Saturday, 31 August 2013

Anecdote Saturday - Marco Polo

My uncle John and aunt Louise, had a scary experience at sea on a modern cruise liner, the Marco Polo.  This just goes to show how the forces of nature and oceans can conspire against the most sophisticated and modern of ocean going vessels.

"John and I are talking from experience.  In early 1996, we took a cruise from Auckland to Sydney, thus crossing the roaring 40's.  On the evening after leaving Milford Sound we were caught in a typhoon for 3 days and experienced 60 foot waves with an interval of 120 feet between swells.  

We lost all the deck chairs, several life boats and the 2 pianos on board were destroyed.  On the last day before limping into port (Devonport, Tasmania) we were eating on paper plates and only cold food was provided (most of the china had been destroyed and the kitchen crew previously burnt attempting to provide warm meals).  

We were not able to veer off course due to the nature of the storm and on the last evening when finally the typhoon seemed to be weakening the captain advised us that around 3 am he would attempt to change our course.  

We were told to stay in our stateroom and to expect quite a ride.  Well it happened as he said, the ship after turning caught a wave from the side and for a moment which seemed an eternity we were on our side.  So much so that from were I was John was at least a foot lower than me.  We held that position for about 30-40 seconds and we could hear the creaking of the metal as the ship was fighting to right itself.  

When it finally did, the water that the ship scooped up started flooding the corridors and shortly an army of workers were attempting to suck the water out of the area.  It felt like The Poseidon Adventure.  Horrible feeling!

Arriving in port in Tasmania we stayed the day for ship repairs and several people had to be treated for sprains and broken bones.  The Australian papers were carrying our story on the front page:  'Ship in Peril at Sea'.  It did cure me of ever wanting to cruise in the lower Southern Hemisphere."

This anecdote is graphic and reminds us how vulnerable we are at sea.  I am very grateful that no harm came to my uncle and aunt and thank them for their story.


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!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Waratah - overdue

The Waratah was expected to arrive in Cape Town by 29 July, 1909, but as the days went by with no sight or word of the liner, uncertainty evolved into dread as it became apparent to all that the steamer was missing, either adrfit or had foundered.

Crew of  the Union Castle liner Guelph alleged that they had seen what appeared to be a large steamer 27 July, heading in the direction of Cape Town about 8 km out, off Hood Point, East London (latitude 33º 21' S., longitude 27º 54' E.). This they assumed to be the Waratah and although conditions (heavy seas and a 90 km per hour gale) made it difficult for Morse code interpretation, the Chief Officer believed that the last three letters received from the steamer spelled 'TAH'.Thus it was assumed that the Waratah was still on course for Cape Town 9.51 pm 27 JulyThis assumption could not, however, explain why the 465 ft steamer Waratah had not been sighted by other vessels in the shipping lane since departing the Clan Macintyre at 9.30 am, more than 12 hours previously and why she was 8 hours behind schedule and not displaying signals of distress. I shall return to this intriguing account in later posts.

In the coming days and weeks once it had been absorbed that the Waratah was lost, first thoughts turned to hope she might be adrift in the Southern Ocean.The navy deployed three of her destroyers HMS Pandora, HMS Forte and HMS Hermes in an attempt to locate the missing liner, but all to no avail.  

Cruel rumours emerged that she had been seen slowly making her way to Port. This only served up false hope on the platter already overcrowded with desperation.

Conflicting reports that 'the floating bodies' sighted were nothing more than whale remnants added to distress and confusion.  

'Shipping News The Times 3 March 1910'

'The Waratah: A Reuter telegram from Cape Town says that a quantity of wreckage has lately been washed ashore at intervals in the neighbourhood of Mossel Bay.  A most significant object is a cushion marked ‘W’, while a hatchway, which was found 3 weeks ago, has been sent to the builders of the missing liner Waratah with a view to identification.'

These items were never officially confirmed as being linked with the Waratah.

In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Sabine to comb the Wild Coast, zig-zagging more than 14 000 miles without discovering even so much as an item from Waratah. Out of desperation to quench the aching need to know and speed up insurance payouts, relatives of the passengers chartered the SS Wakefield in 1910, which again yielded nothing in a search, which included the Crozets, spanning a period of three months.

Insured by Lloyd's of London, failure to arrive at Cape Town was first classified as 'overdue' (rather than 'disappeared'). This appeared in notices warning various underwriters that the entire vessel or parts thereof may have been lost, and that they should prepare themselves to pay. Lloyd's advertised the missing Waratah as a 'vessel for inquiry', signalling that the insurer wished to actively seek information on Waratah. Masters seeing this notice, would have had the opportunity to report sightings of the Waratah struggling off course in heavy seas, drifting or even anchored in a remote bay.

