Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Waratah - significant eye witness account.

27 July 1909, at roughly 5.30 pm, a large steamer the SS Waratah was sighted off Port St Johns (Cape Hermes), wild coast, South Africa.The Waratah was likely to have been in trouble for the best part of the day, a progressive coal bunker fire showing no signs of abating. Her master, Captain J.E. Ilbery, made a decision to abandon course for Cape Town and brought the Waratah about resetting a course for Durban. In so doing he heeded the advice of his officers and the warnings of a sharply falling barometer signalling the approach of a cold front storm.

The following and the blog in general is my opinion as to what became of the SS Waratah:

Earlier in the day at about 6 am 27 July, the Waratah exchanged polite light signal messages with the steamer Clan Macintyre. By this time there were no outward signs of problems and Waratah was on course for her destination, Cape Town. Coal bunker fires were a common occurrence on steamers of the era and Captain Ilbery would not necessarily have conveyed the problem to the Captain of the Clan MacIntyre. At 9.30 am approximately off the Bashee River the Waratah disappeared ahead of the Clan MacIntyre, having crossed her from starboard to port heading further out to sea. During the subsequent Inquiry, Captain Weir of the Clan MacIntyre, claimed that when the Waratah pulled ahead she was upright and displayed no outward indications of problems on board. However, an apprentice on the Clan Macintyre by the name of S.P. Lamont claimed that the Waratah 'sailed like a yacht, heeled over and her propellers were showing above the surface of the sea due to pitching'. The sea was not unduly rough at 9.30 am 27 July off the Wild Coast. Could Lamont have more accurately observed the first signs of problems on board the Waratah? During the subsequent seven hours Captain Ilbery must have brought the Waratah about and re-charted a course for Durban abandoning the position further out to sea in favour of the inner track closer to shore. This time must surely have been a frantic one, vain attempts to gain control of the fire/s and repair / contain resulting damage to the ship.

The fire/s in all probability started in a coal bunker abutting the engine room. It is well documented that a coal fire in this bunker had burned unabated from 6 December 1908 to 10 December 1908, before being extinguished. This fire started due to excessive heat from the several reducing valves and steam valves in the recess on the starboard side of the engine room.The partition plates were not adequately insulated and although repairs carried out clearly this was a weak link in the Waratah's structural integrity.The fire/s would have required the implementation of a fire-fighting protocol, including cutting holes through bulkheads into the engine room to facilitate the pumping of water into the burning space. This in turn would have created a significant amount of flooding beyond the capacity of bilge pumps, contributing to an existing list.

The situation could further have been exacerbated by sea water leaking through fire-weakened hull plates.The hull plates and rivets almost certainly had been damaged to some extent when the Waratah took the ground at the wharf, Port Adelaide before departing Australia for the last time. Pounded by unrelenting winter seas and weakened by a progressive coal bunker fire/s, hull plates could crack / buckle and rivets snap leading to further flooding of the holds and watertight compartments. It was simply a matter of time before the Waratah took on too much water, listed too far and allowed tons of water to flood her and reduce the all-important buoyancy factor beyond recovery.

Smoke from the funnel, coal fire and bush fires onshore probably obscured Captain Ilbery's line of vision making it difficult to judge the proximity of the Waratah to reefs closer to shore. Listing and rolling heavily, the Waratah might have struck one of these reefs - the St John Reef in particular. Chaos would surely have prevailed and the Waratah fully loaded and too heavy would have foundered within minutes. It seems there was enough time to send up two flares, the first rising 300 ft. into the sky, creating a sustained dazzling red glow. The second flare rose a more substantial 1000 ft.. Unfortunately, the tramp steamer Harlow less than 4 nautical miles ahead failed to respond to the two flares. Her master, Captain John Bruce, thought the flares might have been due to massive explosion/s on board. The Waratah in all probability foundered 0.5 nautical miles offshore, roughly 3.7 nautical miles northeast of Cape Hermes Lighthouse (on the Durban side).

Captain Bruce of the Harlow consistently witnessed the approach of a large steamer astern, firstly a smoke marker many nautical miles distant at about 5.30 pm and later, masthead lights and the red port side light as 8 pm and the crisis reached its conclusion. Together with his chief officer he came to the conclusion it had to be the Waratah attempting to return to Durban. He noted the excessive volumes of smoke and was of the opinion the Waratah was on fire. He described the two flashes of light as socket signal distress flares but chose to explain them as the direct result of explosions. The crew of the Harlow heard no explosions. Second Officer Alfred E Harris, later remarked on the flares as:

'a glow among the smoke - then a large flare up in the heavens lasting a minute or two'....
'narrow at the bottom and mushrooming out at the top.'

Flashes from explosions do not cause sustained dazzling red glow lasting 'a minute or two'.

Captain Bruce must surely have been confused.Why had the steamer's running lights disappeared so suddenly after the dazzling lights in the sky subsided and the smoke cleared? How could a steamer that size disappear so quickly? The smoke drifting towards them from the direction of the Waratah had also mysteriously ceased and did not carry the sound of explosion/s. He did not record the events of that night in his log book but made notes which he referred to months later.The crew of the Harlow had witnessed the loss of the Blue Anchor Line flagship Waratah but done nothing in response to the distress flares.

There was only one other witness, a lone policeman on horseback watching from the shore as the Waratah slipped beneath the swells. He reported the incident at the local police station, but no further action was taken.

One fact is certain, apart from a deck chair washed up at Coffee Bay and a cushion with the letter 'W' found at Mossel Bay, not a single trace of the vessel or her passengers and crew was ever discovered.

This is what I believe befell the Waratah and her souls and during the course of the Blog will explore in detail the controversial Harlow account and everything I can find online pertaining to the doomed flagship, Waratah.


Mole said...

Good to see your new blog revisiting the Waratah topic and providing further theories as to her fate. Other than the deckchair, supposed sightings were made of bodies in the water (never proved). There were also claims of a cushion marked W and a hatchway washing up near Mossel Bay - that was in March 1910. Perhaps the general hysteria in the wake of the disappearance of the ship contributed to such stories? Best of luck with the blog, Mole


thank you Mole, and for your inspiration to start this blog. I agree with your comment about hysteria. The bodies and items were never confirmed as linked with the Waratah, Andrew

Graham Clayton said...

"polite light signal messages" - what exactly are light signal messages.

I also have what may be a ridiculous question. The hull plates of the Waratah were heated up and weakened by the coal fire. Wouldn't the sea water on the outside of the hull plates keep them relatively cool?

andrew van rensburg said...

Hi Graham, 'light signal messages' refers to the exchange of Morse code messages by means of lamp light - Aldis lamp. 6 am, July, off the Wild Coast is dark.

Your second question is not ridiculous at all. The steel used for hull plate and rivet construction was brittle, particularly when exposed to extreme temperature variations. Inner heating, outer cooling could (and did in many anecdotal cases) cause the plates to crack and rivets, break off. Once integrity was compromised, all was lost.

I hope I have been able to answer your questions adequately, Andrew.