disaster on the wahine.jpg

Notable Historic Events

Cook Strait Swim

On 20 November 1962 Barrie Devenport made history as the first person to swim Cook Strait.

Right from the October opening day in 1962, there was only one thing on people’s minds – when would Barrie’s second Cook Strait attempt take place? Everyone had watched Barrie’s incredible training regime, and many had even participated, swimming around the harbour right through the winter.

 

On 20 November it began early in the morning. Barrie recounted: “Around 2 am I was awakened and I got myself dressed for another “daily swim” – but with a bigger breakfast than usual. Then it was off to board Frank Dellabarca’s fishing boat the Christina. On the trip around to the starting point, we struck some serious rough water – the good old Terawhiti rip was alive and well. Not so well was one of the swim team members, Lindsay Lee, who had a fetish for feeding the fish by continually throwing up over the side of the boat. The story goes that Lindsay was the “sick as a dog” team member most of that day!

worser bay official cook strait swim photo.jpg
 

Upon arrival at our starting point, I was rowed ashore and, following English Swimming Channel Association rules, I had to start above the high water mark and finish above the high water mark. Also, these rules did not allow artificial clothing, wet suits, flippers or other means to assist the swim. Therefore I wore just my good old “budgie smugglers” (Speedos of course). At 7.36 am I entered the water and it felt great compared with the first attempt 8½ months earlier.

 

We were further north of Cape Terawhiti and the water was relatively calm, with everybody very positive.

 

During the swim, I varied my pace fairly regularly, using the pacers as my challenge by increasing stroke and speed after they had been in the water with me for half an hour or so. This seemed to be a good basis to avoid getting into a swim rut and not being able to cope with any adverse changes in conditions and tides ahead. This had paid off in training.

Well past halfway, the weather started to deteriorate. By mid-afternoon we were In very rough conditions and with some distance to go, I realised my goal of reaching the South Island before sunset was fading. I set a new goal, as I was still feeling confident, that I would never give up while pacer swimmers were still in the water with me. As it happened I recall the sun was still up when we finally made landfall.

 

At this stage, I understood some of the pacers were suffering from the distress of getting in and out of the cold water and the rough conditions on the boat. I think it was tougher on them than it was on me!  As a result, Jim Cornish had set aside his charts and sextant, donned his “budgie smuggler Speedos” and joined me in the water. Ian Greenwood also joined Jim and now with two pacers they were determined to help me push on through the rough conditions. During this turbulent period, we didn’t stop for a food break or comfort stop. The pressure was on my bladder and me.

Once clear of the turbulent conditions and on the inside of Wellington Head I decided that a comfort stop was necessary. With 200 metres to go I stopped, rolled on my back and proceeded to pee. There was some panic in the camp, and subsequently listening to a tape of radio broadcaster John Hardacre’s commentary, there was concern throughout that I may have given up.

 

The “bacon and egg pie-eating dictators” in the accompanying dinghies were yelling at me: “Come on. Get going.” Jim Cornish and Ian Greenwood in the water alongside me were also giving me a strong message to start swimming again. I responded to all of them to “bugger off and let me enjoy my leak!” Having been in the very cold water for more than 11 hours, finding the “thingy" and starting a pee was no mean feat, believe me! Once that was over, I proceeded with a few hundred yards sprint to the finish, accompanied by Jim and Ian. The relief of climbing up on the rock with Jim and Ian was enormous. I felt especially for the team members who were also looking forward to a Christmas break. Previous planning had indicated that our next opportunity with be tides would probably be during the Christmas period – not a popular prospect.”

 

In the days following the swim there was the magnificent civic reception at the Wellington Town Hall. The Prime Minister mentioned that everyone who was listening to the radio broadcast had been alarmed when it appeared I had given up right at the end. When I explained the reason why I had stopped, he laughed and said: “You must be the only person in the country to have ever held up Parliament for a pee in public”!

 

On December 15, 1962 a Special General Meeting was held for the specific purpose of electing Barrie Devenport a Life Member of the club – the highest honour the club could bestow on him.

 

There were articles about the successful Cook Strait crossing in every newspaper and magazine in the country. Worser Bay was generally included somewhere in all the articles. We were probably New Zealand’s best-known life saving club because at every event (and there were many) that Barrie attended, the name of our club was emblazoned everywhere.

europa at titahi bay.jpg

BP Europa

The first big news of 1967 was the fact that Europa Oil donated a brand new surfboat to the club

The launching of the boat received wide publicity and its arrival was totally due to the energy and contacts of Michael Taylor.

