Saturday, 11 July 2020


The foundering of MV Maranui

By Suzanne Hansen

The middle of last month marked the 50th anniversary of the sinking of MV Maranui, some 25 nautical miles east of Great Mercury Island. The Maranui was a Northern Steamship Company, 739-ton coastal freighter. She was fully loaded with 900 tons of wheat, on her way from Lyttelton Harbour to Auckland, when she sank. The sinking was because her cargo of bulk wheat shifted severely during a heavy south-easterly storm. 

Over her preceding 14 years, from 1953 to 1967, the Maranui ran without much incident and was considered by the Northern Steamship Company to be a “happy ship and a good sea boat.”

In 1967, the Maranui was equipped with basic modifications, to move bulk wheat from the South Island to Tauranga and Auckland. As the vessel was a smaller coastal freighter, she was exempt from some of the requirements of larger Trans-Tasman grain freighters, such as shifting boards. Shifting boards are installed vertically down the middle of the vessel to prevent the movement of grain during bad weather.

Just as the sinking of the Wahine two months earlier, the foundering of the Maranui was the result of a tragic chain of events. On their own, these events would not have led to the ship’s destruction, but when combined they led to an unfortunate disaster and the loss of nine of the vessel's 15 crew.

Primarily, the ship was not outfitted to carry bulk grain, which is prone to shifting in a storm. The storm they encountered on 13 June 1968 was not unusual for the crew and Captain David Bruce made the decision to outrun the weather as he had many times before.

The grain's shift to the portside due to the storm, was made much worse by a rogue wave. The air pipes on the portside of the ship were unplugged to keep the grain cargo aerated, but this meant that the vessel took on water due to her list (tilt), flooding the portside bottom tank. The crew initiated flooding of the starboard side bottom tank to remedy the portside list.  

At 3:40 pm on 13 June, Captain Bruce advised the Northern Steam Ship Company by radio that the Maranui was, “...steering very badly in easterly storm. May have to heave-to [slow down and stop]. Will advise.”

The captain then hove-to, with the Maranui’s bow pointed east, into seas that were flooding the forecastle through an open door. Crew were sent forward, but could not secure the door which appeared to have a broken hinge.

In the space of only 40 minutes the Maranui had increased her list from 10 degrees to 40. At 4:05pm Chief Officer Robert Ingham, on the captain’s orders, sent from the Maranui a PAN (urgency) message to Auckland Radio ZLD (the Auckland maritime coast radio station) on the radiotelephone, "Approximately 25 miles east of Mercury Island. Are there any vessels in vicinity? List is increasing.”

PAN, in radio communications, means that there is a state of emergency, but no immediate danger to the ship or her crew.
After another 10 long minutes, the captain and his officers, standing in the wheelhouse, made the judgement that the vessel was going to capsize and they needed to get the crew off. Another call was made to Auckland Radio ZLD at 5:03 pm, “Mayday, mayday from Maranui. Position 36.48 south 176.25 east. Listing badly, require immediate assistance.” At 5:06pm, “Now listing 40 degrees, water going clean over us.” One minute later, “Clearing lifeboats and life rafts now in case they are needed.”

The Marunui was now no longer under human control and her propeller was fully clear of the water. With waves crashing over the wheelhouse, Captain Bruce stayed near the radar looking for ships that could get to the stricken vessel in time. The closest vessel was the MV Mirabooka, a Swedish cargo ship of 8,160 gross tonnage bound for Auckland from Napier, under the command of Captain Thorsten Wahlstedt. Radio contact was established between the two ships, but with the raging storm and seas estimated to be at 30 to 40 feet, visibility was zero. In spite of this, the Mirabooka was able to spot the fading lights of the Maranui’s distress flares and made her way quickly to the stricken ship's aid.

Once Captain Bruce determined they had definitely been spotted by the Mirabooka, he ordered his crew, already in lifejackets, to abandon ship. Unfortunately, the Maranui's lifeboats were unusable because they too were under water. The crew were forced to launch the ship's single inflatable life raft, a piece of equipment the crew were woefully trained to use. There was an orderly embarkation onto the raft. Captain Bruce was, of course, the last to board. 

The storm increased in violence and the crew battled to handle the life raft and move it clear of the Maranui. The raft was repeatedly washed back onto the vessel. In this continual process, the canopy of the life raft, housing the emergency lighting, was torn off. Lights were critical to the Mirabooka finding the Maranui's crew. A hero of the night, Second Officer CJ Taylor, told the crew to hold the raft alongside of the sinking Maranui. He then clambered off the raft onto the unstable ship, now listing at 60 degrees, to get a torch he had in his cabin. 

Second Officer Taylor managed to get back onto the life raft and the crew were able to push away from the sinking ship. However, the life raft was at the mercy of the elements, furiously lurching and spinning about. With their lack of training on the raft, none of the crew knew how to deploy the sea anchor, which would greatly have assisted in giving them some control.

At 8.19pm, the dim light of the torch was miraculously spotted by the crew of the Mirabooka and an epic rescue attempt ensued. Keeping in mind the immense size, weight and tall structure of the Mirabooka, Captain Wahlstedt defied the 30 - 40 foot seas and brought his ship alongside the life raft after five attempts. They managed to retrieve six of the Maranui's crew before the life raft was swept away by the wind.

Thanks to the torch retrieved at the last second, the life raft could be spotted from time to time and the captain of the Mirabooka managed to bring his vessel alongside the life raft an astonishing six more times. But after more than three hours in the ice cold sea and fighting to get on board the very tall Mirabooka, none of the remaining survivors could be retrieved and the life raft disappeared from view for the final time.

The Mirabooka continued searching for the raft throughout the night and hoped that daylight would bring calmer weather. But, in fact, the storm worsened. The Mirabooka itself began to list from the impact of the storm and their own radar failed, so Captain Wahlstedt called off the search and returned to Auckland with the survivors of the Maranui.

A few days later, the body of Ship Steward John Roberts was found near Sugarloaf Rocks, off the Alderman Islands. The empty life raft was found washed ashore on Great Mercury Island, but none of the bodies of those other eight men who lost their lives have ever been found.

No one saw the Maranui go down and it was not until 2005, when a fishing trawler fouled its net on a large underwater obstruction, that the wreck was located. 


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