The burgeoning interest in the revitalisation of the port in Whanganui brings to mind some of the more dramatic incidents that occurred within our once boisterous harbour. One unfortunate event involved the British Imperial Oil Company steamer SS Cyrena, skippered by Captain D R Paterson. On course to arrive on 25 May 1925, Cyrena was about to deliver 8,000 cases of oil in Whanganui before proceeding to Bluff, Port Chalmers and Lyttelton to deliver the remainder of the cargo. Like so many ships before, Cyrena anticipated an uneventful entrance into the Whanganui Harbour.
The wreck of the SS Cyrena not far from the shore with the SS Mana alongisde. Barrels and crated of cargo were taken off the ship and stored temporarily on Castlecliff Beach. Ref: W-S-W-051n
There was no smooth sailing for Cyrena; the ship met trouble entering the harbour, running aground on what was then thought to be a sandbar. It was reported at the time that Cyrena could be re-floated without much difficulty, so work began to lighten the load. The salvage tug Terawhiti arrived from Wellington to help dislodge Cyrena and the steamer John arrived from New Plymouth to lighten its load of cargo. When this proved to be inadequate, several other ideas were floated to free Cyrena from a watery fate.
By 5 June a scheme was hatched to pump compressed air into the ship, which was intended to achieve a “greater degree of buoyancy.” Despite this not being very successful, another similar idea entailed attaching all the empties, the beer barrels from local hotels, to see what difference they would make when Cyrena was re-floated. After several unsuccessful attempts to rescue Cyrena, however, the final blow was delivered on 12 June by a large southerly swell which broke the ship in two, sending all remaining cargo into the sea.
Crowds gathered on Castlecliff Beach to watch Cyrena slowly disintegrate into the sea as the flotsam of barrels, tins of oil and timber found its way to the shore. Patrols were set up to prevent looting and work parties were formed to salvage what they could from the shore.
The owners of Cyrena were ordered to remove the wreck as it was deemed an eyesore by local authorities. By 23 September 300lb of explosives were detonated near the boilers on board ship, ushering in the first phase of demolition. According to estimates, between £10,000 and £15,000 was spent in trying to save Cyrena, the equivalent of between $940,000 and $1,400,000 in 2016.
How did it happen? The reason for the disaster was initially thought to be the result of a build-up of excess sand or mud from a recent flood. According to the newspaper reports there were anecdotal stories that it was not just a sandbar hindering Cyrena, but a log “approximately 40ft long and 3ft wide” that had made contact with the steamer. Further exploration revealed that there was a “formidable” obstruction lurking beneath the waves that was probably responsible for the damage that occurred. While there were some close calls, no one was hurt and Captain Paterson was exonerated of wrong-doing at a later inquiry, which called the wreck an Act of God. Newspapers at the time declared that “the name Cyrena will not be forgotten for a long time”.
Article by Milly Mitchell-Anyon, a Contract Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.