Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Waratah - where does the wreck lie?

When I started this blog I was intrigued by the most likely sequence of events and contributory factors leading to the disappearance of the Waratah. In unsolved mysteries every detail is important, even false accounts and the possible reasons for such. Unfortunately the rationale and conjecture cannot be tested until such time (if ever) the remains of the Waratah are discovered. Conflicting evidence relates back to the magnitude of the disaster and vested interests. Hysteria and attention-seeking false accounts cannot be discounted until viewed against other evidence and analysed in the broader context of the disaster.

Messrs Lund and the Blue Anchor Line's entire enterprise was at stake, which would incline their collective testimony in the direction of an overwhelming storm rather than a fault of the steamship or her crew. Lloyd's of London had given the Waratah a top rating.

Passenger accounts varied wildly, some claiming that the Waratah listed so badly and took so long to right herself, that she was virtually a 'floating coffin', whereas a significant number of passengers claimed that she was comfortable and displayed nothing untoward.

There is very little doubt in my mind (as I laid bare in the first post) that the Waratah sank less than 10 nautical miles astern of the Harlow, roughly 7.8 nautical miles off Cape Hermes, at about 8 pm 27 July, 1909. I accept that there is every possibility that the notorious winter seas of the region are capable of capsizing a healthy steamship.

However, there is one crucial element to this mystery and it hones in on the simple fact that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest the Waratah turned around in an attempt to return to Durban. This essentially rules out freak accidents and rogue waves.

I find the transcript records of the SS Guelph (9.30 pm 27 July) implausible interpreting a light signal from a large steamer, only the last three letters of which spelled 'tah'.  If they had gone so far as to attempt to identify one another, there is no good reason why the communication could not have been repeated to confirm identities, even in circumstances of poor visibility. Substantiating my belief that the Guelph signal interpretation was false, the Waratah was not sighted by other vessels in the busy shipping lane between 9.30 am when she departed the Clan Macintyre, and 9.30 pm when she allegedly passed the Guelph. We have both the accounts of the crew of the Harlow crew and a policeman on the shore claiming a large steamship heading in the direction of Durban, sank rapidly off Cape Hermes.

Yes, confusion abounds, but a few vital salient facts stand out very clearly. In the case of the Harlow (headed to Durban):

 'large Steamer astern', 'possibly on fire', 'gaining on Harlow', 'distress flares' described almost to perfection at the Inquiry and yet confused with veld fires, which no doubt did not flare up in two separate bursts for two minutes. The policeman saw a large steamer founder off Cape Hermes. He submitted a report at the police station, but for reasons unknown, no further action was taken.

One wonders if this were due to the fact that the lighthouse keepers at Cape Hermes should have corroborated at the very least the two flashes of light. Bush fires along the coast created smoke and this shroud of smog might very well have obscured any sightings of light flashes by the signallers at Cape Hermes.

We also know that a seaman (S.P. Lamont) aboard the Clan MacIntyre observed how the Waratah listed and pitched like a yacht when she crossed from starboard to port and disappeared from view 9.30 am 27 July. This was not the description of a healthy ship, despite the claims of Captain Weir of the Clan MacIntyre that the Waratah was upright. One has to question why such contradictory eye witness accounts were reported.

Joe Conquer's story is limited by the simple fact that he did not witness the steamer sink. He saw a steamer rolling in heavy seas on the horizon and when he looked again she had gone. This could as easily be explained by the vessel heading out to sea beyond the horizon and visibility from shore.

We've looked at length at the issue of smouldering coal fires and the history of such a fire continuing for 4 days on the Waratah December 1908. Captain Bruce of the Harlow believed the steamer to be 'afire' which would certainly tie in with this possibility and its implications.

We've looked at the issue of cargo and ballast, well stowed, including the spar deck coal which was directed to coal bunkers lower down and did not contribute to instability - top heaviness.

Captain Pidgeon (who was on stand-by to command the Waratah should Captain Ilbery not have been sufficiently recovered from illness to take command) believed that the carcasses in hold number one, if not properly secured, had the potential to come loose causing a significant shift in the Waratah's centre of gravity, increasing her tendency to list to a dangerous degree. We know that she was also carrying lead concentrate or copper ingots which may also have shifted in the deteriorating sea conditions, resulting in a similar outcome.

We know that the Waratah as described by Captain Bruce was gaining on the Harlow despite her problems, suggesting that her engines and steering were intact and there was a need to shift coal quickly into the boilers to get to and sort out the smouldering fire or reach the safety of Durban without delay.

But what do we know of the hull of the Waratah?

I will devote the next post to this issue.....

NB   update:


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