The disaster is very close to my heart as an ex-deck officer and journalist I interviewed the handful of Maranui’s survivors when they arrived at Auckland on board the Mirrabooka. Without repeating much of Murray’s account and stealing his thunder, my initial impressions, which have stood the test of time, were that there were multiple issues that led to the disaster. Poor ship design with a forward well deck and proximity of a forecastle door. The non use of shifting of boards for a bulk cargo which could have greatly reduced the severe list the ship took on in bad weather, and regrettably a poor decision by her master in not making for the nearest port to trim the cargo on the East Coast of the North Island. Regarding the latter, it is understandable that he wished to continue the voyage without interruption as she was a coaster and there were other ports of possible refuge and Tauranga, but sadly disaster struck before it was possible for her to make it to Tauranga.
I interviewed Captain Thorsten Wahistedt, master of the rescue ship Mirrabooka, for the New Zealand Herald and was very pleased that the Herald gave great credit to his efforts in its main story on the topic. Captain Wahlstedt had the bearing and character of some hero from a Jan de Hartog story on the sea. He was a man of economical words and modesty, with a profound ability in making a correct call and effecting the best rescue possible in those terrible conditions. Ex Port Line officer and then Captain of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s rather old and weary hydrographic survey ship HMNZS Lachlan, Commander Ian Munro, was forced to abort its rescue attempt, because mountainous seas had smashed up some of her upper deck superstructure. I heard Commander Munro’s full account some months later, while doing a story on hydrographic surveying first hand, by spending some days at sea on the Lachlan. Ironically on that occasion the Lachlan also failed to keep her schedule, this time because of poor weather around North Cape. I had to be put ashore at Spirits Bay in a zodiac in raging surf or else spend a few weeks on board as she could not keep to her original surveying schedule.
It would be an understatement to say the Maranui survivors were distressed on arrival at Auckland; they were still in deep shock at the loss of many shipmates and their own frightening battle for survival against the odds in the half swamped rubber liferaft. It says a lot that only the strong and physically fit survived the seas and a scramble up the Mirrabooka’s cargo nets draped over her side for them to clutch on to.
Generally speaking, the Northern Steam Ship Company Ltd, ran a good fleet of smart well maintained vessels and had one of the longest maritime histories in New Zealand. lt had mariners of note and experience at its Auckland HQ, like Captain Ian Forrest and Captain Jim Ellis who is now in his 90s. The Maranui may not have been the most ideal ship for New Zealand’s rugged coastal waters. Through almost a 100 years of operation, the company had started at the bottom with frail tiny steamers far less seaworthy than the Maranui, but with the forecastle head door firmly shut and use of shifting boards to hold her bulk gain cargo I doubt the disaster would have occurred, especially if she had taken refuge at Napier or Gisborne to get her cargo trimmed and the list taken off. All too often, disaster is the consequence of several mishaps, or factors, all occurring at one time, anyone of which could have prevented the accident.
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