Monday, 30 September 2013


If one peruses the literature on the Waratah, there are two clearly contradictory pieces of information about the Waratah's steam engines. Wikipedia quotes the following:

"power: 5 x steel boilers

Propulsion: 2 x 4-cylinder triple expansion reciprocating steam engines

Speed: approximately 13.5 kn (25.0 km/h; 15.5 mph) service speed."

If one looks at the Lloyd's report, it is as follows:

"She was fitted with two sets of reciprocating compound quadruple expansion direct-acting vertical inverted engines, with five steel boilers having a working pressure of 215 lbs., and developing 548.4 nominal, 5,400 indicated, horse-power."

"Her speed was 13 knots. Engines and boilers were also by Messrs. Barclay, Curle."

"The quadruple expansion engines with 8 cylinders of 23, 32 1/2, 46 1/2 & 67 inches diameter each pair; stroke 48 inches;
1,003 nominal horsepower;
5 single ended boilers;
20 corrugated furnaces; grate surface 376 sq. ft.;
heating surface 14,967 sq. ft"

A compound steam engine has more than one cylinder, and as stated in the Lloyd's report, there were 4 cylinders per engine (twin engines). The cylinders were graded according to diameter which translates into steam pressure differences and a gradient between the cylinders, thus creating a sequence of the steam expansion =  four separate stages.

The Waratah had four (quadruple) expansion cylinders, not three (triple). Built by Alexander C. Kirk at Govan in Scotland, this type of steam engine was first used in the SS Aberdeen, 1881. Direct acting means that the cylinders were connected directly to the crankshaft via the piston rods or connecting rods. The cylinders (inverted) were directly above the crankshaft similar to the standard internal combustion engine, except for the fact that a steam engine's force in the cylinders is both up and down - double acting. These vertical engines were sometimes referred to as 'hammer' engines.

By 1908, vertical steam engines predominated in marine vessels. These direct-acting engines were 40% lighter than the preceding formations (beam or side-lever engines), and required smaller engine rooms.  However, they were prone to wear and tear and required higher maintenance.Vertical engines became so popular in marine propulsion during the 19th century that they required further nomenclature eg. compound, triple or quadruple expansion etc.

Efficiency, maintenance costs and speed improved with the technology. The engines were constructed in such a way that the rear or aft cylinders were high pressure (Waratah: 23 inch diameter) graded to lowest pressure fore (Waratah: 67 inches). One of the advantages of this system is that the low pressure cylinder could be disconnected when the vessel required less power, allowing the high and intermediate power cylinders to be run together as a compound engine, more economically.

"It should be noted that the term "vertical" for this type of engine is imprecise, since technically any type of steam engine is "vertical" if the cylinder is vertically oriented. An engine described as "vertical" should therefore not be assumed to be of the vertical inverted direct-acting type unless the term "vertical" is unqualified."

The Waratah was capable of taking about 2,100 tons of coal in the permanent bunkers, to feed the five boilers of the steam engines, an average of 80 tons consumption per day. Her power output of 5400 ihp was relatively under powered for a ship of this size - I shall explore this further in coming posts by comparing with other period steamers.

triple expansion engine

cross section standard steamship

vertical triple expansion steam engine

cross section engine room and boilers

Waratah - luxury.

By 1908, the Blue Anchor Line was well established covering the UK to Australia route via Southern Africa. The emphasis was emigrant passage to Australia, and on return, cargo of both foodstuffs and raw materials. The age of luxurious transport had dawned and had to be factored into the equation.

The Waratah was built with this in mind and although enthusiastically named after and compared with the waratah flower of New South Wales, she could not be considered an aesthetically beautiful steamship. Imposing yes, particularly with her black livery and coffee coloured upper works. The Waratah had a somewhat unbalanced appearance with bow shape, sharp and almost receding.  My mother remarked that there 'was something aesthetically wrong with the bow end of the Waratah'. I can't help equating this comment with her tendency to 'plough into' oncoming swells.

Her two pole masts served no purpose in terms of emergency sails, but rather as fulcrums for the cranes, and lookout posts.100 first class cabins were designed for the bridge, promenade decks and boat decks.  This afforded easy access to the promenade decks and the welcomed sea breezes in stifling conditions. Officers quarters and navigating rooms were kept separate in the fore end of the liner.

A first class entrance hall was located at the fore end of the promenade decks, and this opened into a lobby, where eight exclusive state rooms were located, six of which designed to accommodate only one passenger each, the height of indulgence. The promenade decks also incorporated an open-air lounge, which was rather ambitious considering that coal dust, especially if the spar deck bunker was loaded with coal, must have presented its own challenges. Folding doors at the rear of the smoking room on the boat deck were another access point to the open-air lounge. Yet another luxury feature was the music lounge complete with a minstrel's gallery, and a salon with panels featuring the waratah flower. The first class cabins were designed to be spacious and airy, with contemporary fittings. A first class dining room was situated at the fore end of the bridge deck. A nursery for children was provided.

In addition to the first class accommodation, there was what was known as superior (Mrs Bucket would have approved), third class accommodation between decks and aft, for 160 passengers. As mentioned before, the spar deck coal bunker could also be converted into emigrant dormitory style accommodation. This was continued below decks in the form of dormitories in the cargo holds catering for up to 700 emigrants, the style of accommodation far less exclusive and airy than above.

Mail and specie strong rooms with Chubb doors and locks provided adequate security for valuables.
Large refrigeration rooms were constructed by J&E. Hall Led, Deptford. She was also equipped with a desalination plant which could provide adequate drinking water (25 000 litres per day) for the needs of the entire ship. Equipped as such, the Waratah was a class act and attracted well heeled travellers, looking for a liner with a slow comfortable roll - which admittedly attracted allegations of instability.

The refrigeration facilities certainly improved the  storage of meat products for consumption in the fine dining room. Earlier steamers had pen facilities aft for livestock, providing fresh meat. Must have been delightful for those on the promenade deck, unless such activities were confined to the wee small hours of the night, in which case Freud may have been inclined to argue 'intrusion of dreams with screams'.

Aside from storms and perils at sea, in calm waters the Waratah must have been a delightful way to move around the globe. Comforts abounded and by all account good company, companionship, or solitude as preferred. Of course, that man Sawyer went and spoilt it all for everyone. Its' one thing to have to face one's fate on the high seas, but quite another to have the trailer broadcast in technicolour over a grapefruit at breakfast.

I make light of the happier days of the Waratah for the simple reason, until she disappeared she was in all probability a delightful place to be.....

an example of an open air lounge - 1909

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Anecdote Saturday - SS Eastland

The SS Eastland was launched for the Michigan Steamship Company in 1903.  She was deployed for the South Haven, Chicago route and was known as the "Speed Queen of the Great Lakes". Initially used to transport fruit and 500 passengers, she was then sold on in 1914, to the St Joseph -Chicago Steamship Company of St Joseph, Michigan, where she was converted to exclusively passenger transport.

