Sunday, 27 October 2013


Samuel Richardson. Chief mechanical engineer of the Geelong Harbour Trust, Victoria -

"While off the Leeuwin we had some bad weather. There was a heavy sea running with a strong wind. The vessel did not roll to any great angle, but she rolled slowly. It was a slow majestic roll with a distinct pause at the extremity of the roll."

"She was pitching, but I did not notice anything abnormal about the pitching."

"The sluggish character of the rolling of the vessel continued after we left the vicinity of the Leeuwin, but in the moderate seas the rolling was not so pronounced."

"When we encountered the heavy swells in the Indian Ocean. the vessel began to both roll and pitch to a greater extent."

"The rolling and pitching were worse than when she was in the heavy weather off the Leeuwin. I accounted for that in my own mind by the fact that she was getting lighter owing to the consumption of coal on the voyage, and that the wave length of the swell was greater than it was off the Leeuwin."

This is an informed and plausible explanation for the Waratah's enhanced rolling and pitching tendencies. Wave length would also have had an impact on a heavily laden vessel - increased forces on hull.

"The rolling had the same character as before, that is, a slow roll with a distinct pause before recovery, and the pitching was of a similar character with the same pause and slow recovery especially from the forward dip. She rose more quickly aft."

Waratah departed Adelaide with a draught 28 ft. 3 in. forward and 29 ft. 5 in. aft. It is strange that 'she rose more quickly aft' unless working down of coal favoured forward bunkers which, to some extent, might explain why Waratah had a tendency to plough through oncoming swells, rather than rising over them. Although too heavy which would have contributed to the latter pattern, this scenario also suggests that Waratah was not adequately trimmed midway through her voyage from Adelaide to Durban. 

"I was in the habit of walking with Captain Ilbery on the boat deck. One morning I was there with him before breakfast, during the time the boat was rolling and pitching heavily, and I said to him, "I don't like the behaviour of this ship of yours any too well, Captain. She recovers too slowly for me."

"He replied,

"Yes, she is a little that way, but you must remember there are many thousands of tons of dead weight to shift. When this once gets in motion, it takes some power to stop it, and, when stopped, it also takes a considerable force to start in the opposite direction."

Captain Ilbery's alleged explanation is important in that it makes reference to laws of physics rather than some design flaw of the Waratah, suggesting that ships of this size would be expected to roll and pitch in this way and more importantly was very heavy, perhaps too heavy for her specifications.

"From my observation of the vessel's previous behaviour and of its behaviour at that time I was then of opinion that she was tender, but not dangerously so under normal circumstances."

Again, acknowledgement that 'light' did not necessarily equate with unstable.

"On another occasion, Captain Ilbery told me that the ship had behaved extremely well on her outward voyage in the Forties where you might expect much worse weather than this."

"One morning during fine weather, while there was a heavy swell, I was on the boat deck. Once when the ship pitched heavily, she took a heavy sea over the port bow, and was an unusually long time in recovering. I felt a distinct trembling through the boat as she was coming up. This might have been caused by the racing of the engines as the propellers came near the surface."

"I could not see anything to account for the shipping of a sea at the time."

Waratah had a relatively low freeboard of about 8 ft. which would account for 'shipping sea' in fair weather. 

"After breakfast I told Mr. Saunders what I had seen. He said,

" Did she? I must speak to Ebsworth about this."

"Mr. Ebsworth was a fellow passenger who had previously been a ship's officer. Later in the day Mr. Saunders told me that he had mentioned the matter to Mr. Ebsworth and that they had both watched the vessel and had seen the same thing repeated twice."

"Neither myself nor Mr. Saunders nor Mr. Ebsworth was alarmed by this."

"I said to them,

"One of these days she'll dip her nose down too far and not come up again."

"This was only said in a jocular manner. I did not seriously think there was any risk of the vessel doing that, and if it had not been for the disappearance of the vessel, I should probably never have again thought about the occurrence."

This description fits in with a heavy steamer, relatively heavier in the bow. A relatively low freeboard of 8 ft. would also equate with a relatively reduced buoyancy factor.

Claude Sawyer however, reported that this was of grave concern.  Another example of witness testimony relying on hearsay and varying interpretation of the same observed event.

"Another day, I think it was after the events mentioned, I was reading in the music room. I felt a distinct shock through the vessel. After a minute or two I went down on to the forward well deck to see what had happened. I saw the second and fourth engineers examining the vertical ladder which ran from the forward well deck to the boat deck on the port side. The ladder was broken about 3 feet above the deck. The engineers told me that it had been broken by the impact of a sea."

On the surface of it, a ladder breaking due to the impact of the sea does strike one as abnormal and significant. It was not unheard of that rigid superstructural components sustained damage due to the various forces (see previous post) at play involving a large floating object at sea such as the Waratah.

This incident also points to structural integrity of the Waratah which in terms of scantlings, which equated with the smaller three deck class, Waratah being larger than contemplated by those rules. It might also have been caused by the longer wave lengths referred to by Mr. Richardson.

Trains of swell waves can arrive from more than one direction. Experienced officers of the watch on the bridge of a ship can often report swells from two or even three directions, of differing periods and amplitudes. (

Such an occurrence as described above could also contribute to an increase in forces applied to a vessel at sea.

"I know of more than one instance when passengers fell owing to the peculiar rolling of the vessel, which I have described before."

"Once I was walking on the promenade deck with Mrs. Cawood, Miss Lascelles, and the ship's surgeon, when the surgeon and one of the ladies fell into the scuppers, and I with difficulty prevented the other lady from falling also. The fall was caused by a further roll after the pause I have described, probably by the vessel being struck with another sea before she had recovered."

In later posts I discuss the fact that by this voyage the GM had been improved to a substantial 1.9 ft. which would increase the righting force and produce a 'jerk'. This, naturally, would be compounded by 'being struck with another sea' before recovering.

"The angle to which the vessel rolled at that time was not in my opinion alarming, but it was the peculiar manner of the roll that caused the fall."

"Mrs. Cawood some days afterwards fell and injured her back severely, and had to be carried ashore."

"I am certain that the vessel never reached anything like an angle of 45 degrees at any time I was on her. I don't think the angle was ever half that much."

Another instance of the 45 degree angle of list being questioned, and rightly so...

"There was no permanent list on the vessel. There would be a slight list varying from side to side with the direction of the wind and as the coal was used from the bunkers."

Logic prevails.

This is also a very important, subtle statement of common sense and logic. It is impossible coal could be consumed on a steamer of that era in a perfectly balanced way, without resulting in temporary fluctuations in the balance of ballast, of which coal was one of the factors.  Further to that as the witness stated, burning off coal on a long sea voyage would make the vessel 'lighter' as well.

The witness accounts so far are too extreme one way or the other (like the list) for me to be able to draw a conclusion that she was a design flawed liner waiting for an accident to happen. Hysteria of the day - loss of a great ship with all hands - no explanation - one of the great unsolved mysteries - a moment in court to express an opinion fueled by drama and expectation - all of which contributed to the mixed bag of witness accounts.

waves breaking over the bow of a ship - scary to the uninitiated.
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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