Wahine: Ada’s story

Unidentified elderly female survivor from the Wahine being served soup on Seatoun beach, helpers include Salvation Army Captain David Bennett. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1968/1569/7A-FUnidentified elderly female survivor from the Wahine being served soup on Seatoun beach, helpers include Salvation Army Captain David Bennett. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1968/1569/7A-F

Where were you on the 10th of April 1968? Were you sheltering from Cyclone Giselle as she battered the country? Did you brave the weather to make your way to work or school? Imagine if you were, like Ada Woolf, on board the Wahine.

There are a number of first-hand survivor accounts of the Wahine. Some are well known, others less so. Ada’s story was captured in a letter she wrote to her family while recovering from her ordeal. In August of 1987, Joy Hanna, Ada’s daughter, donated a photocopy of Ada’s letter to the Alexander Turnbull Library ensuring her story would be remembered in perpetuity.

Ada’s account is richly detailed, twenty three pages long and peppered with opinions and thoughts on the progression of events, during the disaster and in the days that followed. Searching for further information about Ada and her story initially proved complex; her name did not appear on the passenger or survivor lists in any other published Wahine sources we consulted. Joy Hanna, Ada’s daughter, also noted in her covering letter to the Library “that her mother’s name did not appear in the book”.

In commemoration of the Wahine tragedy, we have provided a brief synopsis of Ada’s story including selected excerpts from her letter. For reasons of copyright, and in sensitivity to family members who lost loved ones, we have not reproduced Ada’s letter in full. Ada’s complete story contains many more interactions with those on board than mentioned in this blog. Her full letter also recounts some of the more harrowing events she witnessed during the course of the disaster. Ada’s letter is part of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s manuscript collections and can be viewed in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room.

Ada’s story begins in Christchurch when a friend of the family, Mr Goodman, suggested she join him on his upcoming trip to Auckland. Ada recounts that her husband Les immediately “charged off to town” and obtained Wahine Ferry tickets for her. Indeed, the berthing registers of the Union Steam Ship Company held at Archives New Zealand confirm Ada as a registered passenger Cabin C 423, sailing under her husband’s name: Mrs L D Woolf.

Section of the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand Berthing List for the Wahine 9th April 1968 showing Ada’s name and cabin number. Photograph by Shannon Wellington. Archives New Zealand REF: C322110CSection of the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand Berthing List for the Wahine 9th April 1968 showing Ada’s name and cabin number. Photograph by Shannon Wellington. Archives New Zealand REF: C322110C

Ada was excited about the sudden decision to visit Auckland – taking in Waioru at the same time enabled her to see all three of her “absent daughters”. With the plan in motion, Ada packed and was ready to be picked up the next morning by her travel companions – Mr Goodman and his friend Mr Rutland.

Mr Rutland was Secretary of the Australian Ship Lovers Society and “well known in shipping circles”. He had also in the past “made a very detailed model of the Wahine”. As a result, on boarding, he received an invitation from the Captain to join him for dinner. The Captain also insisted on shouting Ada and Mr Goodman breakfast the following morning, instructing them all “be ready for the first sitting at 6:15am”.

On retiring Ada was pleased to find she had the bottom berth in her cabin. She was also surprised to discover that she was sharing her cabin with none other than Sister Clarke whom she had known from Christchurch hospital. The pair talked at length before turning in for the night; Ada on the bottom berth and Sister Clark on the top.

They woke early the next morning to find the ship noticeably rolling. Mr Rutland, who had dined with the Captain the previous evening, was told “what a lovely ship the Wahine was” that “she was radar controlled” and “her stabilisers’ kept her even in rough weather”. Ada found this “somewhat amusing” as they gingerly made their way towards breakfast, “lurching from side to side”.

When they arrived at the dining room the stewards were attempting to set the tables. The rolling of the ship repeatedly “sent everything flying onto the floor”. After numerous attempts they were eventually seated. The stewards exclaiming “the waves outside were getting up to 50-60 feet high” and “there were no eggs for breakfast, as they had all broken”! Mr Rutland asked if they often got weather like this and was told “never as bad as this sir”.

As the ship continued to lurch, Ada leaned over to Mr Rutland and said, “bothered if I think much of his stabilizers–or radar control!” Just as they had finished laughing they heard a “clunky sound” and then a crunch . . . “there was an almighty shock and all table equipment went flying as well as their food and everything else.” Ada saw a steward trying to “catch a flying glass which shattered and cut his hand”. The ship was “swaying like mad” and the over the loud speaker came the announcement “everyone proceed immediately to their cabins and put on life jackets”.