Michael had been a Worser Bay member for a number of years, and although a good breastroke swimmer he was never really at home in surf races and R & R events. When our first boat Gaytime arrived, Michael immediately became a member our first boat crew. It wasn’t long before he, and the rest of the crew, realised that old Gaytime was a pretty heavy boat and that Worser Bay would never be a competitive crew if Gaytime was the only boat they had to row. So Michael set about finding a sponsor for a new boat.

Through family associations, Michael was able to talk directly with the Todd family who were the owners of both Todd Motors and Europa Oil. Those who knew Michael would have known that once he had an idea, he wouldn’t let it go. He was enthusiastic and irrepressible and he convinced Europa Oil that a surfboat would be a wise community investment that would pay dividends in creating excellent PR images.

 

Neither Michael nor Europe would have realised just how significant that investment would become.

 

The boat was ordered, duly arrived and was launched at Worser Bay with the launching widely covered by local media. The boat was also put on display at Wellington Winter Show and the Worser Bay/Europa stand, again organised by Michael, was a great success. Thousands of visitors were exposed to the Europa/Worser Bay Surf boat, funds were raised and the publicity momentum continued.

 

As part of the sponsorship deal, the original Gaytime boat was renamed Europa 11 and the two yellow boats raced extensively at local carnivals and were frequently seen out training on Wellington harbour.

 

All this publicity then paled into insignificance by events of April 10, 1968 – the day of the Wahine storm. The Wahine sank on the club’s doorstep.

 

Almost everyone of the clubs active members made an attempt to get to the beach to help but the police closed all the roads and denied club members access to the beach and the rescue equipment. A few club members did make it through the roadblocks and both surfboats were launched – despite the police warning against it.

 

Because members couldn’t get to the beach Europa 1 was launched with a scratch crew that included local resident Pat McIntyre who volunteered to help. Sweep Bob McGeachie went to sea in his office suit, office shoes and tie – but wearing a life jacket. The boat rowed out to the Wahine and found that the people who had abandoned ship were being rapidly swept toward the Eastbourne coast. By the time the surfboat arrived people were already being washed up on the harbour’s rocky eastern shore. The boat got as close to the eastern shore as possible but the waves and the wind made boat handling extremely difficult but circling around they saw a life raft they decided to check out. As they got close they found two people clinging to raft so they hauled both aboard the Europa. It was extremely difficult to get them on board but the crew succeeded. They then turned the boat around and headed for Seatoun beach where the two passengers were safely delivered to waiting onlookers.

  

It turned out that the men they rescued were part of the Wahine crew – and in fact one was first officer Mr. Rodney Luly who had been one of the last people to leave the ship.

 

A press photographer captured a picture of Mr Luly being assisted ashore by young club member Grant Cooper with the Europa surfboat clearly visible behind them. The picture appeared in newspapers all around the country and was hugely influential in encouraging Europa to become a committed sponsor of surf lifesaving in New Zealand. Europa, of course, was later purchased by BP who as all surf lifesavers know, went on to become one of Surf Life Saving’s biggest and most committed sponsors.

 

There is no question that the Worser Bay club and Wahine Day played a part in encouraging BP’s long-term commitment to Surf Life Saving in New Zealand.

The club’s involvement on Wahine day didn’t end there.

 

Wahine Disaster

Almost all active club members made an attempt to get to the beach and help out.

A book, describing all the events of that fateful day, includes an account of the role that Ken Mitchell played. He rang the police early in the morning offering to organise the services of all Wellington lifesavers just in case they were required. The police told him they didn’t need the help. At work that morning he was in regular contact with the Worser Bay clubrooms and once he heard that people were abandoning ship he encouraged the club members to take out the surfboats. He also rang the police to advise them that the boats were going out but the police told him it wasn’t a good idea because the sea was far too dangerous. He told the police that this event was the kind of thing surf lifesavers had been trained for. The police were sceptical. Then Ken immediately left work and drove to the bay. He managed to talk his way through the Police roadblocks but because the boats had already gone there seemed to be nothing he could do but watch.

