard cheering by those on shore, it was supposed at the sight of the steamer Kakanui steaming from the Bluff. Up till 11 p.m. lights in the rigging were occasionally seen, as though matches were being burned. At 2.35 a.m. on April 30 the closing tragedy in the disaster occurred. Those on the beach heard piercing shrieks from the doomed people on the Tararua, and a voice, said to be that of the captain, calling for a boat, which could not be sent, as the chief officer’s boat was damaged when it capsized, and could not be repaired. At daybreak the steamer had sunk almost out of sight, and bodies were coming ashore.
In response to the telegram advising him of the wreck, the managing director of the Union Steam Ship Company gave instructions for the steamer Hawea, then lying at Port Chalmers, to be made ready to proceed to the scerie of the wreck, and orders were also given for her to be victualled for four days for 200 people. All this was rapidly carried out, and at 5 p.m. on Friday, April 29, just 12 hours after the Tararua had struck, the Hawea left Port Chalmers. About 6.30 a.m. the following day the Hawea bore down towards a light which had been seen. This had been shown from the ketch Prince Rupert, which had the second mate’s boat alongside, containing six members of the crew and a passenger named Hill. The Hawea steamed slowly for the shore, and it soon became evident to those on board that the Tararua had come to her end. Only the bowsprit and mizzen mast were visible above the water, and for miles around the sea was covered with wreckage -mail bags, cargo, cabin furniture, and clothing of every description floating by in rapid succession. The Hawea’s boats were lowered as soon as possible and sent away to recover mails and search for bodies. Two bodies were brought on board the Hawea, one being that of a fifteen-month-old child, and a harrowing scene followed as the passenger Hill recognised it as that of his infant daughter.
Evidence given at the Court of Inquiry showed that the Tararua’s crew totalled 39 all told, and the total number of passengers on board, calculated from the passenger list and authenticated newspaper reports, was 112-86 men, 12 women and 14 children-making a total of 151 persons onboard. Twenty men were saved-the first and second officers, 10 members of the crew, and eight steerage passengers. Of the 131 persons who lost their lives, approximately 74 bodies were recovered up to the time the police beach patrol was withdrawn. A number of identified bodies were claimed by relatives and friends, including that of Captain Garrard, and taken for burial elsewhere. Due to the difficulty of transport to Fortrose and the mutilation and decomposition of remaining corpses, the Coroner ordered their immediate burial in the vicinity of the disaster. An area behind the sandhills on Otara Beach, about half a mile from where the wreck occurred, was surveyed as a cemetery, and they were buried in what has since been known as the Tararua Acre.
The finding of the Court of Inquiry was a lengthy one and can be summarised as follows : – That, while on her passage from Port Chalmers to Bluff, the Tararua was lost on Waipapa Point, on a reef known locally as Otara Reef, and that such wreck was primarily caused through the failure of the master, Francis George Garrard, to ascertain at 4 a.m. on the 29th April the correct position of his ship. The use of the lead would have told of the distance off shore. That the course on which the Tararua was steered from 1.30 a.m. to 4 a.m. (a WSW. course)-assuming that the compasses were magnetically correct-was an inshore one, and therefore improper, especially as the heavy swell and ebb tide tended to set the vessel inshore.
The court was of the opinion that at 4 a.m. the vessel had not run her distance, but was considerably to the east of Slope Point, and at, comparatively speaking, a short distance from the land. That at 4.25 a.m., when the second officer first called the attention of the captain to the noise of the breakers, the vessel was off Slope Point and in dangerous proximity thereto on a westerly course, but the master believed her to be off Waipapa Point. That when he altered his course from W. to W. b S. half S. he thought he was running in the direction of Toby Rock, and that fear of running on that rock caused him to alter the course in the short space of 20 minutes back to W. The court was of the opinion that the immediate cause of the wreck and loss of life was the negligent failure of the able-bodied seaman, Weston, to keep a proper lookout, for the court was impressed with the idea that had a proper lookout been kept the broken water must have been observed some minutes before the vessel struck, and in all probability sufficient time afforded for the danger to be avoided. Evidence elicited at the inquiry showed that from noon on April 29, when the sea became rougher, no help could have been given either by sea or by land.
The Tararua, No. 50,088, was a screw steamer of 692 tons gross and 523 tons net register, built at Dundee in 1864, by Gourlay Brothers and Company, but alterations made at the time of a change of ownership increased her tonnage to 828 tons gross and 563 tons net register. Her dimensions were length 222.6 ft., beam 28 ft., depth 16.2 ft. The Tararua was fitted with two direct-acting engines of 155 h.p. (See plate 22.)