KAITAWA, motor vessel:
The collier was on a passage from Westport to Portland, Whangarei, when, on the night of 23 May 1966, disaster overtook the vessel. The night was very dark, with frequent rain squalls. The sea was very rough, with a heavy swell and the wind from a westerly quarter was blowing at 35 knots. Since not one of her complement of 29 survived, the circumstances leading up to the loss of the ship will never be known and can only be conjectured.
Loaded with 2957 tons of coal, the Kaitawa sailed from Westport at 10.45pm on 20 May. On 23 May a radio telegram from the collier, changed her estimated time of arrival from 4am on 24 May to noon and later another telegram put back her time of arrival to 3pm These changes in the ship’s estimated time of arrival were probably a clue to deteriorating sea and weather conditions.
At 8pm on 23 May the freighter Cape Horn passed the Kaitawa which was then about five miles west of the northern extremity of the Pandora Bank and about 12 to 13 miles from Cape Reinga. Approximately one hour later Auckland Radio received a PAN message (an emergency signal denoting urgency but not imminent danger) from the Kaitawa. The ship’s radio operator identified himself and then repeated the word PAN nine times, in three groups of three. This was followed by the ship’s call sign repeated three times. Then, after a slight pause and at exactly 9pm, he sent a Mayday signal (which denotes imminent danger), followed by the message ‘Position – [words missed] – 10 miles Cape Reinga bearing 035 – [word missed] – 30 degrees. Requiring immediate assistance.’ The way the distress signal changed in urgency suggests that the Kaitawa’s situation had suddenly worsened after the radio operator had begun to send it. Auckland Radio requested a repeat of the vessel’s position but contact was lost. Further attempts to establish communication with the stricken vessel proved unavailing.
On receipt of the collier’s Mayday call, the Auckland Coordination Centre was advised and air, sea and land searches were organised without delay. The Cape Horn, the only vessel in the area, received a relay of the signal at 9.18pm. The freighter, which was about 15 miles to the south, put back and retraced her former course to the position indicated in the Kaitawa’s Mayday call. At 11.50pm a red flare was sighted from the bridge of the Cape Horn, bearing 23 degrees and distant between five and 10 miles. The freighter continued on her northerly course as an approach towards the position where the flare had been sighted would have brought the ship into dangerous proximity of the Pandora Bank. A steady deterioration in the sea and weather conditions caused the Cape Horn to be hove to from just after midnight until daylight. Meanwhile Captain Milroy concluded that the only appropriate word was ‘List’ – list 30 degrees. The court later accepted this view and was of the opinion that if at that point a list of that magnitude developed, the Master would be justified in sending a Mayday message without further delay.
As the vessel rolled heavily with that list she would become more vulnerable to seas on her port beam or quarter. Wreckage recovered included teak woodwork from the bridge structure and it was clear that these fittings had been torn from their places by a tremendous force operating from the port side of the ship. This is consistent with the Kaitawa being swept by seas which poured through and shattered the superstructure. From the fact that 18 lifejackets were found out of a total of 32, the majority of which would be stowed below deck in the crew’s accommodation, it was possible that at that point the crew would be mustering. It was likely that those on the bridge and others of the crew who were attempting to muster would be swept overboard by these seas. This would explain the sudden silence.
At first light on 24 May an extensive and sustained air, sea and ground search began and was continued on a full scale for the next six days. During the period of the search wreckage came ashore from the North Cape to Ahipara, on the southern extremity of Ninety Mile Beach. Most of the wreckage was found in Twilight Bay, south of Cape Maria van Diemen. The wreckage included several doors from the ship’s superstructure; several lifebuoys, still clearly marked with the ship’s name; 18 of the 32 lifejackets known to be on board, some of which showed indications that they may have been used; parts of a liferaft, with evidence that it had been inflated and occupied by someone who had opened the emergency pack which contained two parachute flares; and buoyancy tanks from the Kaitawa’s two lifeboats and wreckage from one of them.
On the afternoon of 29 May a body was seen floating in the sea off Te Waiawa Bay. It was later identified as that of John Easton Wright, a motorman on board the Kaitawa.
An oil slick reported by the tug Parahaki gave an indication as to where the wreck could be located. On 8 June HMNZ Tui, using an underwater television camera, located the Kaitawa at a point 246° 20’, 4.77 nautical miles from Cape Reinga light. The wreck lay at a depth of about 24 fathoms, completely upside down, with the starboard side sitting flush with the sea bottom and the port side resting hard against an outcrop of rock. The superstructure was completely gone; having either been torn off while the vessel was drifting capsized or crushed into the hull as she settled on the sand and rock bottom.
A Navy diving team under extremely difficult conditions made two successful dives to inspect the wreck. They found the hull holed and dented on the bottom of the port side, one dent being 80 feet long and six inches deep. As far as could be seen, all the hatch covers were missing and there was no sign of the cargo of coal, nor was any found in the vicinity of the wreck.
Accepting the 9pm position calculated by Captain Milroy and his theory of what occurred up to that time, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, RNZN, worked out the likely line of drift assuming the Kaitawa to be unmanned and drifting. After the tide changed, it was calculated that irrespective of the rate of drift adopted, the Kaitawa would drift on to the Pandora Bank some time after midnight. In the state of wind and weather this was an area of wild turbulence. It seems likely that in that event the vessel, already listing heavily to port, would strike the bank in such a way as to account for the long indentation on the port side of the bottom of the hull found by the divers. At that point or soon afterwards, the Kaitawa probably capsized. She would lose her hatch-covers and her cargo, but just where the coal cargo was lost it is not possible to say. Having capsized, the Kaitawa would still have some residual buoyancy from air trapped inside the hull so it was not likely she would sink. Johnson calculated that after drifting south, when the tide changed at 1am on 24 May the Kaitawa, still capsized, drifted northward to a point about five and a half miles WSW of Cape Reinga light where, having lost all buoyancy, she plummeted with considerable force to the seabed.