Murray Haxton from Maranui, one of the great surf swimmers of his time, arrived to see if he could help. Ken and Murray decided to take the surf skis out. They also decided to take life jackets with them and they took 3 jackets each because what they hoped to do was get close to the Wahine and ferry any passengers in the water to waiting rescue vessels. So out they paddled and the Wahine book recounts how hillside observers were astonished to see two small surf skis paddle out, appearing and disappearing amongst the swells.

disaster on the wahine.jpg

When they got to the Wahine they found there was little they could do. The passengers had left the ship on the eastern side were being quickly blown toward the Eastbourne shoreline. Ken and Murray tried to paddle toward Eastbourne but they found it impossible to make progress so, reluctantly, they returned to Worser Bay.

 

Barrie Devenport, who was living at Lower Hutt at the time, had decided the weather was too bad to go to work. As he listened to the radio describing what was happening, Barrie realised that people were about to be swept to the rocky eastern shore.

 

This is Barrie’s story of what happened to him that day. As you will read, he took matters into his own hands and was personally responsible for pulling a large number of people from the water.

 

“On the day of the Wahine disaster and after being advised that the power had been cut off by the weather, I told as many of the staff as I could contact, that the Wellington office would be closed for the day. The severity of the weather made conditions in Wellington’s streets very dangerous. A fellow employee, Kevin Wilson, who also lived in Lower Hutt and who was already on his way to work, decided to come to my house instead of proceeding to the office.

 

During the morning I had been in regular phone contact with my Surf Life Saving Club at Worser Bay and was obtaining regular reports from members about the stricken ship aground off Seatoun - only a few kilometres away from Worser Bay clubrooms. We were also all listening to regular radio reports about the Wahine.

 

When it became evident that the passengers were likely to abandon ship, I realised that anyone in a non-motorised life rafts and those unlucky people who would end up in the water (hopefully wearing life vests) would be quickly blown toward Wellington harbour’s eastern shore.

 

I knew the eastern side of Wellington harbour very well. During my training to swim Cook Strait in 1962, I did most of my training during the winter months swimming in and around all of Wellington Harbour. A number of my training swims were from Worser Bay to Eastbourne and return. Also, for 6 months, I swam 3 to 4 days a weeks from Day’s Bay – Point Howard – Eastbourne – back to Days Bay. Additionally, I twice completed a circumnavigation of the entire Wellington Harbour from Worser Bay taking about 9 hours for the trip. Because of all these swims, I had a good knowledge of the harbour and what was likely to happen over on the eastern side. Given my background and my expectation of the dangers the situation would bring to people on life rafts - and those in the water – Kevin and I decided to go to Eastbourne to prepare for possible rescues.

 

There was a Police road block en route but we managed to talk our way through it. At Burdon’s Gate, at the southern end of Eastbourne, we left Kevin’s car and were immediately confronted by a young Police officer who tried to discourage us from proceeding around the rough track to where we guessed people and life rafts would be coming ashore.

 

Eventually, after much discussion, the officer reluctantly allowed us through. At that stage we had no knowledge of any other rescuers or police ahead of us – certainly the Police officer didn’t indicate that anything had already been organised.

 

As we ran around the track, we immediately saw inflatable life rafts being washed into a wide bay among the rocks. Kevin and I scrambled down the steep beach and started pulling survivors from the water. It was difficult to get the people back up the shingle as the incoming wave surges tried to wash both the survivors and ourselves back into the water. At an early stage we pulled a deceased person from water and we then realised that there was a dreadful tragedy unfolding before our eyes.

 

At that point, there was no one else helping us. After a time – I don’t recall how long – other helpers began arriving but by that time Kevin and I must have pulled at least a score of people from the water. Sadly, some were already dead.

 

One survivor in particular I remember, a man, had signs of life when I got him to shore and I attempted to resuscitate him. Soon, however, the needs of others called me back into water. When I later returned to see how the gentleman was progressing, I found he had died. I believe many more may have been saved had experienced surf life savers and other medical people been on hand at the eastern shores to attend to the people we had to leave on the beach simply because we had to return to help those struggling in the water.

 

When other helpers began to arrive there were some uniformed people. We asked one who I thought was a fireman, to obtain a rope. When the rope arrived, as I recall, I tied myself to it so people on shore could help me pull in the life rafts to the beach. Some life rafts were upturned by the wind and surf tipping survivors into the water. Fortunately by now more people were being helped to the beach by other rescuers. However there seemed to be an endless number of Wahine passengers being attended to by far too few rescuers.

