The long, strange, proud tale of the SS Empire Shirley aka Tapuhi aka Tui Tawate at Luganville in Vanuatu
Most of us are familiar with the iconic, bucket list dive that is the SS President Coolidge and her resident Lady, but only some of us know the valiant lady abandoned not so far away whose history rivals that of the President.
By Anne Simmons
The SS Empire Shirley was a steel tug boat built by A. Hall & Co of Aberdeen in 1945, an Empire Class tug designed for WWII naval support work in the India to Singapore area. After the war she was sold to the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand where she was renamed the Tapuhi. From 1947 to 1973 the Tapuhi worked between the ports of New Zealand carrying fuel oil then, on April 10, 1968, she faced her greatest challenge and claim to fame.
To the rescue
On this morning the New Zealand inter island ferry TEV Wahine<\em> was on her regular trip between Lyttleton in the South Island to Wellington in the North Island carrying 600 passengers and 125 crew.
Shortly after 0600 the ship was hit by a gale force storm and driven ashore at the entrance to Wellington harbour. Taking on water, her pumps in full force, the TEV Wahine<\em> was blown off course and started drifting northwards into the harbour with a huge list to starboard.
At 1100 the tug Tapuhi arrived and managed to get a line onto the ship. The valiant wee tug commenced towing, but after 10 minutes the lines broke and attempts to re-attach them failed. Shortly the order to abandon ship was given and within minutes the Wahine<\em> turned over and sank. The Tapuhi rescued 174 people from the sinking ship in mountainous seas. But at the end, a total of 51 passengers and crew died. Today there is a memorial to the Tapuhi in Oriental Bay in Wellington for her brave efforts that day.
In 1974 the Tapuhi was on sold to the Narain Shipping Company of Suva, Fiji. Here she was renamed the Tui Tawate. However a year later Reece Discombe of Vanuatu purchased her with the purpose of salvaging the oil from the bunkers of the SS President Coolidge. The suspicion was that the oil in her bunkers was at risk of leaking, and a sample had been sent to Shell in Sydney for testing and, even after 30 plus years underwater, the oil was found to be in good condition. The Vanuatu government contracted with P&O, who owned the cruise ship Arcadia, an older ship to use the oil.
The Tui Tawate, by now in poor condition, only just made it to Espiritu Santo where she was converted to hold oil in all her compartments including the crew’s quarters. In 1977 over 600 tons of oil was pumped into her and from there into the Arcadia to be used in her furnaces.
A return home?
In 1986 she was purchased by Clement Griffiths of Wellington with the intention of moving the Tui Tawate back to Wellington and renovate her as a floating restaurant to memorialize Wahine Day. But it was soon apparent she was no longer seaworthy enough to withstand the tow, so she was left abandoned in the river beside Luganville. A sad end for such a brave lady.
In the mid 90’s the Santo Fisheries Department began an expansion project near where she rested and the contract company requested the vessel be removed. So she was towed out into the Segond Channel and sunk.
Finding the wreck
The first time we dived the Tui Tawate was in 2009. She had been seldom dived before and no commercial dive operators saw any merit in it. The currents can be fierce, they said, the visibility poor. We have never experienced this, and of course most divers are happy to dive the SS President Coolidge.
We had the co-ordinates and we managed to convince Alan Powers to take us out. We dropped a shot line where we hoped she lay and down we went. Reaching the sandy bottom at 45 metres we were disappointed to see nothing but huge sandbanks. Then looking behind us we saw a bow wave of sand, and looking up, the bow of the Tui Tawate. Here she was, proudly upright, facing south west, just waiting for us.
Soft and hard corals taking hold
We had little current at this stage so we swum her length to the prop at the stern then up to the deck at 41m. Then we made our way back to the bow.
Beautiful soft corals blossomed, hard corals were taking hold, and schooling fish were taking advantage of the shelter in the desert-like sand surrounds.
The current picked up and all too soon we had to start our ascent, which we did on the mooring buoy line we had found attached midship. Three of us picked our way up the line, hanging out like sheets in the wind with the current now relatively strong. Then, when we reached the buoy, we found it submerged, with 10m of water between us and the surface.
Dilemma. But as we searched for an answer, we realised our shot line was only a couple of metres away. So we transferred over and completed our safety stop there.
Reaching the surface we were jubilant. We had “found” her and proven she is indeed a very worthwhile dive. Sharing the video footage Russell had taken certainly gave the dive operators at that time a different perspective on the dive opportunity.
Since then we have dived the Tui Tawate several times. She is always a stunning dive. The corals are still there, varying in condition and type each time. She is always a very fishy dive, and there are often pelagics lurking on the edges.
Last time we saw three small Mahimahi and a dog tooth tuna. Schools of yellow snapper loiter on the decks, and bright orange anthias hover in the entrance ways to the holds below.
Nowadays a maintained mooring has been placed on the wreck, and she is offered by Aore Adventure Sports & Lodge and Coral Quays as an alternative to divers wanting a change from the SS President Coolidge. But note this is a dive for experienced divers only – she lies at 45metres and the currents can be extreme and change quickly. So, if you are diving the SS President Coolidge make some time to go and visit this valiant lady with an amazing New Zealand history.
She is sitting there waiting for your visit.
In fact Espiritu Santo is full of WWII relics. And a visit to the Project Development office of the South Pacific WWII Museum in Luganville is well worth while, and not too far from where the Tui Tawate was left abandoned.
Here you will find plenty of stories and artefacts gathered and ready for display in their new building.
When completed it too will add an amazing asset to Luganville, perfect for those sad, though necessary, long surface intervals we divers must endure between dives.