Roughly 2000 gross tonnes and powered by two triple expansion steam engines, fed by 4 boilers, the Eastland could generate 1750 shp operating through twin screws. The Eastland could fetch quite a dash (for the time) at 16.5 knots.

On 24 July, 1915, while berthed at a dock in the Chicago River, she rolled over killing 844 passengers and crew.  This became the greatest maritime disaster on the Great Lakes. The Eastland was salvaged after the disaster and continued a naval life under the name USS Wilmette, eventually being scrapped after the Second World War.

Much like the accusations levelled at the Waratah, the Eastland was alleged to have been top heavy, with a high metacenter. She tended to list and hang for a long time in the list, again, echoing witness accounts of the Waratah. In July 1903, when passengers congregated on the upper decks she listed to such a degree that water rushed up one of the gang planks. The crisis was brought under control but signalled the course of events that would lead to the disaster in 1915.

Again in 1906 there was an incident relating to excessive listing and complaints were filed against the Chicago South Haven Line.

There is an interesting story of mutiny relating the Eastland. Firemen refused to return to the hole to stoke the boilers claiming that they had not received their potatoes for a meal. The Captain, Pereue, had six of them arrested at gunpoint. Two poor sods were left to stoke the boilers to get the steamer back to harbour. The 6 men were jailed, but shortly afterwards Captain Pereue, was replaced.

July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland and two other steamers were chartered to take employees of the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.  Many were Czech immigrants who could not take holidays and this formed a major event in their lives.  200 died. Ironically due to the Titanic disaster and the lack of lifeboats, the new federal Seamen's Act required a more complete set of lifeboats for the Eastland which added to the top side weight.

By 7 am 24 July, the steamer had reached its capacity of 2572 passengers mostly congregating on the upper decks.  The steamer began to list away from the dock (port side), made worse by a number of passengers rushing to that side. Despite efforts to distribute water to the ballast tanks, the Eastland rolled completely over onto its side and sank to the bottom of the river in 20 ft of water. Those passengers who had moved below decks were either trapped or crushed. Despite a quick emergency response, 844 passengers and crew perished.

Writer Jack Woodford witnessed the disaster. In his autobiography, Woodford writes:

"And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn't believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy".

The President of the St Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company was indicted along with three of his officers for manslaughter by a grand jury, and in this case the cause was directly attributed to "conditions of instability".

No stability tests had been conducted on her and the head of the ship building company, Sidney Jenks was said to have remarked to Clarence Darrow (for the defence):

"I had no way of knowing the quantity of its business after it left our yards... No, I did not worry about the Eastland." Jenks testified that there was never an actual stability test of the ship, and stated that after tilting to an angle of 45 degrees at launching, " righted itself as straight as a church, satisfactorily demonstrating its stability."[11]

The original owners had ordered a fast steamer to carry 500 passengers and primarily fruit.  The conversion to an exclusively passenger liner with a capacity for 2500 passengers did not incur modifications or sea trials.

The court refused extradition, holding the evidence was too weak.  The court also reasoned that the Eastland "was operated for years and carried thousands safely", and that for this reason no one could say that the accused parties were unjustified in believing the ship seaworthy.[12]

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, 26 September 2013

Waratah - Blue Anchor Line and Captain J.E. Ilbery

The Blue Anchor Line was started in 1869 by Wilhelm Lund with one ship, the 714 ton barque, Ambassador. Part owner of the 320 ton Jeddo up until this time, Lund wanted to start his own line focusing on the route from the UK to Australia and back via China (in ballast) where tea was loaded for the return leg to the UK. The route took the vessels via the Cape of Good Hope, even though the Suez Canal had been opened in November of the same year. It saved the cost of using the Suez Canal and introduced the benefits of economic and passenger trade via the South African ports of Cape Town and Durban.

In 1880 Lund introduced steamships to his fleet, phasing the sailing ship clippers out. The line was identified by the distinctive blue anchor on the vessels' funnels. After the Hubbuck of 1886, Lund chose exclusively aboriginal names for his steamships: Murrumbidgee; Wilcannia; Echuca; Bungaree; Culgoa; Wallarah; Woolloomooloo; Yarrawonga; Warnambool; Warrigal; Narrung; Wakool; Geelong; Waratah. The "Commonwealth", an exception, was constructed in 1901 to mark Australia joining the Commonwealth.

The steamship trade via the Cape focused on emigrants outward bound to Australia, and cargo such as meat (refrigeration introduced on Geelong and Waratah), wool and grain, for the return voyage to the UK. First class cabins and staterooms were added to emigrant steerage dormitories, elevating Geelong, Waratah and the Blue Anchor Line to a prestigious carrier. Waratah was the 20th steamship added to the fleet.

Captain Josiah Edward Ilbery was promoted to Commodore of the Blue Anchor Line and although nearing his retirement, was given command of the new flagship Waratah. He was due to retire when Waratah returned to London after her second voyage - which was not to be. Captain Ilbery was born in Liverpool, 1840 which made him 69 in 1909:

Baptism: 13 Jul 1840 St Peter, Liverpool, Lancs.
Josiah Edward Ilbery - [Child] of Walter Ilbery & Eliza Vachell
    Abode: Norton Street
    Occupation: Clerk in the Customs
    Baptised by: John Cheetham Curate
    Register: Baptisms 1839 - 1840, Page 303, Entry 2424
    Source: LDS Film 1656423
1840 - Online Parish Clerks

He obtained his certificate in 1865 and his first command was Lund's clipper Mikado, 1868. Ilbery came from a seafaring family who through much of the 19th century were involved in the trade between the UK and China. It could be considered a joint venture; William Ilbery and Son of London crafted gold and enameled timepieces for export to China, no doubt in some instances transported by the seafaring Ilberys.

Ilbery received commendations from the US government for the rescue of the Grace Clifton. Other clippers under his command were: Serapis 1878 and Ocean King 1879. The first steamship of the Blue Anchor Line was Delcomyn, 1880, and again Captain Ilbery took the helm. While commanding this steamship Ilbery was noted for his "vigilance and humanity" in the rescue of the crew of the SS Koning der Nederlanden.

A popular Captain, Ilbery bought land in New South Wales, and a reserve in North Sydney, Ilbery Park, was named after him. Captain Ilbery was master of most of the new steamships introduced by the Blue Anchor Line: Yeoman, 1882; Hubbuck, 1886; Riverina, 1888; Culgoa, 1890; Woolloomooloo, 1891; Warrnambool, 1892; Warrigal, 1894; Narrung, 1896; Wilcannia, 1899; Commonwealth, 1903; Geelong, 1904, and finally the Waratah, 1908.

Mrs Alexandra Hay, one of the passengers on Waratah's last voyage, wrote this moving tribute:

"It has been my privilege to travel four times across the ocean with the commander of the Waratah, and on each occasion I have been more struck than before with his unique personality, and with the extreme suitableness of that personality for the position that he is called upon to occupy.

