The Cook Strait is the body of water that separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Fourteen miles wide at its narrowest point, it connects the Tasman Sea with the South Pacific Ocean.
Maori legend tells of Kupe, the famed Polynesian navigator who is said to have first discovered New Zealand, chasing a monstrous octopus across what is now Cook Strait. Later in 1770 Captain Cook, for which the strait is named, was the first European to circumnavigate New Zealand and to show that it consisted of two large islands separated by the strait.
Cook Strait is actually oriented in a north-south direction with Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, to the east on the North Island, and Picton, a small port city located to the west on the South Island.
The strait is home to a variety of marine life. Whales were common years ago, until their numbers were decimated by whalers in the 1800’s. The strait is also famous for a dolphin, Pelorus Jack, who for twenty years led steamships on part of their journey when entering and leaving the strait (see my previous blog on Pelorus Jack).
The tidal flows coming from both directions in Cook Strait are often out of phase with each other causing often strong and unpredictable currents. Proposals have actually been made to use underwater turbine generators to harness the strong tidal surge through the strait for electricity.
Along with the currents, strong winds also funnel through the strait causing rough water and heavy swells. For these two reasons, the strait has been described as one of the most dangerous and unpredictable bodies of water in the world.
Despite this, over the years, a number of intrepid individuals have actually swum across Cook Strait with successful times ranging from around 6 to 12 hours.
Ferry service across the Cook Strait began in 1962, and is fairly often disrupted or delayed because of adverse conditions.
Currently the Interislander Ferry operates a vehicle and passenger ferry service with three ships in service crossing the 58 nautical miles between Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. The crossing takes three hours, about half the time being spent in the more protected sounds in the approach to Picton on the South Island.
On our first visit to New Zealand, we took the ferry from Wellington to Picton. Our sailing occurred without incident. We snacked in the lounge, enjoyed the vistas from various locations sitting in comfortable chairs or standing outside in the sea breeze on the uppermost deck.The scenery entering Queen Charlotte Sound on the South Island was particularly spectacular, the shoreline a verdant green with countless inlets and ridgelines.
Unfortunately all crossings haven’t been as uneventful.
On the evening of April 9, 1968 a passenger and vehicle ferry, TEV Wahine, departed from the South Island with 610 passengers and 125 crew. Two ferocious storms of unprecedented fury merged over Wellington with wind speeds in Wellington at one point up to 171 mph. Early in the morning on the 10th, as the Wahine attempted to enter Wellington Harbor, waves and winds blew her off course and onto a nearby reef where a hole was gouged in her hull and one propellor was sheared off. She was less than a mile from shore. An attempt by a tug to rescue her failed, and then for a time the danger of the ship sinking seemed to pass since she was only in some 30 feet of water. However in the early afternoon, the ship listed to the side and the captain gave the order to abandon ship.
Launching of the life boats was made difficult by the listing of the ship and the continued high winds and seas with waves up to twenty feet high. Many people were forced into the rough seas.
As the weather cleared an armada of various craft from Wellington made their way to the scene to rescue survivors.
A great number of the passengers and crew either swam or otherwise made their way to a rocky desolate shoreline outside Wellington Harbor where, depite their being on land, their rescue was difficult. In total fifty-one people died in the disaster, many dying from exhaustion and exposure while waiting for help after reaching shore.
An official inquiry into the Wahine disaster determined that human errors had been made but also stressed the difficult and dangerous conditions. Charges were pressed against the captain and some crew members but they were all eventually acquitted.
Today Wahine Memorial Park in Seatoun marks the location near where the survivors reached the shore in one of the worst disasters in New Zealand maritime history.
1) A ferry does battle in the Cook Strait on rough day. Photo: Straithipping
By JShook at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons