The last voyage of the T.S.M.V. Kaitawa

At 1.15 PM on the 21st of May 1966 the Kaitawa cleared the port of Westport on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island with a cargo of 2957 tons of coal. She was bound for the cement works at Portland near Whangarei via the North Cape, a voyage she would have completed many times since she arrived in New Zealand from her Scottish builders in 1949.


A sister ship of the Kaitawa leaving port fully loaded.

The original ETA of the Kaitawa at Portland was 4am on the 24th of May. This was changed on May 23rd to noon on the 24th and then later to 3 PM on the 24th. These changes were probably due to deteriorating weather conditions.

The last hours of the Kaitawa and her crew.

On the night the Kaitawa wrecked the weather was deteriorating. Winds were from the Westerly quarter at 35 knots, seas very rough with a heavy swell; visibility was bad in frequent rainsqualls.

The weather at Cape Reinga at 2100 hours that night was reported to be: Wind direction from 270 degrees, speed 35 knots, visibility up to 15 miles subject to rain squalls.

At 8pm N.Z. time, the Kaitawa was seen by the south bound vessel "Cape Horn" in a position about 5 miles west of the northern end of the Pandora bank. The officer of the watch on ”Cape Horn” reported that at about 8pm the Kaitawa had started to alter her course to clear Cape Reinga.

Because there were no survivors from the Kaitawa probably the last person to see her was the officer of the watch on Cape Horn. So what occurred after that time is just theory.

The Position she gave in the distress message put her on the western edge of the Bank. The official inquiry into the sinking dismissed the position given in the MAYDAY as being incorrect.

There is a quote from the report of the official inquiry.

"The position given by the Kaitawa in the distress message would place her on the western edge of Pandora Bank. At this point it is sufficient to say that it is clear the Kaitawa was certainly not in that position. Her exact position cannot be fixed with precision but it has been calculated by Captain Milroy as at a point from which Cape Reinga was bearing 080 degrees True to 085 degrees True, and was distant 7 to 10 nautical miles. At this time the weather was deteriorating and a heavy sea was running".

I strongly disagree with that opinion regarding the position. I cannot think of any reason why at the time the Kaitawa sent the MAYDAY message they would not have been aware of the correct bearing to Cape Reinga light. These were profession seamen of long experience they would have known how to take an accurate bearing of a light.  However I am prepared to believe until that time they may not have been aware just how close was the Pandora bank. In other words they knew the bearing of the light but not the distance off.

For these reasons.

1.      The Kaitawa was a ship with no radar or echo sounder.

2.      The weather was very bad.

3.      It was night and visibility was poor.

4.      They would have been distracted by the stressful situation.

5.      The ship was listing which may have made getting a decent visual bearing difficult.

6.      In that general area the angle between the two lights the one on Cape Maria Van Dieman and the other on Cape Reinga is not sufficiently different to give an accurate position fix.

Had the Kaitawa been fitted with radar it would have been a simple matter to read off the distance.

Given the above mentioned factors it is quite possible they believed they were much further out to sea than they actually were.

If the Kaitawa was where Captain Milroy, of the official inquiry suggested then they could have seen both Cape Maria van Dieman light and Cape Reinga light. Which would have given them a good position fix!


North Cape Chart of 1972 showing incident positions

The problem for the official inquiry

The official inquiry cannot reconcile the MAYDAY message position with the last known position of the Kaitawa as reported by the officer on Cape Horn.

In a letter dated 20th July 1966 addressed to Captain H. Ruegg of the government’s Marine Department, Captain Milroy writes, “…it does not seem possible for the “Kaitawa” to have reached the Pandora Bank position at 2100 without actually steaming there.”

 The inquiry assumes that the Kaitawa continued north from her position at 8pm as reported by the vessel "Cape Horn".

I agree, because the officer of the watch on the "Cape Horn" said she had appeared to alter course just after 8pm to clear Cape Reinga.

Captain Milroy of the inquiry seemed determined to make up a theory to prove the Kaitawa was not lost because she hit the Pandora Bank.

Another point of interest is in a letter to Captain Milroy from Captain Ruegg in which Captain Ruegg refers to a report that an airforce flying boat sighted wreckage at 1125 the morning following the accident. Quote:” This leads to the conjecture that perhaps the casualty could have occurred on the Bank and the wreckage drifted afterwards.”

