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 without loss due to flooding, 400 miles off Raratonga on 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.[6] 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.[7] Of 120 passengers on the ferry, 40 were killed.[8]


On 17 August 1930, when the Tahiti was 400 miles off Raratonga, one of the propeller shafts broke opening a large hole in her stern. The passengers and crew were rescued by the American ship SS Ventura, together with the ships papers and bullion. She sank two days later.[9]