Wahine survivor returned to shipwreck to retrieve precious photographs

A steward on the Wahine's fateful journey 50 years ago has told of how he returned to the abandoned vessel months later to retrieve photographs he took of the unfolding disaster.

Tuesday marks five decades since one of New Zealand's worst maritime disasters, which killed 51 of the 734 passengers on board in Wellington Harbour.

Survivor and photographer Frank Robinson was 23 when the Wellington-Lyttelton ferry ran aground, but at the time had no idea the disaster was unfolding. Instead he filled in time by taking photographs of smiling passengers as they waited for help.

Wahine survivor returned to shipwreck to retrieve precious photographs
Photo credit: Frank Robinson / Archives NZ
Wahine survivor returned to shipwreck to retrieve precious photographs
Photo credit: Frank Robinson / Archives NZ

"We gave them cups of tea and sandwiches," he told Newshub.

"We were told we were waiting for the weather to drop, [and] then we'd be towed into Wellington."

Passengers, summoned to the lounges, weren't told they could be abandoning ship, to prevent the possibility of panic.

"Because the ship was absolutely still, it felt quite safe. But when a ship ain't moving in heavy seas it's in danger of breaking up - thousands of tonnes of water hitting something that's not moving, but we didn't know that."

When the call finally came, Mr Robinson managed to scramble into a lifeboat.

"That boat was swamped and we turned over. A wave came and took quite a few of us off the boat, [and] then the backwash brought most of us - but not all of them - back to the boat."

Mr Robinson, who was lucky to survive, says the film with the best picture he took on it was lost at sea.

"[It was of] me high on the stern of the lower deck, me looking at one of the old tugs backing up towards the Wahine, with its propellers out of the water and waves crashing over it."

Life magazine paid him $450 for the photos he salvaged, equivalent to nine weeks' wages at the time. But the rest of his photos, plus everything Mr Robinson owned, was stuck on the ship, still aground in the harbour.

Wahine survivor returned to shipwreck to retrieve precious photographs
Photo credit: Frank Robinson / Archives NZ
Wahine survivor returned to shipwreck to retrieve precious photographs
Photo credit: Frank Robinson / Archives NZ

"Our side of the ship, the steward's side of the ship, was out of the water. I enquired about getting our stuff back but we were told 'your life is your salvage'."

The plan was for the ship to be partly refloated, towed out to sea and sunk. Two months later, when it was still there, Mr Robinson and a friend rowed out to the Wahine in the middle of the night.

"We took a roading hammer - a big hammer - and smashed the porthole and dropped in on a rope.

"I got back a lot of photographs, a lot of negatives, some clothes [and] half a bottle of gin."

Now, one of Mr Robinson's images of a mother and child is being used on a commemorative stamp. The surviving negatives are held by Archives New Zealand.

Mr Robinson says he's never managed to get his negatives back. 

Newshub.

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