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Survivors reveal how they fled the Wahine with their newborn baby

'I was clutching Sarah and we were drifting in the harbour. Everything got very quiet and there was an incredibly still moment as the ship finished falling over.'

By Lynley Ward

Clutching a baby, her husband tightly gripping her arm with one hand, a handrail with the other, Sharon and Murray Major slowly inched their way around the listing Wahine deck knowing one misstep would prove fatal.

It was a terrifying walk of survival for the young family preparing to start a new life in Wellington after Murray (22) started a new position at the Post Office in 1968.

Barely 16 hours earlier, Sharon had driven her packed Morris 1000 on to the overnight Lyttelton ferry as she and six-month-old daughter Sarah set out on their shift north.

Now she was facing an unimaginable situation so perilous the fate of their family hung in the balance.

From their Khandallah home, overlooking the harbour, a picture of serenity on a sunny autumn day 50 years later, the couple recall the ill-fated voyage and fight for survival.

Unlike most passengers, 21-year-old Sharon was up and in the ship's cafeteria eating breakfast when the Wahine struck the reef.

"I was sitting at the counter having toast and I could see waves breaking on rocks through the window. I turned to the guy next to me, who was a cricket player, and said, 'I didn't know we went so close to the rocks' – and the next minute we hit the rocks!

"The whole ship shuddered and there was this dreadful noise – you can imagine this grinding, graunching noise, then people started shrieking."

Meanwhile, Murray recalls seeing a red flashing light through a porthole and thinking it was strange. He now realises that was Barrett Reef. The fateful collision sparked an emergency evacuation.

With her family in the cabin below, Sharon raced to them, pushing against the tide of people heading to upper level muster stations.

"Down the gangway, I could see people going on either side, then there was this gap in the flow and somebody lying on their back with a baby on top of them. It was Murray! "He had very quickly got his lifejacket on, grabbed Sarah and when the ship did a big lurch, he didn't have a hand free to grab the hand rail."

Murray adds, "I sort of turned when I started to fall and hit the wall of the main corridor."

Sharon says she rescued her startled baby while passengers helped her groggy husband, dressed in a suit ready for a day in the office, to the muster station. Unable to sit on a chair, they lifted his legs, propping him up with a blanket on a couch while Sharon perched nearby.

This is the moment a steward captures the smiling young mum holding her baby next to a man sprawled on a seat under the headline "waiting to abandon ship", which features in a special commemorative collection of stamps issued by New Zealand Post.

"On the stamp, he looks as if he's taking his ease, but actually, he's not conscious," explains Sharon.

The couple waited there for hours listening to radio bulletins and noticing the rocking motion becoming increasingly lopsided.

By the time the call to abandon ship came, the list was so bad that people couldn't stand upright.

"By then, it was impossible for anyone to walk across the floor," remembers Murray. "People were sliding down from one side to the other and crashing into the wall."

Facing a nightmare situation, the couple decided to take a dangerous circumnavigation of the upper deck as their best chance of reaching a life raft. Just before heading outside, the couple kissed, with Murray telling Sharon to contact his new boss "if anything happens".

The pair then took a painstakingly slow trip to the life raft, watching people break limbs as they skidded like skittles across the deck.

Recounts Sharon, "I had a lifejacket on, two arms around Sarah, and Murray was clutching my upper arm very firmly with one hand. With his other hand, he grabbed the hand rail and we inched all the way round the rail.

"I was holding the weight of Sharon and Sarah, and holding on to the hand rail," recalls Murray. "If I'd have let go, we'd have all fallen."

"While Murray and I would have survived, Sarah wouldn't have," adds Sharon, faltering.

By the time they reached the life raft, they were among the last to leave. Next the young mum faced a death-defying moment, placing her faith in a stranger to save her baby.

"I remember there was a man on the raft and thinking I can't jump in with Sarah in my arms. He looked at me and I said, 'Here, catch', so I dug my elbows in as hard as possible and threw my baby," she says, her eyes filling with tears.

"It was one of those situations where there was no other option."

To her relief, he caught Sarah and Sharon jumped in immediately after.

At that point, the couple separated. Murray, a competitive swimmer, had dropped into the sea and was now gripping a rope edging the life raft.

From her vantage point on top of the raft's canopy, Sharon vividly remembers the shocking moment the Wahine sunk through the mist and gloom.

"I was clutching Sarah and we were drifting in the harbour. Everything got very quiet and there was an incredibly still moment as the ship finished falling over. It just slithered into the waves.

"Nobody said anything. Everybody was just stunned."

They were eventually plucked to safety by a tugboat and for the second time that day, Sharon was forced to place her faith in the hands of a stranger with the shipwreck survivors forced to climb a dangling rope ladder to safety.

"I couldn't climb up the ladder – I needed two hands to carry Sarah. I saw a seaman up on the tug and I yelled at him, 'Here, catch', and I had to really hurl her up. They both disappeared over the side, then I jumped onto the rope ladder and clambered up and over."

For the second time, her baby had been caught safely.

"It wasn't until much, much later that I thought, 'What would have happened if those two men hadn't caught her?'"

Sharon still didn't know if her husband was alive with the tug now crammed with victims plucked from the sea.

"So I handed Sarah to an elderly woman and found the tug's engine room, where the men were clinging to a rail, and saw Murray there! I couldn't get anywhere near him, but we waved and smiled."

When they finally berthed back in Wellington, a relieved Sharon was reunited with her husband of 18 months for the first time since leaping off the stricken ship.

Wrapped in a blanket, saturated from the sea but holding on to her precious bundle, the young mum posed for a photo that would appear in publications around the world.

Fifty years later, that black and white photo rests face-down on a shelf with a stack of albums. Holding the gold photo frame that sat on display for decades at her late mother-in-law's Christchurch home, Sharon says she doesn't want
to be reminded every day of the tragedy.

"It's tucked away because it does my head in when I think about it. I mean, we were very lucky because we all survived. We didn't suffer any permanent injury, but I think of the people who did."

But come April 10, the couple always raise a glass in remembrance.

"We've never been to any of the communal activities, we've avoided it," says Sharon. "We avoided going looking at memorials, but we always have a toast.

"We toast the survivors and remember the Wahine."

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