RMS Tahiti

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Coordinates: 24°42′S 166°15′W / 24.70°S 166.25°W / -24.70; -166.25

RMS Port Kingston 1904.jpg
RMS Port Kingston in 1905; she was renamed Tahiti in 1911
Name: RMS Tahiti
Owner: Union Steamship Company of New Zealand
Port of registry: Civil Ensign of New Zealand.svg New Zealand
Route: Sydney to San Francisco via Wellington
Builder: Alexander Stephen and Sons, Clydebank
Yard number: 403
Launched: 1904
Christened: Originally RMS Port Kingston
Acquired: 1911
Maiden voyage: 11 December 1911
Fate: Sank 17 August 1930
General characteristics
Class and type: Ocean liner
Tonnage: 7,585 gross
Length: 460 ft (140 m)
Beam: 55 ft (17 m)
Depth: 27 ft (8.2 m)
Installed power: Two steam triple expansion engines, 1443 nhp
Propulsion: Two propellers
Speed: 17 knots (31 km/h; 20 mph)
Capacity: 515 passengers (as built)
Crew: 135

RMS Tahiti was a 7,585 ton ocean liner operated by the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand. Built in 1904 on Clydebank by the shipbuilders Alexander Stephen and Sons, she was named RMS Port Kingston until 1911. Taken up as a troop ship during World War I; she was subjected to an outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1918 with exceptionally high mortality amongst the troops on board. After being returned to her owners, in 1927 she was in collision with a ferry in Sydney Harbour; known as the Greycliffe disaster, it resulted in the deaths of 40 ferry passengers. Tahiti finally sank in the South Pacific Ocean due to flooding caused by a broken propeller shaft in 1930.

Early career[edit]

Originally named RMS Port Kingston, she was built by Alexander Stephen and Sons of Govan on the River Clyde. She had been ordered by the Imperial Direct West Mail Company of Bristol, who were a subsidiary of Elder Dempster Shipping Limited. She was intended for the Bristol to Kingston, Jamaica route, which she was able to cover in ten and a half days.[1] She had accommodation for 277 first class, 97-second and 141 third class passengers on four decks and had a crew of 135. Besides carrying mail, she had a hold for a cargo of fruit. Port Kingston survived the 1907 Kingston earthquake and although beached, was successfully refloated. She was laid-up in 1910.[2]

To New Zealand[edit]

In 1911, she was purchased by the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, refitted at Bristol and renamed Tahiti. She was intended for the route Sydney to San Francisco via Wellington, Rarotonga and Tahiti; she made her first voyage on 11 December 1911.

World War I[edit]

On the outbreak of war in 1914, the Tahiti was requisitioned to serve as a troopship and became HMNZT ("His Majesty's New Zealand Transport") Tahiti. She was part of the convoy transporting the First Detachment of the Australian and New Zealand Imperial Expeditionary Forces, which left King George's Sound, Albany, Western Australia on 1 November 1914. On 11 September 1915, she arrived in Wellington with the first casualties from the Gallipoli campaign.[3]

The 1918 influenza pandemic[edit]

Tahiti left New Zealand on 10 July 1918 with 1,117 troops onboard and 100 crew members, bound for England. When she met the rest of her convoy at Freetown in Sierra Leone, reports of disease ashore led to a quarantine order for the ships. However, the ships were resupplied by local workers, and officers attended a conference onboard HMS Mantua, an armed merchant cruiser, which had experienced an influenza outbreak three weeks previously. The first soldiers suffering from Spanish influenza began reporting to the hospital on Tahiti on 26 August, the day that she left Freetown. By the time she arrived at Devonport on 10 September 68 men had died and a further nine died afterwards, an overall mortality rate of 68.9 persons per 1,000 population. It is estimated that more than 1,000 of those on board had been infected with the disease. A later enquiry found that mortality was worst in those over 40 years and that those over 25 had a higher mortality than those under 25. Mortality was also higher in those sleeping in bunk beds rather than in hammocks. The conclusion of the enquiry was that overcrowding and poor ventilation had contributed to the exceptionally high infection rate and death toll.[4] It was one of the worst outbreaks worldwide for the 1918/19 pandemic in terms of both morbidity and mortality.[5]

The Greycliffe disaster[edit]

