SS Tararua

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Wreck of the Tararua.jpg
Contemporary portrayal of the wreck
Name: SS Tararua
Owner: Union Steam Ship Company
Builder: Gourlay Brothers, Dundee
Completed: 1864
In service: 1864
Out of service: 28 April 1881
Fate: Sank after hitting Otara Reef
General characteristics
Type: Screw-driven steamer
Tonnage: Originally 523, Increased to 563
Length: 222.6 ft (67.8 m)
Depth: 16.2 ft (4.9 m)

SS Tararua was a passenger steamer that struck the reef off Waipapa Point in the Catlins on 29 April 1881, and sank the next day, in the worst civilian shipping disaster in New Zealand's history.[1] Of the 151 passengers and crew on board, only 20 survived the shipwreck.[2]


The Tararua was a screw-driven steamer with two 155 horsepower (116 kW) engines, measuring 222.6 ft (67.8 m) long, 28 ft (8.5 m) wide and 16.2 ft (4.9 m) deep. Built in Dundee by Gourlay Brothers in 1864, her original capacity was 523 tons (net) but alterations later increased her net tonnage to 563 tons.[3]

The reef on a fine day


Sailing from Port Chalmers, Dunedin at 5 pm on 28 April 1881, the Tararua was en route to Melbourne via Bluff and Hobart. Steering by land on a dark night, with clear skies overhead but a haze over the land, the captain turned the ship west at 4 am believing they had cleared the southernmost point. After breakers were heard at 4:25 am, they steered away to the W by S-half-S for 20 minutes before heading west again. At around 5 am, the ship struck the Otara Reef, which runs 13 km (8 mi) out from Waipapa Point.[3]

The first lifeboat was holed as it was launched, but the second lifeboat carried a volunteer close enough in to swim to shore and raise the alarm. A farmhand rode 35 miles (56 km) to Wyndham to telegraph the news. However, while a message reached Dunedin by 1 pm, it was not marked urgent, and it took until 5 pm for the Hawea to leave port with supplies. Meanwhile, the wind and waves had risen. Around noon, six passengers who were strong swimmers were taken close to shore; three managed to get through the surf, with the help of the earlier volunteer, but the others drowned. On a return trip, one man attempted to get ashore on the reef, but had to give up; another three drowned trying to swim to the beach. Another boat capsized trying to get a line through the surf. Eight of its nine crew survived, but the boat was damaged, and the locals who had gathered on the shore could not repair it. The remaining boat could no longer reach the ship, due to the waves, and stood out to sea in hope of flagging down a passing ship to help.[3] The Tararua took over 20 hours to sink, with the stern going under around 2 pm and the rest disappearing overnight. The last cries of the victims were heard at 2:35 am. Only one man managed to swim safely from the ship to shore.[1]

About 74 bodies were recovered, of which 55 were buried in a nearby plot that came to be known as the "Tararua Acre". Three gravestones and a memorial plinth remain there today.

Waipapa Point lighthouse, built after the wreck


A Court of Inquiry found that the disaster was primarily caused by the ship's captain failing to establish his correct position at 4am, before changing course to head west. An able-bodied seaman was also blamed for not keeping a proper lookout, from which breakers would have been heard in time to avoid the reef.[3] The court recommended that steamers should carry enough lifebelts for all their passengers (there were only twelve on the Tararua) and that a lighthouse should be built at Waipapa Point. The lighthouse began operating in 1884.

Previous incident[edit]

The Tararua had a narrow escape on a previous voyage in 1865, suffering no damage after grounding on a beach at Cape Farewell.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b New Zealand Disasters – SS Tararua Shipwreck, Christchurch City Libraries. Accessed 20 January 2008.
  2. ^ Gerard Hutching. Shipwrecks – SS Tararua, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Updated 21 September 2007. Accessed 2008-01-20.
  3. ^ a b c d Tararua (1881) Archived 13 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine, excerpt from Ingram, C.W.N. (1990) New Zealand Shipwrecks: 195 years of disasters at sea, Beckett Books: Auckland, on the Dive New Zealand website. Accessed 22 January 2008.
  4. ^ A Narrow Escape from Shipwreck, Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, Volume XXV, Issue 5, 11 January 1866, Page 3. Accessed 21 January 2008.


  • MacIntosh, Joan (1970). The Wreck of the Tararua. AH & AW Reed.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 46°40′07″S 168°51′44″E / 46.6686°S 168.8622°E / -46.6686; 168.8622