Search for wreck of Penguin

09:35, Feb 11 2009
CENTURY-OLD MYSTERY: Seventy-two people drowned when the Penguin sank in 1909 off Wellington's south coast.

The mystery surrounding the Cook Strait's worst maritime disaster could be revealed through deep-sea exploration, a century after the wreck sank.

Seventy-two people drowned when the interisland ferry Penguin sank on February 12, 1909, off Wellington's south coast a hundred years ago today.

Of the 30 survivors, only one was a woman. Ada Hannam lost her husband and four young children in the wreck, but she saved the life of a young boy, Ellis Matthews.

Wellington man George Jones remembers meeting Mr Matthews in 1958, on a family visit to Mr Matthews' fruit farm near Blenheim.

"I talked to Ellis's wife, and she asked me not to talk to her husband about his survival from the Penguin wreck 50 years before, as it was still too painful for him to remember ... All I learned was that Ellis never knew how to swim, and had refused to enter any water since," Mr Jones said.

Although the Penguin had been well-equipped with lifeboats, rough seas quickly overturned many of them, pitching men, women and children into the stormy waters.


A court of inquiry found the ship had hit Thoms Rock near Tongue Pt, but Captain Francis Naylor swore to his dying day that he had struck the submerged wreck of the brigantine Rio Loge, which had been seen floating back and forth across the strait for several weeks.

Either way, Wellingtonshipwreck hunter Bill Day is hoping to shed light on what happened to the ferry when he launches $50,000 worth of equipment into the ocean in search of its resting place.

"I suspect that the wreck will be relatively intact because it will be so deep," he said.

Within the next month, Mr Day is planning to use a magnetometer a torpedo-like device towed behind a boat that records the Earth's magnetic field to locate the Penguin.

Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast will unveil today a plaque mounted on a prominent rock at Tongue Pt, near where the Penguin foundered. Dunedin maritime writer Bruce Collins, author of a comprehensive history of the shipwreck, will speak at the commemoration.


The Dominion Post