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The Team that Hit the Rocks by Peter Jerram

Peter Jerram is a Wahine survivor whose vivid writing immerses the reader in the story of the doomed voyage. Jerram captures the mood on the ship superbly – the passengers’ initial lack of concern, followed by disbelief, panic, terror and a desperate drive for survival – and the eventual “scene from hell” as a “mass of terrified souls” frantically tried to access the deck so that they could escape. The crew member who had to climb into the ship’s funnel and then over hot pipes to reach safety. The women who continued to clutch their handbags and hold on to their high-heeled shoes even as they prepared to jump off the ship. The mothers who had to throw their babies into life rafts to an uncertain future.

Jerram describes his own experience as a passenger, and includes information from interviews held with fellow survivors, crew, rescuers and others involved on the day. He also draws on previous books and official records, including findings from the Court of Inquiry. The “team that hit the rocks” were Jerram’s Lincoln College cricket team, heading north for a few games. Many of these optimistic young men still had cricket on their minds even when it was clear that things were looking grim.

Strapped into their thick and bulky lifejackets and heading for muster stations, they were “still thinking of the cricket we were going to play later that day”.

Although most of us are already familiar with the story – interisland ferry hits rocks, sinks, 53 lives lost and multiple lives disrupted – Jerram brings a unique perspective to the retelling. He describes his $4 cabin on the lowest of the six accommodation decks, how his teammates arrived for breakfast “seasick and hungover”, the greasy food served by the crew. It’s remarkable that even as it became clear that the ship was in danger, stewards continued to serve sandwiches. But soon there was “mayhem in the galley”:

The serving aisle had degenerated into a slithering mass of broken china and spilled breakfast... The stewards had given up on any thoughts of more service but we continued to cheer them on in their futile efforts to restore order…

Jerram recalls the moment that the Wahine ground onto the rocks and his growing dread as the storm raged around the ship.

The motion [of the ship] was violent, rolling then pitching, twisting, rolling again…  I felt a terrific grinding, crunching and shuddering, and I knew we were on the rocks.

With the hurricane blowing horizontally, the ocean was a white foaming monster, the seas flattened by the force of the immense storm…  I lurched for the rail and held on tight, looking over the side, the massive wind threatening to tear me loose.

It’s astounding that the captain continued to reassure everyone on board that the ship was “in no immediate danger” even as he urged passengers to don their lifejackets. Jerram is critical of the lack of information shared not only with the passengers, but also with people on shore who would have been able to mobilise support and send rescuers much faster had they been fully briefed on the disaster that was unfolding.

In 1968 there were no tweets, selfies or video clips shared on social media. There were, however, photos taken by passengers who somehow had the presence of mind – and steady hands – to take snapshots. Some of these images appear in the book alongside those captured by journalists. The photos on the front and back covers are particularly poignant. The front cover shows the listing Wahine and a young Jerram wading through surf with a rescued passenger in his arms. The back cover shows the “almost new and beautiful, sleek ship” before it came to grief.

Jerram points out that in 1968 satellite monitoring was not routine, there were no computers on the ship, and weather forecasting and weather-related comms were far less sophisticated than they are today. The captain is described as a deluded man who was apparently over-reliant on instinct: “…there was a lot of guesswork in the captain’s decisions”.

A tug made an optimistic yet futile attempt to tow the Wahine to safety. Even today, Jerram notes, there is no tug suitable for rescuing our interisland ferries. Despite technological advances, our ferries still break down, with the Kaitaki drifting towards the rocky coastline off Wellington's south coast as recently as 2023. Gearbox failures, steering issues and other problems still put lives at risk.

The book is in two parts. Part One covers the fateful day moment by moment and provides contextual information about the storm, the setting, and Cook Strait. Part Two analyses what happened and why. This was, says Jerram, “a multifactorial calamity”. Some – but not all – of the recommendations from official investigations were actioned. Jerram searched official records and carried out detailed and thoughtful analyses of his own, noting where his conclusions differed from others. In later years, Jerram became a sailor. He brings a maritime lens to his evaluation of what went wrong.

The italicised text throughout the book covering Jerram’s inner thoughts as events unfolded are perhaps unnecessary, given that much of the book is already written in the first person.

How did the team of young cricketers cope? At the time, they did not talk about what they had endured: “We just shut up and carried on.” They were advised to “put this thing behind you, and get on with your study”.  Yet the team continued to meet, decade after decade, a band of brothers united by an experience that challenged and changed their lives. Jerram acknowledges his gratitude to his teammates for sharing their time, their stories, and their hospitality as he drafted his book.

You can learn more about the book and Jerram’s experiences in his recent Radio New Zealand interview.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Bateman Books


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