Ada retrieved her lifejacket and made her way to the cafeteria area as instructed. Waiting out the rocking and rolling for a number of hours; it was standing room only in the crowded space. In an effort to pass the time Ada got chatting with fellow passengers. At regular intervals the stewards brought around Coke, Fanta and various snacks.

“A young couple with their 2 year old son Phillip came and sat on the table between Mr Goodman and me. They were to leave by the Southern Cross next day for England to show off wee Philip to his paternal Grandma in England. He was a pet with dark blue eyes and the most mischievous smile ever.”

Waka mural on wall in cafeteria, Wahine (ship), 1967. Photographed by K E Niven and Co of Wellington. Ref: 1/2-210478-FWaka mural on wall in cafeteria, Wahine (ship), 1967. Photographed by K E Niven and Co of Wellington. Ref: 1/2-210478-F

In Ada’s letter she writes that everyone did the best they could to pass the time. By midday however, some hours later, most people had discarded their “cumbersome lifejackets”. Ada had also taken off hers “to help make a bed for wee Phillip”. Every half hour announcements would come over the loud speaker…“we are drifting up Wellington Harbour – there is no cause for alarm – you are all perfectly safe – we will have you in Wellington before long”.

After a while Ada noticed that the boat was no longer rolling from side to side, but was starting to reel, having developed a significant list.

The ship Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer
Ref: 35mm-01149-29-FThe ship Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. Ref: 35mm-01149-29-F

A small amount of time passed and the list became more pronounced, accompanied by a further announcement “all passengers put on their lifejackets immediately”.

Suddenly, there was a significant jerk and “furniture and people began sliding along the floor”. Above the “shrieks and screams came the loudspeaker order to proceed to Starboard deck and assemble at lifeboats”. Women and children were encouraged to make their way to the lifeboats first. Ada was one of the last to leave the lounge. As she walked towards the door the boat violently lurched and she was “flung sprawling into a corner”. Two broken tables and a number of chairs landed on top of her “pinning [her] by her left leg”. Unable to move she also received a “crack on the head” causing her to pass out; Ada fell in and out of consciousness a number of times during the course of her rescue.

Despite her injuries, Ada freed herself from the tables and continued towards the deck, all the while holding on tight to her handbag containing her precious spectacles; she slowly made her way towards starboard. Ada knew that she had to move quickly to the lifeboats. Injured and dazed she headed towards the stern. She describes the peril that followed:

“I had to go down the width of the deck to where they were evacuating. It looked a long way to go and at an angle of 70 degrees. Down below on the next deck which jutted out beyond the boat deck rails… I sat down and decided to slide on my seat – this I did so quickly that I was using my two hands gripping the rails as brakes. Gosh they got hurt!”

When it came Ada’s turn to disembark over the side the crew member asked her “will you jump?” to which she replied she would, but only if she could take her handbag. Ada knew her specs were in there and that she couldn’t see without them!

“I clasped both hands over my bag on top of my chest and jumped. The water felt amazingly soft and I felt glad after all the struggles on deck. I turned on my back and lay there – kicking my feet to drive me away from the sinking ship. My life jacket had come undone around the waist so I firmly sat my bag on top of it to keep it flat down and crossed my arms tightly over the bag and all and there I floated.”

Survivors from the Wahine shipwreck in a lifeboat, Wellington. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer Ref: 35mm-01152-29-FSurvivors from the Wahine shipwreck in a lifeboat, Wellington. Taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer Ref: 35mm-01152-29-F

Ada continued to float in the rough water, drifting in and out of consciousness. When she woke she recalled two boys from the Worser Bay Lifesaving Club attempting to pull her into their boat which had a little inboard engine that was started with “a rope – like a motor mower”. Still clutching her handbag, and with some difficulty, Ada was hauled in. The boys rescued a number of other people until there was no more room. Ada, in shock, soaked through and badly dazed was taken to a small beach onshore where she was transferred straight to an ambulance and taken to Wellington Hospital.

Worser Bay Amateur Swimming and Life Saving Club, Wellington, 6 man rescue and resuscitation senior team of 1967-1968, winners with trophy. Crown Studios Ltd: Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-036821-F. We have been unable to confirm if any of the men in this picture are those that helped during the Wahine rescue.Worser Bay Amateur Swimming and Life Saving Club, Wellington, 6 man rescue and resuscitation senior team of 1967-1968, winners with trophy. Crown Studios Ltd: Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-036821-F. We have been unable to confirm if any of the men in this picture are those that helped during the Wahine rescue.

Ada recalled “feeling muddled” and not remembering much of the rescue. In hospital she shivered uncontrollably despite being packed with hot water bottles. The hospital was filled with Wahine survivors and Ada was in a temporary ward in the Therapy Room; men on one side and women on the other. Ada still had her “soaking bag” including her specs! Her husband Les later teased her saying “it was her Scottish blood that had made her hang on to her handbag through the entire rescue”.