Simple and unpretentious in manner, he yet has a dignity about him that would at once forbid a liberty, and all who serve under him do so with the utmost respect, and, in most cases, with great love and veneration.

Who that has heard Captain Ilbery read the Church of England service, which he does every Sunday morning when there is no clergyman among the passengers, will forget the impressive manner in which the service is conducted, and the observant listener will not fail to notice that only one who enters into and participates in the petitions could present them in the tone of genuine devotion in which they are uttered"

courtesy: Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society vol 82, part 1, June 1996
"The Loss of the Waratah" by Peter Ilbery.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Waratah - survivor?

In a mystery such as this, there is the residual burning frustration not knowing what in fact did happen to the Waratah and why? In the years following the tragedy a most intriguing story came to light, which seemed to come so close to revealing the truth of the Waratah. It revolved around the possibility, "What if there was a survivor from the Waratah"?

In 1915, a notice appeared in the Irish Times.  It was a simple one, a Staunton lad was trying to locate his parents, Mr and Mrs Staunton. On the surface this probably was a notice repeated a hundred times, people in search of family or friends. However, there was one crucial difference about this lad seeking the whereabouts of his parents. His parents believed he had been lost with the Waratah.

The Stauntons, by 1915, were working as servants in the village of Brackna near Athy, Queen's County, Ireland.  They did not see the notice and it only came to their attention some time after the fact. Once they did respond to the address listed by their son it was too late, the First World War had claimed Staunton, like so many thousands of young lads, on the front in France. The Stauntons wrote to their son before he was killed and received this reply:

"I advertised for you in Scottish, English and Irish newspapers, but I received no response, and so I came to the conclusion that you had either died or left the country."

"I shall write to you," he promised, "a full description of what happened to me, and how I was saved from the Waratah."

But that was never to be and like so many others he perished on the front, never to be reunited with the parents he sought. But he left a cliffhanger that would rival "who shot JR?", and raised certain vital questions, the first and most obvious being, no Staunton was listed as either passenger or crew on the last fateful voyage of the Waratah. So, how was is possible that simple salt of the earth people such as the Stauntons would become embroiled in the Waratah mystery?  Did he lie and was enjoying the belated attention of having being part of a ship catastrophe? Or was there another more plausible reason for this claim?

There is a remote chance that he had stowed away aboard the Waratah, hence no record of his being on board 26 July, 1909. If he had indeed stowed away, and survived the sinking of the steamer, there is rationale to support his reasons for keeping quiet. He wasn't supposed to be on board in the first place. It fills us with unresolved suspense given that the poor lad never came back from the War, but surely he would have regaled others with the tale of surviving the sinking of the Waratah?

As much as one would like to think that he was telling the truth, it does seem highly unlikely, and perhaps he had returned to the UK from Australia aboard one of the Blue Anchor Line's other ships eg. Geelong, and had long since thought about fate and his luck not to have booked on the Waratah. But this does not explain why his parents were left with the impression that he was lost with the Waratah.

The fact remains, there were no survivors and no one to tell the tale.

“The possibility of truth has become a delusion to those who made their own disguise the truth.” 
― Nema Al-Araby

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Waratah - sister ship Geelong.

It is important to have a closer look at the Geelong, the Waratah's sister ship, on which the Waratah was based. Also built by Barclay Curle Whiteinch of Glasgow, the Geelong was roughly 8000 grosse tons (2000 less than the Waratah) and launched in 1904 for the Blue Anchor Line. She was 450 ft long, 15 ft shorter than the Waratah, and could accommodate 90 first class and 450 third class passengers.

What is quite surprising and alarming considering that she preceded the Waratah by 4 years, was the fact that she was equipped with  radio wireless, whereas the Waratah was not. Had the fitting out of the Waratah taken short cuts to accommodate the limited budget? Geelong had similar refrigeration equipment and electrical lighting which suited her dual purpose of passenger emigration to Australia and a predominance of cargo transport on the return leg to the UK.

Her power source came in the form of 4 boilers feeding twin triple expansion 3-cylinder engines coupled to twin shafts and screws (propellers). This combination generated 803 n.h.p which translated into a cruising speed of 12 knots.

Important to note that captain Ilbery commanded the Geelong between 1904 to 1907, and was intimately familiar with both ships. When the proposal for the Waratah was placed on the board table at the Blue Anchor Line, the Geelong was used as a template and point of departure for the bigger Waratah. The crucial difference between the two vessels, Geelong had two superstructure decks, whereas the Waratah had three. This departure was to raise many questions regarding the Waratah's stability - was she top heavy?

The Geelong was in service from 1904 through to November 1915.  Initially she serviced the same route as the Waratah and was therefore subjected to similar sea and weather conditions.  In fact, she was one of the ships tasked to look for the Waratah at the end of July. She did not succumb to heavy seas nor issues relating to instability. In fact Mrs Hay who had voyaged on both steamers believed the Waratah was more comfortable and stable. But there were many observers who believed otherwise.

The Geelong was sold to P&O Line for 88 426 pounds when the Blue Anchor Line folded, and after modifications, was able to accommodate 700 3rd class passengers continuing with the UK, Australia run. She provided service in the First World War and was converted to transport 62 officers and 1539 additional personnel. The Geelong was lost 01 January 1916 after a collision with another Allied vessel, the SS Bonvilston, with no loss of life.

The Geelong came under the spotlight at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah and some extracts are as follows:

"The owners intended Waratah to be an improved "Geelong," the previous addition to the Blue Anchor fleet, and the specification for the new vessel was based upon the existing specification of the "Geelong."

"Rough sketches were drawn out by the owners' representatives showing the general arrangement of the ship wanted, and the subdivision of the holds. These sketches were sent to various builders as a guide to quote upon. and they were asked to draw out plans on the basis of the sketches."

"The plans selected as best fulfilling the owners' requirements were from a builder whose tender was not accepted; but these plans were forwarded to Messrs. Barclay. Curle""

"We would refer to our letters of the 3rd and 13th December, 1907, and your reply of the 14th December, 1907, referring to deadweight and stability."

"Regarding the former, the cargo on the first voyage was not such as would allow us to test the lifting, but as regards the stability, from what our representatives report, it seems clear that Waratah has not the same stability as 'Geelong.' Will you please inform us if your heeling tests prove this?"

So, from the outset it does appear that despite the similarities and only a difference of 15 ft in length, the Geelong was believed to be more stable than the Waratah - this relating to the crucial third deck on the Waratah.

"Our calculations show that with the ship empty the initial stability is the same as the 'Geelong.'"
came the response from  Barclay, Curle & Co., Ltd.,

"We have consulted Captain Ilbery, and he has been able to convince us that this vessel has not the same stability as the 'Geelong,' and considering he was present during the construction of these two vessels, and has commanded them both, he is in a perfect position to judge this and all other matters."

This paragraph is damning to say the least.  Captain Ilbery was indeed in a perfect position to compare the performance of both vessels.

"Our contract was that this vessel should have a greater stability than the 'Geelong,' which has not been carried out. We consider also that the contract conditions for shifting the vessel with no ballast, and also for going to sea with ballast, and bunkers and reserve bunkers full, have not been fulfilled."

