Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A timely storm

How appropriate. There's a serious storm lashing the entire country today, with heavy rain, gales, tornados, and dazzling, house-shaking lightning - plus snow, further south. Fifty years ago on this date, there was an even bigger storm, when tropical cyclone Giselle collided with a cold southerly front. It was worst in Wellington but, even 300km further south in Christchurch, it was bad enough that, having battled with the wind and rain as I cycled to school, I was sent home again because the carpark was flooded and the teachers couldn't get in. Seems a bit feeble, in retrospect - they could have parked on the road, surely - but we pupils (as we were called then) weren't going to argue with an unexpected day off. I went home to warm up in a hot bath and that was it, for me.
Up in Wellington, though, there was drama happening. The interisland ferry, the Wahine - which in those days we blithely pronounced as WaHEEny instead of, correctly (as today, mostly), WAH-heenay - struggled against the waves and the wind to enter the harbour, running aground on a reef and ending up foundered by Steeple Rock. 
The passengers sat meekly in the increasingly lop-sided lounges, children hopelessly swamped in primitive, adult-sized lifejackets, for hours while the storm raged and the captain (who while attempting to manoeuvre had accidentally reversed onto the reef and knocked off a propeller) worked through various ineffective strategies. The weather was just too ferocious. Finally, when the ship slumped sideways, it was clear that it had to be abandoned, and the passengers were offloaded into the four available lifeboats (the others were now inaccessible because they were on the high side), and inflatables, and attempted to reach the shore. It was chaotic - one baby was thrown - and boats were capsized, people washed out - and sometimes, back in - by giant waves, and many were pushed by the waves across the harbour entrance onto the rocks at remote Eastbourne. Lots of people had to jump into the water. Imagine.
Fifty-one people drowned on the day, and two died later, one of them 22 years later, after being brain-damaged. It was a total disaster, partly due to misjudgements - although, to be fair, the rescue effort was severely hampered by the raging storm. Plus there was heroism.
Naturally, the stories are all over the media right now - but there's a really good permanent exhibition in the Wellington Museum on Jervois Quay. Worth seeing if you're in Welly - though maybe not if you're just about to catch the ferry to the South Island...

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