The Wanganella by Leona Fay
Leona Fay is a retired school teacher with an interest in literature, peace and social justice. She has attended the Gifting Your Stories courses taught by Grant Hindin-Miller at the Centre for Continuing Education at Canterbury University. This story began as a response to an exercise on the theme of "place".
My step-grandmother, who was known to us as Aunty Nell was from South Australia. In 1947 she was returning to New Zealand on the Wanganella, after a visit to her family in Australia, when the ship ran aground on Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington harbour.
The incident was recorded in the Dominion Post;
On 19 January 1947, making its first trans-Tasman voyage after the war, the Wanganella struck Barrett Reef just before midnight and stuck fast. The weather conditions were unusually benign and remained so for the 18 days the ship spent on the reef. No-one was injured, and the passengers were taken off the ship the morning after the accident.
When I was a little girl I loved holidaying with Aunty Nell and Grandad Clausen. Grandad was a kindly, reassuring grandparent and Aunty Nell was lively. She dressed stylishly in tailored suits and dresses she made herself. I remember a lavender crepe dress, nipped in at the waist. And after Grandad's death she recut and transformed his black Masonic Lodge suit, inserting black and white houndstooth fabric in the skirt seams and on the lapels of the jacket.
The really special thing about staying with Auntie Nell was the opportunity to play all her musical instruments. Patiently she helped me master simple tunes on her piano, pedal organ, autoharp, accordian and mouth organ. But there was one catch. Aunty Nell was the most long-winded person I have ever met and as a child I found it impossible to break her flow without appearing rude. Her account of the grounding of the Wanganella, however was one story that held me in thrall:
We were approaching the Wellington Heads when the ship struck Barrett Reef. The captain ordered everybody to assemble on the listing deck with their luggage. He told us the ship was stuck fast and we would have to remain there until morning when a safe rescue could be accomplished. Naturally people were anxious and the children were fearful, sensing danger. So I took out my mouth organ, sat on my suitcase and played to them, childhood songs that they could sing along to. Oh goodness it was a long night. I must have played for hours.
I loved that story. I could imagine my snappily dressed Aunty Nell tipping her suitcase on its end and making music. On that occasion her ‘longwindedness’ was a gift to the passengers on the stricken Wanganella.
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