Messrs Lund of the Blue Anchor Line, were in no mood to mince their words when corresponding with Barclay Curle and Co and the issue of stability may have been a smokescreen hiding the fact that the builders were significantly behind with the agreed delivery date of the Waratah - demurrage being more of an issue.

"It being your responsibility that the design and plans would permit of the conditions as agreed, we must hold you responsible for anything that may happen, and we will record again our protest to your objection to supply us with a copy of the lines of this vessel's hull; we consider, as before mentioned, that we are entitled to all and any plan in connection with the construction of our ship, although the responsibility of the vessel's performance is entirely with you."

"Following on the last letter, Mr. Peck (a director of Messrs. Barclay, Curle) called and saw Messrs. Lund. He fixed the date of the interview as about the 23rd of April, 1908. Mr. Peck says he assured them that in any condition the "Waratah" was as stable as the "Geelong," and they accepted that statement."

"There was never," he said (paragraph 563 of the printed evidence) "any question raised between us with regard to the vessel at sea." After putting this complexion upon the interview Mr. Peck in his evidence dealt only with the moving of the ship in dock."

"Mr. Lund gave a similar account of this interview. He represented himself as easily satisfied by Mr. Peck's assurances. The correspondence cannot be reconciled with this account of the interview.

Captain Ilbery, "a most experienced captain," who "undoubtedly knew a very great deal about ships in every way," and by whom "we were guided in most things" (answer 2797), and who moreover "has commanded them both" (i.e., "Geelong" and "Waratah") and "is in a perfect position to judge" had been "able to convince us that this vessel has not the same stability as the 'Geelong,'" and "we consider that the contract conditions . . . . . . for going to sea with ballast, and bunkers and reserve bunkers full have not been fulfilled;" yet a few words from Mr. Peck settle the whole matter. His mere assurance carries more weight than Captain Ilbery's considered representations."

It is surprising and alarming that Captain Ilbery's experienced comments were relegated by the reassurances of Mr Peck. Captain Ilbery, after the maiden voyage, claimed that once the stowage plan for the Waratah was refined, she was:

'as steady as a rock'

When the proverbial push came to shove, Waratah was required at sea, on duty and Captain Ilbery was tasked to keep her functional and on schedule, despite initial reservations.

SS Geelong - a virtual 'identikit' of the SS Waratah

Monday, 23 September 2013

Waratah - searches for the missing steamer.

As days went by after 29 July, 1909, and no sign of the Waratah materialized at Cape Town, thoughts turned to a search for the overdue liner.

The initial search was conducted by a salvage steamer called the TE Fuller.  The owners of the Blue Anchor Line, Messrs. Lund, deployed Fuller 31 July. Although the Fuller covered an expanse of the Cape coast closer to Cape Town, she had to withdraw from the search after one week due to bad weather. This failed attempt occurred during the most crucial time period, just after the Waratah was reported missing.

At roughly the same time, a tug by the name of Harry Escombe was deployed from Durban in search of the missing Waratah. The tug also had to give up the search due to bad weather, reinforcing the fact that sea conditions during late July into August, 1909, were harsh and unfavourable. The captain of the tug reported that waves 30 ft. high were found 7 miles off the coast.

The initial search also included a land search along the Transkei and Eastern Cape coast line, in the hope of finding signs of the missing vessel.

After the initial failures to locate the Waratah or flotsam, His Majesty's ships, the Hermes, Forte, and Pandora were deployed along the South African coast. The search concentrated on ocean between Cape Town, Port Natal and a point 35 degrees 10' South latitude, and 38 degrees East longitude, and a point 40 degrees 15' South latitude and 25 degrees East longitude. The search began 4 August and by 22 August no sign whatsoever of the Waratah had been found. The search was concentrated on the coast between Port Natal and Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), with particular reference to the location of the alleged dead bodies sighted by the crew of the Tottenham (11 August).

The steamship Sabine was charted by the Blue Anchor Line, the underwriters, and with financial assistance from the Australian Government.  Lieutenant Beattie with seventy-five naval ratings was nominated to command the expedition.  The ship was also equipped with a search light. The Sabine departed Cape Town 11 September, 1909, and returned 7 December, 1909, almost 3 full months of searching, without success.The crew searched as far south as the Crozets and St Paul's Island in the east. The vast ocean was swept both by day and by night using a powerful search light. Commander Beattie referred to the Waikato's drift pattern and transposed this onto the predicted drift pattern of the Waratah at the assumed time of 'breakdown'.  This point was estimated midway between the Bashee River mouth and the position of the "Waikato" 6 June, 1899 - a point 150 miles south of Cape Agulhas. However, the drift pattern of the disabled Waikato followed current coordinates specific to a different time of year, not necessarily mirrored by the Waratah, if she were indeed adrift. The proposed search scheme drew a zig zag pattern across the track of the Waikato, but never getting too far ahead of the daily assumed position of the Waratah.

The Waikato was eventually discovered 15 September, 1899 latitude 39 degrees 20' south, longitude 65 degrees east.  Bearing in mind that the Waratah was well provisioned for at least a year, it was hoped that good fortune would favour a similar outcome. Lieutenant Beattie carried out the designated plan and in addition focused on an area lying within a circle whose centre was 39 degrees south, latitude, and 40 degrees east, longitude, and whose diameter was between six and seven degrees of latitude.  This area covered the region south and east of the area searched by the Royal Navy vessels in August.

Among the locations investigated, both Possession and St Paul's Islands revealed no clues. The Sabine then retraced back to Cape Town in a zig zag pattern covering an area lying north of her previous series of zig zags. She covered a total of 14 000 miles, within an area of 3 000 miles.
The Waratah was not discovered.

In addition to this, every vessel between 2 August and 10 September leaving the ports bound for the Eastern Cape coastal route was asked to keep a look-out for the Waratah. These included: Suffolk, Suevic, Salamis, Geelong (Waratah's sister ship), Narrung, Bergadof, Tainui, Firth, Oberhausen and others.

Early in 1910 the steamer Wakefield was chartered at a cost of 5 000 pounds to continue the search, but as in the case of all other attempts, nothing relating to the Waratah was discovered. The entire enterprise in search of the Waratah came to nothing and the Inquiry was left with no choice but to declare that the Waratah had been lost in the severe coastal storm of 28 July, 1909. Searching vast oceans has very little chance for success and the Sabine only sighted one other vessel in the three months at sea searching for the Waratah.

HMS Forte
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!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Anecdote Saturday - the Le Joola

26 September, 2002, the MV Le Joola (owned by the Senegalese government), capsized off the coast of Gambia. It is estimated that 1863 people died which places this disaster number two on the list of non-wartime maritime losses of life.

The Le Joola was named after the Jola people of Senegal.  Launched in 1990, she had two motors and the latest equipment for the time. At the time of the disaster she had been out of service for a year undergoing repairs, including one of the motors. She set sail 26 September from Ziguinchor in the Casamance region en route to Dakar, the capital. She left port at 1.30pm and although she was designed for a maximum of 580 passengers, it is estimated that there were 1863 on board. The exact number is unknown because some passengers were allowed to travel free and children under five were not required to hold tickets.  It is estimated that there was actually more than 2000 passengers on board.

The ferry was believed to be travelling beyond her coastal limitations, and due to the excessive heat, as many passengers as possible who could squeeze themselves onto the upper decks, did so, creating an unstable, 'top heavy' scenario.  The ferry had suffered a number of technical problems in the years before the disaster and this was laid at the door of poor maintenance, rather than any design flaws.

The seas were rough and winds gale force (similar conditions to those along the South Coast 27 / 28 July, 1909), and the Le Joola capsized within the space of five minutes. This demonstrates how quickly a disaster can occur even in the case of  large vessels. She remained afloat until 3pm when she eventually slid below the waves, taking with her many surviving passengers trapped within the hull.  A young boy, one of the only 64 rescued, recounted that he heard the terrible screams of those trapped within the stricken ferry.

The Senegalese government offered to pay $22 000 per passenger (recorded as lost) but no prosecutions materialized.

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!
the Le Joola

Friday, 20 September 2013

Waratah - false hope and bodies adrift.

As the world slowly came to the realization that the Waratah was missing, various reports both true and false began to filter through to the public domain. Among the false reports, a cable was received in Australia, August 1909, that a Blue Anchor Line vessel, probably the Waratah, a considerable distance off course, was slowly making her way to Durban. The extent of relief this report generated warranted the Chair of the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament to halt proceedings, announcing:

"Mr Speaker, has just informed me that he has news on reliable authority that the SS Waratah has been sighted making slowly towards Durban".

Such was the relief and excitement at the news in Adelaide, the town bells were rung. One can only imagine the contrasting shock and devastation when it was revealed that the liner in question was not the Waratah.

It is generally accepted that the Waratah sank without leaving a trace apart from (allegedly) a deck chair washed up at Coffee Bay. But in the early days of the aftermath of the disaster, there were also reports of bodies drifting on the sea roughly two weeks after the Waratah went missing.  The final press comment on the subject was 'they cannot be linked to the Waratah with any certainty'.

The Inquiry had a more in-depth look at the question of Waratah bodies discovered and left drifting:

The master of the "Insizwa" reported sighting four objects floating in the water, 10 miles off the Bashee River mouth.  He went on to say that "they looked suspiciously like human bodies", but the sea was too rough for a boat to be lowered to investigate. Even more strangely, two of his officers also confirmed the objects, one of the officers agreeing with the master, the other declining an opinion. (?)

Some of the officers of a second steamer "Tottenham", reported that when she was 20 or 25 miles south of East London, on the same day (as the "Insizwa"), they saw some human bodies in the water. This they reported to the master, who immediately ordered the steamer closer in to investigate and on closer inspection was inclined to deduce that rather than dead bodies, these were the remains of a dead sunfish or whale offal. It was also stated by a witness that there was a whaling station at Durban, where large volumes of offal were set adrift. The court accepted the account of the officers of the "Tottenham", and made a comment that the Waratah must have made good progress beyond East London, beyond the alleged sightings of bodies and succumbed to the fierce storm of 28 July.

Further comment was made that the current is southward and westward, suggesting that bodies would have drifted down-coast from the Bashee River:

"The whole set of the current in that part of the sea is southward and westward, and, on the above-mentioned supposition, any bodies from the "Waratah" would have drifted with it in a direction away from the Bashee River."

"Even if it be suggested that they had at the time of observation not long risen from the submerged ship, the facts that the latter, if she had foundered would have been lying much further south, and that the set of the current is southward and westward, are still against the possibility of the bodies being where they were said to have been."

The Agulhas Current could very well have carried the bodies to these positions, south west of Cape Hermes, if the Harlow account was true.

Both accounts are interesting in that they were given by experienced officers and masters, familiar with the matters of the sea. It is extraordinary that experienced seamen would confuse bodies with offal, disagree among themselves, and finally make no attempt to recover the objects in order to confirm identification or at least make an attempt to do so. The sea conditions may very well have been too rough for the vessels to stop and recover what was believed to be bodies.

Finally, I can't help thinking about that deck chair washed up at Coffee Bay.  If the current sweeps objects southward and westward, it seems more than a leap of faith that the Waratah went down anywhere south of Coffee Bay.

No, my belief is that she went down off Cape Hermes to the north east.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Waratah - seafarers comments.

By August 13 1909, commentaries appeared in the tabloids regarding the disappearance of the Waratah.

The underwriters suggested that she may have broken a propeller or rudder. This scenario was compared with the SS Waikato, which was 42 days overdue from Vancouver to Auckland, and eventually discovered off Monte Video with a broken shaft.

Many thought the Waratah succumbed to the exceptional storm of 28 July and an example of the conditions at sea was given. The Tyser Line steamer Marere, six and a half thousand tons, rounded the Cape of Good Hope July 22, 1909. The first leg of the voyage was uneventful, but from the Cape onwards she was battered by rough and heavy seas. 24 July, the South Westerly winds were gale force, whipping up hail squalls and high waves. By 28 July, the seas as mountainous, flooding the Marere's deck and washing away boats and damaging deck fittings. The severity of the storm forced the Marere to run with her bow to sea for 12 hours. By 31 July the storm had eased somewhat but flared up again by 2 August. It continued as such virtually all the way to the Australian coast, the Marere arriving two days late in Melbourne. Captain Firth of the Marere also commented on the fate of the Waratah stating:

"It could not have sucked her down,"

"She is too big, too strong,
too well found, and too well manned for

"My firm belief is that the storm
chipped off one of her propellers, like an
apple from a tree, and Captain Ilbery has
had to try to make headway with the other."

"The result has been that that has been
overstrained and gone, too. The disabled
Waratah has been drifting, and I am sure
is still drifting slowly, very slowly, for at
this time of the year the Agulhas current
is at its weakest, and she might not be
carried along at as much as ten miles a day."

"She will be found to the south-west under
those conditions, for at that rate of drift it
would take her days and days to reach the
eastern trend of the current."

"Sooner or later the Waratah is sure to be found"

Captain F. Chrimes master of the Blue Anchor Line steamer Polyphemus, commented that he was convinced that the Waratah was not lost and was quoted:

"I think I can gauge what has happened to the Waratah."

"Probably a big sea damaged the ship's rudder, which, as
it was torn away, broke one of her twin
screws, leaving the vessel helpless."

He was queried about the fact that Waratah had two screws (propellers) and went on to say:

"Without a rudder the other screw would
not help the ship,"

"It is a question of mechanics. The remaining
screw would form what is known as a
'couple'-that is to say, an equal and opposite
parallel force, whose resultant would
tend to drive the ship in a circle, until
a jury-rudder was rigged up the screw
would be useless."

