Friday, 20 September 2013

Waratah - false hope and bodies adrift.

As the world slowly came to the realization that the Waratah was missing, various reports both true and false began to filter through to the public domain. Among the false reports, a cable was received in Australia, August 1909, that a Blue Anchor Line vessel, probably the Waratah, a considerable distance off course, was slowly making her way to Durban. The extent of relief this report generated warranted the Chair of the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament to halt proceedings, announcing:

"Mr Speaker, has just informed me that he has news on reliable authority that the SS Waratah has been sighted making slowly towards Durban".

Such was the relief and excitement at the news in Adelaide, the town bells were rung. One can only imagine the contrasting shock and devastation when it was revealed that the liner in question was not the Waratah.

It is generally accepted that the Waratah sank without leaving a trace apart from (allegedly) a deck chair washed up at Coffee Bay. But in the early days of the aftermath of the disaster, there were also reports of bodies drifting on the sea roughly two weeks after the Waratah went missing.  The final press comment on the subject was 'they cannot be linked to the Waratah with any certainty'.

The Inquiry had a more in-depth look at the question of Waratah bodies discovered and left drifting:

The master of the "Insizwa" reported sighting four objects floating in the water, 10 miles off the Bashee River mouth.  He went on to say that "they looked suspiciously like human bodies", but the sea was too rough for a boat to be lowered to investigate. Even more strangely, two of his officers also confirmed the objects, one of the officers agreeing with the master, the other declining an opinion. (?)

Some of the officers of a second steamer "Tottenham", reported that when she was 20 or 25 miles south of East London, on the same day (as the "Insizwa"), they saw some human bodies in the water. This they reported to the master, who immediately ordered the steamer closer in to investigate and on closer inspection was inclined to deduce that rather than dead bodies, these were the remains of a dead sunfish or whale offal. It was also stated by a witness that there was a whaling station at Durban, where large volumes of offal were set adrift. The court accepted the account of the officers of the "Tottenham", and made a comment that the Waratah must have made good progress beyond East London, beyond the alleged sightings of bodies and succumbed to the fierce storm of 28 July.

Further comment was made that the current is southward and westward, suggesting that bodies would have drifted down-coast from the Bashee River:

"The whole set of the current in that part of the sea is southward and westward, and, on the above-mentioned supposition, any bodies from the "Waratah" would have drifted with it in a direction away from the Bashee River."

"Even if it be suggested that they had at the time of observation not long risen from the submerged ship, the facts that the latter, if she had foundered would have been lying much further south, and that the set of the current is southward and westward, are still against the possibility of the bodies being where they were said to have been."

The Agulhas Current could very well have carried the bodies to these positions, south west of Cape Hermes, if the Harlow account was true.

Both accounts are interesting in that they were given by experienced officers and masters, familiar with the matters of the sea. It is extraordinary that experienced seamen would confuse bodies with offal, disagree among themselves, and finally make no attempt to recover the objects in order to confirm identification or at least make an attempt to do so. The sea conditions may very well have been too rough for the vessels to stop and recover what was believed to be bodies.

Finally, I can't help thinking about that deck chair washed up at Coffee Bay.  If the current sweeps objects southward and westward, it seems more than a leap of faith that the Waratah went down anywhere south of Coffee Bay.

No, my belief is that she went down off Cape Hermes to the north east.

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