But this was not to be and in mid December of 1909, Lloyd's classified Waratah as missing.  
Missing was clearly interpreted by all who read the notice as the Waratah 'had gone to a watery grave'. 
If some remnants of the vessel were discovered eg lifeboat, then the vessel would be moved from the missing column to that of 'lost with all hands' column. But again, this was not to be as no officially confirmed objects from the Waratah were discovered.  

Lloyd's (and underwriters) would have had to pay immediately for the lost vessel and cargo, but in the case of passengers and the remote possibility that the Waratah was still adrift and souls alive, delays in payouts for loss of life dragged into 1910, adding to the distress of loved ones / dependents.

As it turned out, the Waratah was under-insured and this was simply the precursor to the Blue Anchor Line's slide into liquidation, forced to sell her other ships to P&O Line in 1910. In July of 1910 the Times carried a report that a Mrs Harriet M. Skailes was awarded 300 pounds in her claim for damages. Her husband,purser Skailes, was lost along with the other 210 souls on board the Waratah. It should be noted that 300 pounds amounted to just over the purser's annual salary.

                                          Coffee Bay, glorious on a summer's day,
                                          deadly off shore in a winter storm.

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!

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Waratah - no wireless communication.

The Waratah did not have the Marconi wireless set and was due to have on fitted upon returning to the UK after leaving Cape Town. The crew relied on Lamp and Flag signals to communicate with passing vessels. If the crew of the Waratah had been able to communicate with a land-based receiver her position could have been established and even though nothing probably could have been done to rescue the 211 souls at least her final position could have been verified. But the tragedy is further compounded by the fact that even if Waratah had carried a wireless system, there were no land-based receivers in the vicinity of the Wild Coast to receive a distress message, only the remote chance that another vessel at sea, 27 July, carried a wireless and could have responded to the emergency.

The term wireless telegraphy came into widespread use around the turn of the 19th century, when spark-gap transmitters and primitive receivers made it practical to send telegraph messages over great distances, enabling transcontinental and ship-to-shore signalling. A ship's master could contact shipping line agents ashore to inquire which port was to receive their cargo without the need to come ashore at what was the first port of landfall.

The emphasis of communication at that time was based on the economics of goods' arrivals at port rather than issues of safety and problems at sea.  The following extract highlights the lack of commitment to legislate compulsory wireless requirements aboard all vessels:

HC Dec 08 September 1909 vol 10 cc1298-9 1298

'Mr. REES asked whether the missing ship "Waratah" was provided with wireless telegraphic apparatus?'

'Mr. CHURCHILL: I am informed by the owners of the "Waratah" that she was not fitted with a wireless telegraphic-apparatus.'

'Mr. REES: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that the time has come to make it obligatory on owners to provide this great safeguard against loss of life on passenger ships?'

'Mr. CHURCHILL: No; I do not think that the time has come for that yet.'

(This is indeed Winston Churchill who was also President of the Board of Trade at the time)

Muirhead Morse inker. Apparatus similar to that used by Marconi in 1897

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Waratah - significant eye witness account.

27 July 1909, at roughly 5.30 pm, a large steamer the SS Waratah was sighted off Port St Johns (Cape Hermes), wild coast, South Africa.The Waratah was likely to have been in trouble for the best part of the day, a progressive coal bunker fire showing no signs of abating. Her master, Captain J.E. Ilbery, made a decision to abandon course for Cape Town and brought the Waratah about resetting a course for Durban. In so doing he heeded the advice of his officers and the warnings of a sharply falling barometer signalling the approach of a cold front storm.

The following and the blog in general is my opinion as to what became of the SS Waratah:

Earlier in the day at about 6 am 27 July, the Waratah exchanged polite light signal messages with the steamer Clan Macintyre. By this time there were no outward signs of problems and Waratah was on course for her destination, Cape Town. Coal bunker fires were a common occurrence on steamers of the era and Captain Ilbery would not necessarily have conveyed the problem to the Captain of the Clan MacIntyre. At 9.30 am approximately off the Bashee River the Waratah disappeared ahead of the Clan MacIntyre, having crossed her from starboard to port heading further out to sea. During the subsequent Inquiry, Captain Weir of the Clan MacIntyre, claimed that when the Waratah pulled ahead she was upright and displayed no outward indications of problems on board. However, an apprentice on the Clan Macintyre by the name of S.P. Lamont claimed that the Waratah 'sailed like a yacht, heeled over and her propellers were showing above the surface of the sea due to pitching'. The sea was not unduly rough at 9.30 am 27 July off the Wild Coast. Could Lamont have more accurately observed the first signs of problems on board the Waratah? During the subsequent seven hours Captain Ilbery must have brought the Waratah about and re-charted a course for Durban abandoning the position further out to sea in favour of the inner track closer to shore. This time must surely have been a frantic one, vain attempts to gain control of the fire/s and repair / contain resulting damage to the ship.

The fire/s in all probability started in a coal bunker abutting the engine room. It is well documented that a coal fire in this bunker had burned unabated from 6 December 1908 to 10 December 1908, before being extinguished. This fire started due to excessive heat from the several reducing valves and steam valves in the recess on the starboard side of the engine room.The partition plates were not adequately insulated and although repairs carried out clearly this was a weak link in the Waratah's structural integrity.The fire/s would have required the implementation of a fire-fighting protocol, including cutting holes through bulkheads into the engine room to facilitate the pumping of water into the burning space. This in turn would have created a significant amount of flooding beyond the capacity of bilge pumps, contributing to an existing list.

The situation could further have been exacerbated by sea water leaking through fire-weakened hull plates.The hull plates and rivets almost certainly had been damaged to some extent when the Waratah took the ground at the wharf, Port Adelaide before departing Australia for the last time. Pounded by unrelenting winter seas and weakened by a progressive coal bunker fire/s, hull plates could crack / buckle and rivets snap leading to further flooding of the holds and watertight compartments. It was simply a matter of time before the Waratah took on too much water, listed too far and allowed tons of water to flood her and reduce the all-important buoyancy factor beyond recovery.

Smoke from the funnel, coal fire and bush fires onshore probably obscured Captain Ilbery's line of vision making it difficult to judge the proximity of the Waratah to reefs closer to shore. Listing and rolling heavily, the Waratah might have struck one of these reefs - the St John Reef in particular. Chaos would surely have prevailed and the Waratah fully loaded and too heavy would have foundered within minutes. It seems there was enough time to send up two flares, the first rising 300 ft. into the sky, creating a sustained dazzling red glow. The second flare rose a more substantial 1000 ft.. Unfortunately, the tramp steamer Harlow less than 4 nautical miles ahead failed to respond to the two flares. Her master, Captain John Bruce, thought the flares might have been due to massive explosion/s on board. The Waratah in all probability foundered 0.5 nautical miles offshore, roughly 3.7 nautical miles northeast of Cape Hermes Lighthouse (on the Durban side).

Captain Bruce of the Harlow consistently witnessed the approach of a large steamer astern, firstly a smoke marker many nautical miles distant at about 5.30 pm and later, masthead lights and the red port side light as 8 pm and the crisis reached its conclusion. Together with his chief officer he came to the conclusion it had to be the Waratah attempting to return to Durban. He noted the excessive volumes of smoke and was of the opinion the Waratah was on fire. He described the two flashes of light as socket signal distress flares but chose to explain them as the direct result of explosions. The crew of the Harlow heard no explosions. Second Officer Alfred E Harris, later remarked on the flares as:

'a glow among the smoke - then a large flare up in the heavens lasting a minute or two'....
'narrow at the bottom and mushrooming out at the top.'

Flashes from explosions do not cause sustained dazzling red glow lasting 'a minute or two'.

Captain Bruce must surely have been confused.Why had the steamer's running lights disappeared so suddenly after the dazzling lights in the sky subsided and the smoke cleared? How could a steamer that size disappear so quickly? The smoke drifting towards them from the direction of the Waratah had also mysteriously ceased and did not carry the sound of explosion/s. He did not record the events of that night in his log book but made notes which he referred to months later.The crew of the Harlow had witnessed the loss of the Blue Anchor Line flagship Waratah but done nothing in response to the distress flares.

There was only one other witness, a lone policeman on horseback watching from the shore as the Waratah slipped beneath the swells. He reported the incident at the local police station, but no further action was taken.

One fact is certain, apart from a deck chair washed up at Coffee Bay and a cushion with the letter 'W' found at Mossel Bay, not a single trace of the vessel or her passengers and crew was ever discovered.

This is what I believe befell the Waratah and her souls and during the course of the Blog will explore in detail the controversial Harlow account and everything I can find online pertaining to the doomed flagship, Waratah.