Main article: Greycliffe disaster

In 1919, the Tahiti was returned to her owners and her boilers were converted from coal firing to oil. In 1920, she made her first post-war voyage to Vancouver and reverted to the San Francisco route in the following year.[3] On 3 November 1927, Tahiti collided with the Watsons Bay ferry Greycliffe off Bradleys Head in Sydney Harbour. The crowded ferry was split in two and sank within three minutes.[6] Of 120 passengers on the ferry, 40 were killed.[7]


On 12 August 1930 Tahiti, carrying 103 passengers, 149 crew members, and 500 tons of general cargo, put to sea from Wellington, New Zealand, to continue a voyage from Sydney, Australia, to San Francisco, California. She was about 480 nautical miles (890 km) southwest of Rarotonga at 20°43′S 166°16′W / 20.717°S 166.267°W / -20.717; -166.267 (RMS Tahiti) at 4:30 a.m. on 15 August 1930 when her starboard propeller shaft broke, opening a large hole in her stern and causing rapid flooding. Her crew sent out a distress call via wireless, began launching distress signal rockets, prepared the passengers for the possibility of abandoning ship, and fought the flooding in an effort to save the ship. [8]

At 10:10 p.m. on 16 August, the Norwegian steamer SS Penybryn arrived on the scene to render assistance. Penybryn stood by Tahiti throughout the night of 16–17 August with her floodlights illuminating Tahiti and her boats ready to go to the assistance of Tahiti′s passengers and crew if needed. [8]

At 9:30 a.m. on 17 August, Tahiti′s passengers and some of her crew abandoned ship, with all lifeboats away in 13 minutes; some of her crew remained behind in order to continue efforts to slow the flooding. The American steamer SS Ventura was just arriving on the scene, having signaled that she could take Tahiti′s passengers and crew aboard, and she picked them up soon after they abandoned ship. Members of Tahiti′s crew, assisted by a boat from Penybryn, then returned to Tahiti in Tahiti′s boats and began efforts to save the first class mails and the luggage from the sinking ship.[8]

By 1:35 p.m. on 17 August, Tahiti was settling rapidly, and it became too dangerous for her crew to remain aboard. They abandoned ship, having saved the ship′s papers and bullion. Tahiti sank, without loss of life, at 4:42 p.m. on 17 August 1930 at 24°44′S 166°15′W / 24.733°S 166.250°W / -24.733; -166.250 (RMS Tahiti), about 460 nautical miles (850 km) from Rarotonga.[8][9][10]

Court of inquiry[edit]

A court of inquiry convened in Wellington, New Zealand, published its findings on the sinking in a report dated 15 September 1930; the report was issued by the United Kingdom′s Board of Trade in London on 11 December 1930. The court found that the sinking resulted from a breakage of the starboard propeller shaft that not only punctured Tahiti′s hull at her stern, admitting water to her shaft tunnel – whicb the court deemed survivable – but also tore a hole in the bulkhead that divided the shaft tunnel from her engine room and No. 3 hold. The court found that the latter hole ultimately caused the ship to sink, as the increasing weight of water flooding the shaft tunnel widened the hole in the bulkhead despite the crew′s effort to contain the flooding and eventually overwhelmed their damage control efforts. The court found both the crew and officials who had certified the ship′s compliance with standards of seaworthiness blameless in the sinking, stated that the breaking of a propeller shaft was a common event at sea but the level of damage sustained by Tahiti in the breaking of her propeller shaft was exceedingly rare, and determined that Tahiti′s sinking was "due to a peril of the sea which no reasonable human care or foresight could have avoided."[8]

The court commended Tahiti′s master, T. A. Toten, for displaying "resource and cool accurate judgment worthy of the highest praise,"[8] said that "all ranks under him responded to the example that he set,"[8] and noted the efforts of the ship′s engineering staff, stating:

On the engineers and the engine room and stoke hold staff under them fell the brunt of the fight. For close on sixty hours, without sleep and without respite the engineers directed and waged a gallant losing fight against the relentless waters, working for long periods deep in water and in imminent danger of the collapse of the strained and partly rent bulkhead that imprisoned the wall of water high above them. It was their courage and endurance that made it possible for the master to delay until the propitious moment, the giving of the final order to abandon the ship.[8]

The court concluded its report by stating "We deem it our duty to place on record this appreciation of the conduct of the master and all those under him."[8]