 

There is much more detail I could go in to because Kevin and I possibly pulled more survivors out of the water than anyone else on that horrific day on the eastern shoreline – mainly because we were first on scene - and also because my surf life saving background meant that I could cope with conditions better than most.

 

It was relatively easy for me to deal with the large surf situation. My workmate Kevin, who was not a strong swimmer, found the surf extremely challenging but he kept going back to help more people. I don’t doubt that many of the other rescuers, also found the conditions very tough during that tragic day.

 

The memory of the people who were smashed against the rocks, the bodies we pulled from the water and the people clinging desperately to rafts only to leave them so they could cling to me – will haunt me for the rest of my days.  I was very thankful that day for the skills that surf life saving had taught me. “

 

So the club’s involvement on Wahine Day was impressive.

 
scorching bay ladies 1.png

Scorching Bay Ladies

Our Sister Club

The Scorching Bay club began when a public meeting was called by Sandra Lowe in August 1955. Sandra, the elder sister of Worser Bay member Danny Lowe, had recently joined Wellington Ladies. However her family home was just above Scorching Bay and Sandra thought that travelling to Wellington Ladies at Lyall Bay didn’t make much sense when there was a beautiful, unpatrolled beach on her doorstep. Anyway, about 50 people turned up at Sandra’s meeting and a committee was formed to draw up a constitution.

 

With the constitution duly completed, the inaugural meeting was called in October. At the meeting, it was agreed that the club is formed, a constitution was adopted and a committee was elected. The Scorching Bay Ladies Surf and Life Saving Club were now officially in existence. In November the season was officially opened by the then mayor’s wife Lady MacAlister.

Even at this early date, discussions had been organised with the City Council about building a club shed. Sketch plans were made and fundraising was set in motion.

Scorching Bay, in those days, was a very different place. There was, however, a large section of grass where the council had just built new brick public changing rooms and there was also a tap in the middle of the beach for freshwater. Across the road from the beach were half a dozen or so seaside baches and there were three or four old houses at the northern end of the bay. Also across the road, there were public toilets and a telephone box. There was also a dairy that sold most things but also offered afternoon tea and ice creams to Scorching Bay visitors. The dairy building once contained a dance floor/cabaret on a 3rd level but it had been burnt out some years before.

 

Luckily for the Scorching Bay ladies, the Bramley family (keen Worser Bay supporters) owned one of the baches across the road which they hardly ever used. They offered it to the club as a temporary clubroom and as a place to store the club’s reel.

 

The membership of the club was up to 50 at the end of the first season. These were mostly girls from the surrounding area or friends and sisters of Worser Bay club members. With a concentrated effort, the club trained enough members to enter a qualified 4 man team at the Wellington champs.

 

For the next few years, the club membership continued to hover around the 50 mark. Some of the initial members were too young to qualify, others struggled with the surf exam qualifying requirement that the candidate be able to swim 440 yards in under 9 minutes. Many of those struggling to qualify stayed on as members and took on the jobs of Secretary and Treasurer. This allowed the qualified members to concentrate on training.

 

By the end of the second season, the club had enough qualified members to enter a 4 and 6 teams at most carnivals, but never quite enough for a full march past team. While the club never attracted any swimming superstars, Scorching Bay teams usually made it to the finals of events because of the quality of their beach drills. Perfecting the drills meant lots of effort from everyone. These were the days of fluorescent socks so everyone wore them to training to help them keep in step.

 

The club happily operated from Bramley’s bach for a few years but then the council decided to grass the whole top area of the beach. This meant that the baches had to go and the houses were to all be knocked down. It became very urgent that a clubhouse be built.

 

Fundraising became the club’s main focus with bottle drives, door knocks, sales of work, raffles, dances, housie evenings and papers delivered.

 

Right from the start, there was an informal committee of supporters who were very keen to keep the club at the beach. One of these was the Seatoun hairdresser Mrs M. Frizell who had three daughters she wanted to become active members. She eventually became the club’s elected President and spent most of her time dealing with building the clubshed.

 

The completed shed was an excellent facility and was opened in 1962 by local MP Bill Fox in late November. Many local officials attended the ceremony and the club flag was flown from the flagpole. The opening was followed by a dinner for all the club members and supporters.