"A complete illustration of what I mean will be conveyed by the
idea of somebody trying to propel a rowing boat with one oar.
The fact of the matter is that the disablement of one screw
plus the loss of the rudder really renders
the undamaged screw useless until a
balancing force on the other side is rigged

"I will not believe for a moment that
the Waratah is lost,''

"I am as positive as I am that my own ship is safely
berthed that she is afloat."

"If her boilers had burst, thousands of tons of wreckage
would be floating about, and to imagine
she has been swamped is quite ludicrous
to my mind. She is somewhere between 25
and 35 degrees east longitude and 38 to 42
degrees south latitude."

"The area of her probable position may be roughly
estimated as about the area of Tasmania,
that is, 7.500 square miles."

"If the captain of the Geelong means to find her,
he must proceed 300 miles due south from
Cape Town, and then zig-zag due east
50-mile beats. He will then, in my opinion,
happen upon her, and good luck to him. I
wish I had the contract."

Another Captain, Lumsden, master of the Glendevon,
believed the Waratah would be discovered within two months.

It is very clear from these comments, mostly experienced captains, that the Waratah was believed to be a sturdy vessel, safe and stable in stormy seas. None of the comments focused on the allegations that Waratah was top heavy and looking for a storm to turn turtle.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Waratah - hull compromised.

Today I want to draw your attention to a crucial piece of the puzzle in the disappearance of the Waratah. The Waratah is sometimes referred to as Australia's Titanic.  Both liners from the same era are tragic entities unto themselves, not to be lumped together, except for one construction issue: The Titanic's hull was constructed from steel (tests conducted in December 1997) far more brittle than the steel of today (by a factor of 10 x).  It can be assumed that this grade of steel was also used in the construction of other steamships of the day, including the Waratah.

"The steel used to build the Titanic was not as 'impact-resistant' as modern steel, according to Dr. H.P. Leighly, a professor emeritus of metallurgical engineering."

Dr Leighly studied about 200 pounds of steel recovered from the Titanic wreck. The steel showed a high concentration of sulphur, oxygen and phosphorous, which together also makes for a more brittle steel. Correspondingly, the concentration of manganese, a factor of ductility, was low in this steel.The steel's lack of ductility (pliability) and tendency to crack in very cold water as seen in the case of the Titanic. In contrast the Agulhas current is relatively warm (+/- 22 degrees centigrade) in winter, but surrounding seas are considerably colder in July, sometimes as low as 10 degrees centigrade (similar to North Atlantic in winter).

Over and above the poor quality of the hull steel, investigations revealed that the rivets themselves, cast from wrought iron, had three times the concentration of slag particles (dendrites of iron oxide) as would be considered acceptable. So in effect one would get de-cohesion between the iron and the slag particles, compromising the strength of the rivets. It is quite possible that similar rivets were used in the construction of the Waratah. So, we have a steamship constructed with a double hull, but using steel and rivets with an inherent tendency to crack or snap, rather than 'bend'.

Ships are subjected to a number of forces on the ocean, such as:

Panting stresses:

As a ship moves through the water (whether it be rough or smooth), the hull plates are subjected to fluctuations in water pressure, causing what is known as and 'in-out' movement of the plates.  The steel described above would make these plates vulnerable to fatigue fractures, which may not initially be visible to the naked eye.

Pounding stresses:

As a ship pitches and rams oncoming swells in heavy seas, pounding stresses occur.  These stresses are particularly significant in 'light' vessels such as the Waratah.

Again the brittle steel hull plates and rivets would be vulnerable to this type of force.

Hogging & sagging :

Hogging occurs when a vessel is unevenly loaded with weight concentrated on either end.  The converse of this is sagging when the cargo is concentrated on the centre of the vessel. Both place undue stress forces on already brittle steel. It was imperative that the officers in charge supervised loading and discharging of vessels to ensure that the cargo was evenly distributed. In addition to this, they needed to be alert when negotiating crests or troughs where the wavelength was equal to the length of the ship, thus causing hogging or sagging.


These are very important stresses in the context of the Waratah.  This occurs when the hull of the vessel is 'twisted' due to the effects of an oblique sea or unequal distribution of transverse cargo weight. If carcasses had shifted in cargo hold 1, combining with water accumulation on one side, leading to unequal transverse weight distribution, these torsion stresses could have caused brittle hull plates to crack, water tight partitions to buckle and allow leaks through cracks.


Racking stresses occur when a ship's hull is distorted transversely due to the effect of rolling. According to witnesses, the Waratah rolled excessively.

Dry docking stress :

This is the stress that occurs when a vessel takes up bottom blocks in the drydock.

Rolling and pitching:

These forces acting together produce upwards and downwards acceleration forces, the values of which increase with the distance from the rolling and pitching.

We have transcript testimony that the Waratah ran aground for six hours off Kangaroo Island, Australia, in December 1908,  witnessed by a cook by the name of Trott and a steward, Shore. This was not confirmed in the log, but does seem like a rather extraordinary flight of fancy (if false witness accounts) on the parts of both Trott AND Shore. Again it seems unlikely to me that they would allege something on a scale such as this, without some basis of truth. Subsequent to this incident shifting of the superstructure was also noted by one sailor who claimed he could put his hand between deck planks and a bolt which fell from the upper decks, hitting the baker on his head in the bakery below.

After her maiden voyage, the Waratah was dry docked and checked, before leaving on her second voyage. This would have subjected her hull to the dry docking stresses mentioned above and also hairline cracks and weakened steel rivets and plates may not have been noticed or attended to at this stage.

The Waratah had a double hull and water tight compartments, similar to the Titanic, creating a false sense of security. It is conceivable that the Waratah had latent defects in her hull before she departed from Durban Port on 26 July, 1909.  These defects may have manifested due to the following factors:

- brittle nature of the steel and rivets;

- running aground off Kangaroo Island damage to hull;

- taking the ground at the wharf, Port Adelaide;

- heat damage from ongoing smouldering coal fires;

- the dry docking forces after her maiden voyage;

- her tendency to roll and pitch excessively ---> acceleration forces, particularly noticed by S. P. Lamont on the Clan Macintyre

- the torsion forces exerted by the rough oblique (changing) Wild Coast seas and shift of cargo leading to the uneven distribution of weight.

- as well as the pounding, racking, panting, hogging and sagging stresses listed above.

This may all have been too much for the new liner. As a result of these continuous racking, torsion and pounding stresses from the rough seas and approaching storm, the Waratah probably developed cracks in her hull plates, in areas where the brittle steel and rivets were weakened. Some partitions probably buckled between water tight compartments. Water would have started to enter these vulnerable sections at an increasing rate, which in time would overwhelm the bilge pumps, and the capabilities of the crew.

As in the case of the Titanic, rivets may have snapped, creating the zipper-type effect where a seam of rivets snap successively between hull plates, opening up a 'gash' in a force driven 'domino effect'. If this were to have happened, there is no question in my mind that the Waratah would have gone down very quickly indeed.

