Monday, 23 September 2013

Waratah - searches for the missing steamer.

As days went by after 29 July, 1909, and no sign of the Waratah materialized at Cape Town, thoughts turned to a search for the overdue liner.

The initial search was conducted by a salvage steamer called the TE Fuller.  The owners of the Blue Anchor Line, Messrs. Lund, deployed Fuller 31 July. Although the Fuller covered an expanse of the Cape coast closer to Cape Town, she had to withdraw from the search after one week due to bad weather. This failed attempt occurred during the most crucial time period, just after the Waratah was reported missing.

At roughly the same time, a tug by the name of Harry Escombe was deployed from Durban in search of the missing Waratah. The tug also had to give up the search due to bad weather, reinforcing the fact that sea conditions during late July into August, 1909, were harsh and unfavourable. The captain of the tug reported that waves 30 ft. high were found 7 miles off the coast.

The initial search also included a land search along the Transkei and Eastern Cape coast line, in the hope of finding signs of the missing vessel.

After the initial failures to locate the Waratah or flotsam, His Majesty's ships, the Hermes, Forte, and Pandora were deployed along the South African coast. The search concentrated on ocean between Cape Town, Port Natal and a point 35 degrees 10' South latitude, and 38 degrees East longitude, and a point 40 degrees 15' South latitude and 25 degrees East longitude. The search began 4 August and by 22 August no sign whatsoever of the Waratah had been found. The search was concentrated on the coast between Port Natal and Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), with particular reference to the location of the alleged dead bodies sighted by the crew of the Tottenham (11 August).

The steamship Sabine was charted by the Blue Anchor Line, the underwriters, and with financial assistance from the Australian Government.  Lieutenant Beattie with seventy-five naval ratings was nominated to command the expedition.  The ship was also equipped with a search light. The Sabine departed Cape Town 11 September, 1909, and returned 7 December, 1909, almost 3 full months of searching, without success.The crew searched as far south as the Crozets and St Paul's Island in the east. The vast ocean was swept both by day and by night using a powerful search light. Commander Beattie referred to the Waikato's drift pattern and transposed this onto the predicted drift pattern of the Waratah at the assumed time of 'breakdown'.  This point was estimated midway between the Bashee River mouth and the position of the "Waikato" 6 June, 1899 - a point 150 miles south of Cape Agulhas. However, the drift pattern of the disabled Waikato followed current coordinates specific to a different time of year, not necessarily mirrored by the Waratah, if she were indeed adrift. The proposed search scheme drew a zig zag pattern across the track of the Waikato, but never getting too far ahead of the daily assumed position of the Waratah.

The Waikato was eventually discovered 15 September, 1899 latitude 39 degrees 20' south, longitude 65 degrees east.  Bearing in mind that the Waratah was well provisioned for at least a year, it was hoped that good fortune would favour a similar outcome. Lieutenant Beattie carried out the designated plan and in addition focused on an area lying within a circle whose centre was 39 degrees south, latitude, and 40 degrees east, longitude, and whose diameter was between six and seven degrees of latitude.  This area covered the region south and east of the area searched by the Royal Navy vessels in August.

Among the locations investigated, both Possession and St Paul's Islands revealed no clues. The Sabine then retraced back to Cape Town in a zig zag pattern covering an area lying north of her previous series of zig zags. She covered a total of 14 000 miles, within an area of 3 000 miles.
The Waratah was not discovered.

In addition to this, every vessel between 2 August and 10 September leaving the ports bound for the Eastern Cape coastal route was asked to keep a look-out for the Waratah. These included: Suffolk, Suevic, Salamis, Geelong (Waratah's sister ship), Narrung, Bergadof, Tainui, Firth, Oberhausen and others.

Early in 1910 the steamer Wakefield was chartered at a cost of 5 000 pounds to continue the search, but as in the case of all other attempts, nothing relating to the Waratah was discovered. The entire enterprise in search of the Waratah came to nothing and the Inquiry was left with no choice but to declare that the Waratah had been lost in the severe coastal storm of 28 July, 1909. Searching vast oceans has very little chance for success and the Sabine only sighted one other vessel in the three months at sea searching for the Waratah.


HMS Forte
My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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