The Kaitawa carried two liferafts and portions from at least one of them were found on the beach. Captain Milroy was able to demonstrate most convincingly that somebody had been in the liferaft. To the court it seemed probable that Motorman Wright was in the raft and it seemed a tenable theory that the raft drifted with the Kaitawa until after she capsized and the raft broke away or was cut adrift after the ship had struck on Pandora Bank. It was therefore possible that the flare seen from the Cape Horn was fired from the liferaft which at that time was attached to the Kaitawa.
At the inquiry into the loss of the vessel, the court found: ‘It is impossible to arrive at what happened to the Kaitawa on any basis of certainty. There was no survivor and no message was received from the ship which would explain the nature of the crisis which suddenly overtook the vessel and caused her to founder. The court can only do its best to arrive at an acceptable theory which is of necessity based on inferences, probabilities and assumptions.’
Further in its report, the court states: ‘It appears that first a position arose in which the Master considered he should give a PAN message so that he was not then facing imminent danger. Then some other factor entered causing the message to be changed to a Mayday message; finally, almost immediately thereafter for some reason or other all contact with Kaitawa ceased. The reason for the PAN message can only be conjectured. It could possibly have been a loss of power from one engine or a leakage of water into the holds through the hatches while the vessel was shipping heavy seas.’
Captain E. Milroy, who had been appointed to assemble evidence for the inquiry, had made a thorough examination of all wreckage found. In addition, he had made a close study of information furnished by Lieutenant Commander Johnson, concerning times and directions of tides and rates of drift. As a result, Captain Milroy was able to put forward what the court considered to be the most acceptable theory of what occurred after the PAN message. Captain Milroy’s theory as to what happened next is that while the Kaitawa was labouring in the trough of the sea, she was swept by a great wave or waves which burst in a teak door on the port side leading to the crew’s accommodation. Through the doorway tons of water entered the accommodation and could have caused a sudden, marked list to port. Because of static interference or fading, several words in the Mayday message were missed by Auckland Radio, including one word preceding ‘30 degrees’.
The finding of the court was that the Kaitawa was lost as a result of being overwhelmed by the sea at a point from which Cape Reinga was on a bearing of 080 degrees T. to 085 degrees T. and distant 7 to 10 nautical miles at about 2100 hours on 23 May 1966. Thereafter the vessel drifted out of control until the early hours of 24 May 1966, when at some time before daylight, she, having capsized, sank to the seabed, coming to rest at a point 246° 20’, 4.77 miles from Cape Reinga.
The wreck is occasionally visited by sport divers who report strong currents and the upside-down wreck now partially collapsed.
The Kaitawa, No. 172,888, was a twin-screw motor vessel, 2485 tons gross and 1317 tons net, built at Leith, Scotland, in 1949 by Henry Robb, Ltd. Length 293.75ft., beam 43.2ft., depth 17.33ft. Her two engines were 1450ihp. Owned by the Union Steam Ship Company and commanded by Captain G.R. Sherlock, an experienced master mariner. The other members of the crew were: Chief Officer, R. McEwen; Second Officer, M.G. Jenkins; Radio Officer, P. Mowat; Chief Engineer, O. Horrobin; Second Engineer, G. Emmerson; Third Engineer, J. Fox; Fourth Engineer, R. Williams; Electrician, W. Underwood; Leading AB, R. Hill; ABs, B. Oliver, A. Meekin, T. Walker, G. Casey, J. Wilson, V. Clarkson; OS, K. Sheldon; OS, C. Pulekula; Deck Boy, I. Hayward; Crew Orderly, T. Byrne; Motormen, J. Wright, J. McLean, J. McLeary, C. Fletcher; Chief Steward, J. Pickles; Assistant Stewards, G. Jones, J. O’Connell; Chief Cook, B. Smith; Assistant Cook, D. Collett.
Text from New Zealand Shipwrecks, 8th edition (Hodder Moa, 2007). Used with permission of the publisher and authors.
Ewan Stevenson of Archaehistoria would be most grateful for any historical information regarding the M.V. Kaitawa and would be pleased to hear from anyone regarding the history of the M.V. Kaitawa.
Memorial to the M.V. Kaitawa tragedy located at the Northern tip head of the breakwater at the entrance to the Buller River where Westport is located 2 km upstream. The view looks south with the “Three Steeples” islets and Cape Foulwind on the left horizon. Westport is located on the West coast of the South Island. Note the narrow entrance…the Kaitawa transited through here many times during her career and her 2485 gross tons, 294 feet (90 meter) length and 43 foot (13 meter) beam would have been quite impressive in the channel. Few people would have seen her final departure however which occurred at 10.45 on the evening of May 20, 1966. GPS location of memorial: 41º 43.629’S, 171º 35.355’E. 3 January 2011.
View up the Buller River towards where Westport is located. 3 January 2011.
Navigation leading marks which guide vessels into the Buller River. 3 January 2011.
The author, Ewan Stevenson, with the M.V. Kaitawa memorial. The Admiralty Pattern anchor is purely for memorial purposes only and was not used by the Kaitawa. 3 January 2011.
Photograph of hull damage on the wreck of the Kaitawa taken by Royal New Zealand Navy Divers in June 1966. Courtesy RNZN
The seas look like New Zealand’s but this is the Kaitawa on trials off Scotland in 1949. Courtesy Museum of Wellington City & Sea.