I believe that Captain Ilbery was aware of the extent of the problem and realised that he had to get his steamship safely back to Durban, before her buoyancy card was played out. Listing badly and vulnerable to swells broaching her hatches, in sight of the SS Harlow and Cape Hermes shore, the flagship for the Blue Anchor Line, Waratah, buried her bow into the oncoming swell for the last time at about 8 pm 27 July, 1909, and in all probability lies in just 37 m of water


Waratah is launched. From cradle to grave by the following year.

fractured steel hull section of Titanic's hull

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:

Monday, 16 September 2013

Waratah - wreck discovered?

In  the ensuing months and years efforts turned from recovery to establishing where the Waratah might have gone down. The conflicting testimony at the Inquiry did not help to narrow down the likely location for a search, and in the first few months the coastal route was extensively searched by Naval and chartered vessels, but all to no avail.

In 1925, Lt D.J. Roos of the South African Air Force claimed to have spotted the wreck off the Transkei coast from his plane. Based on this and conjecture, the search for the Waratah was narrowed down to the Xora River mouth.

In 1977, a wreck was identified off the Xora River mouth which created a frenzy of excitement and seemed to corroborate the evidence that Waratah had gone down in the vicinity. As it turned out, the wreck was confirmed to be the SS Khedive, sunk by German U-Boats during the Second World War.

Further searches were conducted through 1991, 1995, and 1997, without success. In 1999, great excitement in the tabloids claimed that the Waratah had been discovered 10 km off the coast (Addley). A sonar image of the wreck corresponded with the dimensions of the Waratah and for a while it seemed that the mystery was at last solved. Unfortunately the team had to confront profound disappointment when the wreck was identified as the Nailsea Meadow, another ship sunk during the Second World War. The search efforts ground to a halt and Emlyn Brown was quoted  'I've exhausted all the options. I have no idea where to look'.

This brings us to an alleged eye witness by the name of Joe Conquer, who contributed to this confounding and gripping story. 28 July while engaged in a live shell fire exercise at the Xora River Mouth, Joe Conquer claimed he saw a large steamer at about 12.30 pm labouring in the rough seas. Some 20 years after the event Conquer reminisced how he watched the steamer rolling heavily, and when he looked again, she had disappeared. Conquer assumed that he had witnessed the Waratah sinking.

However, the Waratah could not have been at that position and time 28 July, 1909. Conquer could conceivably have mistaken the date, which more accurately was 27 July, 1909. If he had in fact seen the Waratah as claimed, there is a possibility that what he interpreted to be 'foundering' may in fact have been the Waratah heading out to sea, disappearing beyond the horizon. Conquer estimated that the steamer in question to be about 4 miles out to sea, viewed from an elevated vantage point.

If we go back to the account of the Clan MacIntyre, we know that the Waratah had started off close to shore between 4 and 6 am, 27 July, and over the course of 3 and 1/2 hours proceeded out to sea, eventually passing the Clan MacIntyre and going out of site at 9.30 am roughly abeam of the Mbashe River mouth. Conquer claims he saw the Waratah at midday (even if the date is corrected) which does not correlate with the Clan MacIntyre account, unless Waratah came about shortly after 9.30 am and retraced her course.

My view is Joe Conquer's eye witness account does not hold water and this was confirmed by failed exploration initiatives off the Mbashe River mouth.

to be continued....

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Anecdote Saturday - The Hawk

In 2006, The Hawk, a tug boat manned by four crew went missing en route from Richards Bay to Cape Town. Much the same as the Waratah, apart from a life jacket near Port Shepstone and a raft near Shelly Beach, no trace of her nor crew was discovered. It was surmised that she had founded in a north westerly gale.

Being overdue in East London, searches were initiated by the NSRI, including boats and aircraft. These proved fruitless.The seas due to the north westerly gale were reported to be very rough at the time of the tug's disappearance.

Chris Bonnet, owner of the Sunsail Maritime Academy, commented on the loss of The Hawk.

"Her height out of the water was very low and the open deck would have made her susceptible to breaking seas".

He went on to surmise "that the tug boat would have been swamped by heavy seas from the rear and probably sank quickly".

This would appear to be another example of abnormally large waves and troughs off the Wild Coast, probably claiming yet another vessel without much chance for crew to save themselves.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Waratah - engine failure and methane gas.

There are two further theories I want to explore in today's post. The first relates to the possibility of total engine failure and potential outcome.The second looks at the remote possibility of the negative buoyancy effects of methane gas rising to the surface, from seabed deposits.

Starting with the power source of the Waratah, as per Lloyd's:


quadruple expansion engines with 8 cylinders of 23, 32 1/2, 46 1/2 & 67 inches diameter each pair; stroke 48 inches; 1,003 nominal horsepower;

5 single ended boilers; 20 corrugated furnaces; grate surface 376 sq. ft.; heating surface 14,967 sq. ft."

Speed: approximately 13 knots (25.0 km/h; 15.5 mph) service speed."

The steam engines operated through twin screws (propellers), which gives us two important clues.
Firstly, failure of one engine is possible, but both simultaneously, unlikely. Secondly, if there were mechanical steering problems, these two engines operating independently could be used to help keep the Waratah on a relatively even heading.

By this stage of steam engine construction the engines were mounted vertically, rather than horizontally which affords more protection.  The more 'exposed' vertical engines (vulnerable to damage) and parts were more efficient with lower maintenance costs than the horizontal alternative. The high pressure cylinders were aft and the low pressure cylinders forward.

From previous posts we can see that there are two potential causes for simultaneous engine failure. The first would have to have been a limited coal dust explosion within the engine room or surrounds. The explosion/s would have to have generated enough shock force to render vital component damage to the twin engines. However, the shock force would have to have been limited in terms of hull and bulkhead compromise.

A second possible source of simultaneous engine compromise could have been due to the explosion of a boiler. We have noted previously that the one boiler covering had a piece of smouldering coal requiring attention and which may have led to latent problems with the casing of that particular boiler. A boiler explosion could be highly destructive as in the case of the SS Sultana. But it is possible that the damage could have been limited to the immediate area of the engine room. Thus, the Waratah would have drifted at the mercy of the building storm. This in turn could have had two potential outcomes, the first being that she founded in the storm and the second, she drifted out into the southern ocean, beyond sight and discovery. There is a further possible cause for mechanical disablement. The rudder could have jammed into one of the screws (propellers) rendering the Waratah un-navigable.

Our second theory for today centres around the issue of methane in the seabed. Tests conducted in laboratory settings have shown that bubbles can sink floating objects. Methane deep in the sediments of the seabed is produced by the microbial reduction of CO2. This methane can escape and rise to the the surface of the sea in the form of bubbles.

Archimedes postulated that in order for an object to float, the density of the liquid has to be greater than the object. If the concentration of the bubbles reduces the density of the sea to less than  the floating object ie Waratah, she would fail to remain afloat and sink. Some argue that the the force of the currents of water the bubbles drag up with them is enough to maintain flotation. However, a further experiment showed that an object is likely to sink despite this counter force.‎

sea bubbles

trawler discovered drifting after the tsunami of 2010

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Waratah - U.F.O. encounter.