After undergoing x-rays and completing a few laps of the ward with the assistance of nurses, Ada was diagnosed with a swollen and bruised knee, but deemed well enough to return home. With a taxi chit in hand from the Union Steam Ship Company, she made her way to their Wellington offices to make further travel arrangements. Asked if she would like to travel to Christchurch by plane or by ship, she remarked “I feel as if I don’t want to see your ships again for a while”! So a plane it was.

The Union Steam Ship Company had made arrangements for survivors of the Wahine to have clean and dry clothes. Ada was “limping badly and walking as if [she] was 150 years old”, so was driven to DIC to collect a new coat to help keep her warm on the flight to Christchurch; she chose a “dark blue one with a fur collar”.

After a long ordeal Ada finally made it to Sumner, Christchurch, only to find her street had been turned into river of water. The storm had travelled down the country causing severe damage to many parts of New Zealand. Ada’s home was flooded and her husband had been evacuated earlier that afternoon. Ada’s taxi driver radioed the depot for assistance - “I’ve got a Wahine survivor here – she has found her home flooded and her husband evacuated – can anyone find me a bed for her for the rest of the night?” Ada, in her letter notes that “people were more than generous”, and that soon enough, she found herself “tucked up at a local bed and breakfast with the electric blanket turned on full, wondering what on earth was happening to [her] in this mad, mad world”.

The following day, after numerous phone calls, Ada was reunited with her husband, friends and family. Finally able to grasp what had happened to her over the preceding days, Ada wrote her story down in a letter and sent a copy to her daughters.

In the closing paragraphs of Ada’s letter she states:

“….even the merest of acquaintances have been remarkable with their care…. It is awful to think that all the people I had much to do with are drowned. Mr Goodman whose car I was coming up in – the Australian Mr Rutland who was also travelling part way with Mr Goodman – and my cabin mate Sister Clark – also the little boy Phillip Hicks (2 years old) whom I played with and amused through the morning – all drowned...What a waste of life it all was.”

On this day of commemoration, through Ada’s story we acknowledge all those who lost their lives. We also honour all those whose stories of survival provide touchstones for remembrance of one of New Zealand’s most harrowing maritime tragedies.

All excerpts taken from: Hanna, Joy Isabella, fl. 1987: Letter from Ada Woolf 1905-1996 concerning the Wahine written 19 Apr 1968. Ref: MS-Papers-11028


Footnote: If you have further information about Ada or her story, please feel free to contact the Library.

By Audrey Waugh and Shannon Wellington

Shannon is the Manuscripts Curator and Audrey is the Assistant Manuscripts Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field
Helen Smith April 10th at 1:38PM

Thank you for telling us about Ada's letter. An interesting and moving read.

Arapine Walker April 10th at 3:37PM

Great blog that vividly describes one person's experience. I enjoyed reading it, thank you.

Dalena wallace April 10th at 9:32PM

This is a fascinating description of events. Thanks to Ada's family for sharing her letter and ATL staff for making it available on line for the public.

Andrew hicks April 11th at 9:56AM

Ada mentions in her letters about a couple with a young child named Phillip those were my parents James and Judith Hicks . For many years I had only seen and been told snippets about what happened that day but it has only been on this 50th anniversary that I have actually seen my parents mentioned in a few articles and more about Phillip other than just a name on a memorial. Sadly my parents divorced a few years later but always remained good friends , the wahine cast a shadow over my mother for remainder of days and tragically died at only 53 years old . She never got over that terrible day but done as much as possible to lead a normal life . my father was a closed book on the subject being a very sensitive man it’s a discussion I could have and never will as he now has dementia. But thankfully with these recent articles and information from my family we are managing to piece together what happened that day for them .

Gavin Pascoe April 11th at 12:50PM

The young woman in the top photograph holding a cup and umbrella for the elderly woman is 16 year old Janet Culy, who lived at Seatoun. She currently lives at Hataitai

Gavin Pascoe April 11th at 1:02PM

From Ada's account, it sounds like the boat she was pickeup in was the surf boat Europa. I'm pretty sure the crew of that boat is listed on the Wahine50 website, but can't check as the site is down at the moment.

Suzanne Clark May 29th at 2:07PM

A very interesting read, I was only 4 at the time, but I remember the bad storm and the ship sinking. Ada’s story brings it to life of what her and all of those poor people went through on the Wahine. Must have been terrifying for all of them. May those who died forever Rest In Peace and my thoughts go out to all of their families and all of those who survived,