 

Fundraising of course, didn’t end there. There was always a need for money – new gear, new togs, things for the clubshed etc. One of the more unusual and successful fundraisers was organised by Mrs Bullock. It was an art exhibition at the clubhouse run by the Seatoun Arts and Craft Club. The art was sold on a commission basis, with all the commission going to the club. The exhibition not only raised a good amount of money, but it also helped raise the profile of the club.

 

The new clubhouse proved to be a Godsend. Members now had somewhere to meet, store gear, get changed and have a shower (initially cold). Opening days became dress-up affairs and a social occasion. But the shed was not without its problems. Members arrived one winters morning to find the floor covered with two or three inches of water. It was discovered the clubhouse had been built on top of a previously hidden underground spring. The council rectified this problem with some drainage. Eventually, when the club had raised some money, lino was put on the floor and gas hot water added to the shower.

 

A second aluminium reel was donated by one of the members' fathers and the club then bought a surf ski.

 

The club teams always looked good but a planned trip to the nationals prompted a special effort. It was decided to get black blazers, with a green and white pocket. Club badges were also commissioned similar to Worser Bay’s but in green. It was also noted that the club’s bright green hats were easy to find and were a great advertisement for the club. Green became the predominant colour over the years – lime green T-shirts, green tracksuits, green black and white sunhats. There was one disaster when white bikinis were purchased that unfortunately turned out to be see-through.

 

As time went on, getting to Scorching Bay proved to a problem because most members didn’t own a car. Public transport was severely limited. Most people had to walk to the bay or ride a bike – which presumably helped with team fitness. A standing joke on training nights was that if teams were too tired to walk home, there was always the possibility of getting a lift with the night cart – which still used to call at the one remaining old house.

 

Like Worser Bay, Scorching Bay was a very safe each and rescues were few and far between. Most of the time patrol members were asked to help find lost children or fix up cut toes.

 

On one memorable Sunday, however, when the patrol came back from lunch, members were told that a man had been to walk across the rocks and then dive in. He hadn’t been seen again. The patrol immediately went into action and some of the older swimmers went out to the rocks and swam around in the thick kelp looking for the swimmer. Other members took out the ski and paddled around the rocks. After an hour of searching, without success, the patrol members re-grouped.

 

Then a man arrived at the beach with diving gear and offered to help. It wasn’t long before he found the man floating in kelp and the victim was bought to shore on the club’s ski. Our helpful diver had been a lifesaver so he immediately set about attempting resuscitation – but mostly to satisfy the onlookers. Someone had also called the police and an ambulance arrived. After consultation, all agreed that there was no way the victim could be revived. The ambulance crew suggested that in their view, the victim had actually died from a heart attack and not from drowning

 

Over the years there was a marked turnover of members through people getting married, leaving the district or finding it hard to fit in training and work. The Government Equal Opportunities Bill meant that all make clubs were obliged to have female members. This meant that many of the sisters and friends of the Worser Bay members began to join the Worser Club.

 

Membership declined to the point that Scorching Bay was unable to compete or maintain patrols.

 

Eventually, in 1978, Klyne Phipps Black who had family members at both Worser Bay and Scorching Bay, negotiated an agreement that both clubs should combine – which they did.

War Effort

It is recorded in the 1917 Annual Report that the Club’s Roll of Honour stood at 49.

It is recorded in the 1917 Annual Report that the Club’s Roll of Honour stood at 49 and that several additional members had gone to the front. It was also recorded with regret that the following had been killed in action: The list included club Patron W.H.D. Bell and Messrs R. C. Calman, R. Fox, H. May, J. Saxon, C. Sylvester and H. Wyatt. It is quite remarkable that this recently established Club had contributed so many people to the war effort with over 50 members signing up. Even more remarkable was the number who failed to return from the war.

 

The list of those killed in action was a follows:

 

S. Gardiner                      

W.H.D. Bell (Patron)                

C. Tothill

A. Griffiths                            

J.D. Bennett                             

R. Fox

J.V. Radcliffe                   

F. Galvin                                 

R. C. Calman

H. Wyatt                             

H. May                                     

J. Saxon

F. De Rose                                   

A. M. Stuart           

A. Mellis Stuart                 

C. Sylvester

1918_NZ_troops_at_French_port.jpg