Captain Milroy appeared to be resolute in his belief that Kaitawa did not wreck because she hit the bank.

The facts

As I see it, there are only two facts about the Kaitawa's position in the hours prior to her sinking.

These are:

1.      She was 5 miles west of the northern end of the Pandora Bank at 2000.

2.      At 2100 she was close to the bank where Cape Reinga light was bearing 035 degrees True.

The inquiry realised that some serious situation occurred with the Kaitawa sometime between 2000 and 2100 hours, but could not imagine how she might have recovered from that and finished up wrecking on the west edge of Pandora bank a relatively short time later.

Captain Milroy was correct in his letter when writing, “it does not seem possible for the “Kaitawa” to have reached the Pandora Bank position at 2100 without actually steaming there.”

I believe she did steam there.

After the wreck

The wreck of the Kaitawa was fixed on June 8th 1966 at a position 246 degrees True and 4.77 miles from Cape Reinga light at about 6.5 miles north of where I believe she hit the bank. The superstructure was gone all the hatch covers were missing as was the cargo of coal. At 11.25 am on the 24th May the day following the disaster wreckage was sighted by an airforce “Sunderland” flying boat in the water about 4 miles north of the position where I believe she hit the bank. The strong tides in the area flow north and south, at  about 1am on the 24th May the tide began to flow north which could have carried the wreck to the point where she eventually sank. On the turn of the tide to the south once more the tide may have carried the floating wreckage back south to where it was spotted at 11.25am.

 At 2350 hours on the 23rd the vessel Cape Horn which had returned from the south to search for the Kaitawa sighted a Red flare on a bearing of 23 degrees True, distance 5 to 10 nautical miles. I have been unable to find out what position the Cape Horn was in when she sighted this flare. The Cape Horn could not close to search for the origin of the flare because that would have brought her into the dangerous area of the Pandora Bank. The bad weather conditions then forced the Cape Horn to "hove to" from Midnight until daybreak. Though they kept up a radar search of the sea area they saw nothing of the Kaitawa the sea clutter being very severe.

There were no survivors of the 29crew of the Kaitawa and only one body was recovered that of John Wright. Wreckage of one of the ships liferafts was later recovered, this showed evidence of having been inflated and that an emergency pack had been opened. Only 18 of the 32 lifejackets onboard the Kaitawa were recovered. Much of the wreckage was found in a relatively small area of the coast. So if the lifejackets did float off there should have been a good chance of them coming ashore here. Which could mean that 11 of the crew remained trapped inside the hull. In that case whatever happened occurred very fast and with little warning. This may have been the sudden realisation of the close proximity of the Pandora bank, just minutes prior to going onto the bank. Evidence for this being the change within 1 minute from an Urgency radio call to a Distress call and message and the abrupt loss of radio communication.

It seems strange that 18 lifejackets were recovered but only one body. Though I have attended many lifeboat drills and seen crew arrive at their muster stations carrying their lifejackets, and lifejackets put on incorrectly.

 It seems likely that at least some crew managed to abandon ship probably in the two liferafts, but the chances of a liferaft or lifeboat surviving the Pandora bank that night would be very small indeed.


The loss of the Kaitawa was a tragedy. So many lives lost and even more lives disrupted or ruined. I don’t think any one person could be blamed for what happened. The sea can be tough and cruel at times. Certainly anyone who has worked on those old under powered and under equipped colliers will feel great sympathy for those lost that night. But understand these things can happen at sea, any time anywhere.

It is easy to say, if the Master of the Kaitawa had use of radar, an echo sounder and a decent chart to help him things could have been different. Maybe if the Kaitawa had more powerful engines, more freeboard and hatches that didn’t leak she might have made port safely. If she had not been in that part of the sea at that time and steering that course at that speed in waves of that size she would not have broached. But accidents are a series of events and conditions that accumulate, and then happen. Usually no one sees them coming and when some one does it is too late to change things, the point of no return has passed. Perhaps the point of no return in this situation was when the officer of the watch on Cape Horn saw Kaitawa change course to 035 true to clear Cape Reinga.

Rest in peace shipmates.

Official findings and unofficial theories about the sinking

 Who was 2/O M.G. Collins?

Colour pictures of the Kaitawa

The Radio transmissions

 Read about my voyages on the KAITAWA's sister ship KONUI

  Back to the start