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New Zealand Disasters: Ranui Shipwreck (28 December 1950)

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In spite of the stormy weather, the atmosphere at Mount Maunganui on 28 December 1950 was one of festivity. World War II had ended five years previously, the decision earlier that year to establish a deep-water port would bring new opportunities, and the town was packed with holidaymakers. Before the day’s end though, a tragedy would occur that would leave rescuers bleeding and bruised and the small town shocked and in mourning for 22 people. The only survivor would be Phillip Henry Gordon Smith (Bluey), a 19-year-old deck-hand and son of one of those killed. Story and profiles researched and written by Debbie McCauley (28 December 2019).

The Town Wharf in Tauranga was constructed in 1871 at the eastern end of Wharf Street. In 1937 it was renamed Coronation Pier to celebrate coronation of George VI (later demolished in 2007). In early in December 1950 a brand new kauri launch was berthed at the pier. Her name was the Ranui and she was intended to transport passengers and take people on fishing trips. She measured 13 metres long, had a blue timber hull and was one of a fleet owned by Jerry Williams, Tauranga’s first charter fishing boat skipper.

At 7am on the morning of 28 December 1950, the Ranui left Coronation Pier under the command of skipper Geoffrey Harnett (1916-1950). She crossed the Tauranga Harbour (Te Awanui) to Salisbury Wharf at Pilot Bay on the western side of Mount Maunganui. Salisbury Wharf had been built in 1911 to service rail construction in the area. At Salisbury Wharf the Ranui collected more people on a camping trip to Tūhua (Mayor Island).

The Ranui then left the harbour entrance, passing Mauao and radioing in at 8.36am that she was on her way. The sea was described as ‘lumpy’ and those who wanted to go fishing had been told the weather was too rough. Headwinds buffeted the boat, and the rough conditions meant most of the passengers became seasick. At around 11.45am the Ranui reached South East Bay at Tūhua. Campers went ashore, and the Ranui moved on to try and find a fishing spot, but due to the conditions gave up and came back to the sheltered bay.

At around 3pm the Ranui left Tūhua with 23 people on board for the return journey to Tauranga where it had been rainy and windy for most of the day. The skipper received information by radio that the tide had been running in for around two hours and that there was a heavy sea breaking right across the harbour entrance all the way to Panepane Point, opposite Mauao at the end of Matakana Island. Conditions were expected to have improved by 5pm when the Ranui was due to return.

At 5pm the Ranui was about 3km off the entrance and the seas, instead of improving, seemed to be steadily worsening. At 5.25pm shore radio received a call from skipper Geoffrey Harnett who mentioned that conditions were very rough and hectic. The Ranui was about 1½km from the entrance by this stage. A north-westerly wind was now blowing and 20-30ft waves were breaking on the rocks below Mauao. This would be the last radio message from the Ranui.

The Ranui was about 90 metres off shore at 5.40pm when, without warning, a massive wave tossed her onto her starboard side, lifting her stern completely out of the water. The wave then swung her broadside and rolled her completely over. The overturned Ranui floated for about half an hour before the waves pounded her into pieces against North Rock (Te Toka a Tirikawa) at the base of Mauao.

The wreck had been witnessed by many on shore who rushed to help, hoping to pluck survivors from the sea. Many of those attempting a rescue themselves became victims, caught by the sea and dashed against the rocks. Two ended up in Tauranga Hospital, and others suffering from exhaustion were stretchered away.

It became obvious that either the capsize itself, the sea, or the jagged rocks had killed those on board the Ranui, apart from one lucky survivor. 19-year-old deckhand Phillip Henry Gordon Smith (Bluey), managed to escape from the wheelhouse. He was a strong swimmer and tried to rescue others, but the sea was too ruthless. Phillip endured several knocks to the head as he collided with the boat. He had just managed to swim to the rocks when a large wave flung him up and over the outer rocks. Three men were then able to help him ashore, but unfortunately Phillip’s father, Harry Smith, was killed. Out of the 23 people on board, 19 holidaymakers and three crew were lost.

The 22 killed:

  1. Albert Herman Bartz
  2. Gladwell Paul Bartz
  3. Idris Howard Bartz
  4. Joy Biggs
  5. Patricia Rita Burke
  6. John Reading Carlsen
  7. Olaf Blomfield Carlsen
  8. Llewellyn Bernard Davis
  9. Margaret Ann Goodyear
  10. Margaret Evelyn Hands
  11. Geoffrey Harnett
  12. Gordon Hugh Grainger Hunt
  13. Lindsay Douglas Lang
  14. Allan Albert Moore
  15. Ivan Clifford Moore
  16. Walter Lindsay Edward Norman
  17. Ivan Owen Duvall Penwarden
  18. Lloyd Wareham Penwarden
  19. Harry Smith
  20. Ernest Guenther Unger
  21. Jack Keith Williams
  22. Richard John Willis

Those on shore helped in the grisly task to recover the mutilated bodies from the rocks. By the next day 13 bodies had been recovered. The remainder came ashore over the following week. At the base of Mauao was strewn the remains of the wreck, timber and parts of the Ranui, luggage, and other belongings.

Later, a court inquiry found that the disaster was the result of an exceptionally high wave which capsized the Ranui when well into the channel at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour.

Today, a plaque marks the site of the wreck where the 63 horse-power diesel engine also rests. The plaque reads: ‘Seaward of this rock lie the remains of a locally owned launch, the Ranui, wrecked in heavy seas on her maiden voyage on the 28th December 1950, with the loss of 22 lives.

It is hoped that this page will stand as a memorial to those who lost their lives and also to those who had to carry on with their lives in the face of the loss of their loved ones. In some cases the result of the Ranui Shipwreck was extreme hardship for widows left with young children to raise on their own. Their stories also need to be told.


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