Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Waratah - adrift.

Crozets (Prince Edward Islands include Marion Island)

Marion Island

With the Waratah's twin quadruple expansion steam engines fresh in our minds, let's consider for a moment the possibility that both engines failed (possibly due to a burst steam pipe causing extensive damage). If this had been the case and she had drifted out of the shipping lane, how far and in which direction could she have gone?

In the immediate period following the Waratah's disappearance, there was a general sense of incredulity that such a modern steamship could sink without a trace. Thoughts turned to the possibility, as in the case of the Waikato, that her engines had failed and she was adrift in the Southern Ocean. Such was the scepticism surrounding her sinking without a trace, a public meeting was convened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, 22 December, 1909. The general opinion emerging from this meeting was that the search conducted by the Sabine had not been thorough enough. The citizens wanted to know why Marion Island and Kerguelen (Desolation) Islands had not been included in the search.  

A hydrographer was consulted and gave an opinion that it was very unlikely that the Waratah had drifted the 1100 miles south of the Cape Peninsular to Marion Island. However, in his opinion, she might have drifted to the Crozets (which were searched by the crew of the Sabine), 1500 miles southeast of False Bay. The Crozets have been the site of many shipwrecks. The Princess of Wales, sank in 1821, and the survivors lived for two years on the islands.The French Tamaris founded off the Crozets and her crew tied a note to the leg of an albatross, which touched down in Fremantle seven months later. Sadly the crew were not rescued despite the bird's best efforts. Shipwrecks are so common around the Crozets that the Royal Navy deployed a ship every few years to look for stranded survivors.

It was even considered that she could have drifted past these islands to reach St Paul's or the Amsterdam Islands, a roughly 2000 mile half way mark to Australia. St Paul's Island is only 4.8km wide and is the peak of an active volcano. The crater now forms a protected basin admitting sea through a 100m channel. This is shallow only allowing small vessels into the basin which is 50m deep. In 1938, the crew of a French fishing vessel were stranded on St Paul's, but managed to send a distress signal which was picked up in the US 11 000 miles away, using a shortwave radio.  The distress call was forwarded to the Navy and French consul in San Francisco, from where a successful rescue was coordinated.

The Waikato, a case in point, drifted for 100 days in 1899, passing within 150 miles of the Crozets, and then bearing north to St Paul's Island, relatively north of the Kerguelen Islands. A lighthouse at the Royal Sound of the Kergeulen Islands, the hydrographer believed, would be a key point to bringing news should the Waratah have drifted this far.

But no trace of the Waratah was discovered during these extensive searches. People slowly had to digest the reality over months and years that the Waratah was unlikely to have been adrift.

adrift and then trapped in an ice field

Crozet Island (s)

Kerguelen Islands

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