Wednesday, 9 October 2013


We have explored the issue of stability in detail both from a technical metacentric perspective, and from the perspective of the expert witnesses who dealt with the Waratah at Durban Port. But we have not examined in any great detail the performance of the Waratah at sea from the perspective of both passengers and crew.

The following series of posts will attempt to bring to life some of those who were fortunate to travel on the Waratah, and survived to tell the tale. We kick off with the Waratah celebrity of the time, Claude Sawyer, who experienced  nightmares warning of the Waratah's impending doom. But Sawyer apart from being a notable visionary, was also an engineer and experienced ocean going traveller. He had deep reservations about the performance of the Waratah at sea. One cannot forget the telegram words to his wife:

"Thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban"

In a sentence, Sawyer was alarmed by the slow, long roll of the Waratah, which did not right itself immediately (as it should have). Sawyer gave an interview with the Times newspaper and claimed that he found the entire voyage over to South Africa uncomfortable. He quoted that the Waratah listed at one point to an angle of 45 degrees, knocking passengers off balance and resulting in injuries. Sawyer appeared before the Inquiry court and gave detailed testimony: 

He confirmed that he had booked passage through to Cape Town, reserving the right to continue to London.  
He boarded the Waratah at Sydney, 26 June, 1909, and when the Waratah reached Melbourne, he noticed a significant list to port when departing that port, and then as Waratah proceeded through turbulent waters, 'she wobbled about a great deal' and then took a list to starboard, where she remained for a 'very long time'.

He claimed that the Waratah heeled over to such an extent while he was on the boat deck, that the 'water was underneath him', and remained in this position for such a length of time that he  did not like it. Sawyer claimed that the weather was fine from Melbourne to Adelaide, but despite this the Waratah rolled significantly. He mentioned that he had travelled aboard another Blue Anchor Line vessel, the Wariloo, and had never felt anxious on that ship even though they had experienced very bad weather at sea.

When the Waratah left Adelaide, the weather turned against them and Sawyer again claimed that the Waratah 'rolled in a very disagreeable way'.  By this he meant that she rolled and remained on 'her side' for a long time before recovering. He went on to describe how the Waratah would right herself and as the deck returned to the horizontal position, the liner gave a 'decided jerk', resulting in some passengers 'having bad falls'. Sawyer, well into his stride on the witness stand even went so far as to quote hearsay in the form of asking a cabin steward in the morning if the Waratah had rolled much in the night, and getting the affirmation he was looking for.

The word 'jerk' is explored in detail in coming posts.

Sawyer took his bath and noted that the bath water confirmed the list angle of 45 degrees. He attempted to follow up on this by confirming it with one of the officers on board, but did not get a satisfactory response. He pursued the matter further by asking if there were an instrument on the bridge able to record the angle. He was informed the Waratah did not have one.

The crew reassured Sawyer that the builders of the Waratah had seen to it that the roll was within acceptable limits. Sawyer was not about to be brushed off as easily as that and mentioned his concerns to a fellow passenger, a solicitor by the name of Ebsworth. Mr Ebsworth had been a sailor for about nine years and had some experience with sea going vessels. Together they went to the forward end of the promenade deck to witness the Waratah's pitching. They witnessed large 'rollers' approaching the ship. She allegedly 'took the first one' and after that went down into the following trough, where 'she remained and seemed to keep her nose into the next wave and simply plough through it'. They apparently stood there for a long time observing the Waratah's performance and when one particularly large wave struck the liner, Mr Ebsworth had to grab the railing for support claiming that 'he had in the whole of his experience had never seen a ship do that before'. Mr Laing, the solicitor at the Inquiry asked "Do what?" Sawyer elaborated 'Remained in that position, ploughing through the waves'.

It was at this point and taking into account that this was only the second voyage of the Waratah, Sawyer decided he had best disembark at Durban, 10 days distant. Captain Ilbery enquired of Sawyer whether he was going to continue on to London with the Waratah, and without giving is reasons, Mr Sawyer said 'that he was leaving at Durban'. Sawyer then went on to describe how some passengers sustained injuries due to the Waratah's unusual performance, quoting a Mrs Caywood who fell and injured both arms and hip. She was confined to the saloon for two days. He remarked that Mrs Caywood left the Waratah at Durban in an invalid chair.

On another occasion Sawyer was standing on the promenade deck watching Dr Fulford and Miss Lascelles crossing the deck. The Waratah gave one of her 'peculiar jerks' sending both flying, knocking Sawyer against the rails. Miss Lascelles hurt her head and Dr Fulford his elbow. Sawyer went on to add this occurred during  fine weather, and a smooth sea. Sawyer said that while at Adelaide, he overheard the third and fourth officers expressing an opinion that the Waratah was 'top heavy', resulting in her marked listing tendencies. Sawyer went to see the Waratah off at Durban and noticed that she had a list to starboard (contrary to what the expert witnesses reported).

If one is to believe Sawyer's testimony it paints a bleak picture not only of the excessive rolling and pitching of the Waratah, but also of injuries sustained by passengers as a result of such extreme tendencies. It is surprising given this testimony that more passengers did not disembark at Durban, or was the man inclined to exaggeration to defend the portents of his nightmares?

I suspect that his nightmare premonitions in isolation might have attracted the label 'mentally unstable'. But if seen in the light of what he led the court to believe was a 'dangerous' Waratah, validation of the premonitions would restore his reputation as a lucid engineer, and witness. Otherwise speculators may simply have argued the Waratah went down due to a freak wave and Sawyer and his nightmare premonitions were a freak show in itself.

this is what a vessel looks like heeling 45 degrees - I doubt whether the Waratah ever did this

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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