Paranormal is the term (coined 1915 - 1920) used to denote experiences or occurrences outside 'the range of normal experience of scientific explanation'.  These occurrences are inconsistent with the world as understood at the time, through empirical observation and scientific methodology. In addition, such events or experiences are not reproducible.

Having said this there are schools of thought who believe some paranormal occurrences are yet to be 'discovered' in scientific terms, and as such cannot by definition be described or disproved by current scientific methodology.

Despite scepticism, studies on the paranormal are periodically conducted by researchers from various disciplines. Some say that by employing Occam's razor, the simplest solution is usually the correct one, which perhaps relegates paranormal phenomena to the bottom of the list? Or does it?

The Waratah was a 500 ft steamship which in effect disappeared without a trace (if one is to exclude the deck chair found on the shores of Coffee Bay). We have looked into various possibilities for such a disappearance, but let's face it, a paranormal intervention if true could cater for a comprehensive disappearance 'without a trace'.

The name Waratah, after that of the native New South Wales flower, brought calamity to vessels before the SS Waratah of 1908. In 1848, a sailing ship called Waratah sank off Ushant. In 1887, two ships by the name of Waratah sank off Sydney. In 1889, yet another Waratah sank off Cape Preston in the Pilbara. Clearly those with a superstitious inclination should have got the message and avoided another Waratah, by 1909.

When one thinks of the Waratah and the paranormal, Claude Sawyer springs again to mind.  He experienced dreams predicting the demise of the Waratah, which he translated into the reality of day and shared with all who would listen. He saw an apparition in his dreams, a knight rising from the waves, armed with bloody sword and sheet, shouting 'Waratah! Waratah!'.  No one to my knowledge disembarked at Durban based on Mr Sawyer's warnings, suggesting that this form of prediction did not hold much sway in 1909.

Sherlock Holmes books are much loved and the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, held a seance to discover how the Waratah was lost. As fastidious as Holmes may have been with regard to concrete evidence, no matter how small or insignificant, his creator thought nothing of resorting to this 'short cut'. Unfortunately it yielded nothing.

Legends of the paranormal would be incomplete without some reference to the 'Flying Dutchman', which some aboard the Clan Macintyre claimed escorted the Waratah into the mists. This ghostly ship was condemned to sail the oceans for all eternity, never to make port and never know peace. Sighting the Flying Dutchman was a presage of doom, and many a story did the rounds of ships and crew after sighting the spectral ship suffering disaster great and small.

Experiments were conducted around the mid 20th century with magnetic fields and such powers capable of displacing large objects such as submarines.  Again, no such magnetic fields nor displaced ocean going vessels have been reported off the South African coast.

If we are to get into the swing of this and put on our paranormal outfits (including T-shirts), perhaps we should entertain the notion of the Waratah slipping out of the then current (1909) dimension through a portal (I suppose this would be like a big 'toll gate' in the sea) into another dimension?  One can only hope she received a warm welcome in the 'new world'.

One captain, after perhaps a few glasses of his best rum, claimed that he saw a ball of fire falling into the sea and directly after this his compass failed to 'work'.  In fairness a meteorite may have been the ball of fire and momentarily disturbed the magnetic field?

One cannot mention the paranormal without drawing attention to UFO's (that none of us have ever seen) hovering over the Waratah and in the interests of inter planetary 'kidnapping' and espionage, whisking the entire ship away for further investigation on a planet in a galaxy light years away from us. If they could please return her now.

I have also seen mention of a temporal hole swallowing away large objects at sea. In medicine the closest I can get to this are temporal lobe hallucinations.

One avid paranormal observer claimed to see a ship float back to shore with nothing aboard except a parrot - which although fluent, refused to say what had befallen the crew.

My favourite however, is the paranormal theory that deep in the oceans, and moving about from ocean to ocean, are caverns, which harbour missing vessels, sucked down by those whirly funnelly things I mentioned in the previous post.

Scepticism abounds and skips lightly over a sober subject of loss and bereavement. There might be those who derive comfort steadfast in the belief that the crew and passengers of the Waratah were 'spared' in an alternate dimension. If indeed some benevolent paranormal force was responsible for the disappearance, and the passengers and crew did not suffer, who are we to be sceptical? Parting thought, however:

"Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."

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!

Waratah - explosion off Cape Hermes.

"Sight of a large steamer astern of his own ship, working hard into the heavy seas. She was making a great deal of smoke, enough for Capt. Bruce to wonder if the steamer was on fire."

This extract from the Inquiry raises the question of fire and possibly an explosion aboard the Waratah during her last moments.

It is often quoted that an explosion would in most cases result in flotsam / debris of some kind.

Nothing from the Waratah was ever officially discovered.

We know from the Inquiry transcripts that the Waratah had problems with an on-going coal fire (December 1908), as was common in steamers of that era.

Coal fires aboard ship could start in a number of ways, the most common of which was moving the coal from one bunker to another.  The reaction temperature for a smouldering fire is about 150 degrees to 500 degrees centigrade, and this is known as incomplete combustion and takes place in the absence of oxygen.

Smouldering coal can be found deep within the coal pile, difficult to reach.

"6th December, 1908, 5 a.m. reported by second engineer smoke issuing from hatch of bunker on lower deck, alongside boiler casing and extending into engine room as far as the store rooms. All bunker doors shut and coal worked only from starboard bunker where on fire. Hose put on to same from deck, and holes cut in two places in engine-room, and hose put into same, pumps kept on, and at 11.30 a.m. smoke greatly reduced."

This smouldering coal fire continued unabated despite the above measures through until noon 10 December, 4 complete days.

During the attempts to extinguish the fire the following was dealt with: a large piece of burning coal on the casing over the boiler and  'working the coal' from starboard lower deck bunker, using water when the smoke became excessive.

"Mr. Ryan, the former senior fourth engineer of the "Waratah," was examined as to the circumstances of the fire. He said that it was over the after (rear) set of boilers and near the engine-room, in the 'tween decks. No coal was destroyed in putting out the fire, that the bulkhead over the engine-room was pretty warm, but that the bunker plates never got distorted."

One would like to know more about 'the bulkhead over the engine room was pretty warm'.  Was the bulkhead hot enough to cause damage?  The mere mention 'that the bunker plates never got distorted' suggests to me that plates could be significantly damaged by prolonged intense heat from a smouldering bunker coal fire.  Distorted plates could be expanded to include the integrity of the bulkheads and hull.

Captain Ilbery and the Chief Engineer were required to comment on the fire:

"Captain Ilbery made no report of the fire to his owners, although he wrote twice from Adelaide; but in a letter of the 15th December, 1908, written from Adelaide by the chief engineer to the superintending engineer is the following paragraph:”

"On Sunday, December 6th, a small fire started in the after lower bunker. We found smoke at 5 a.m. and we cut a hole in the engine-room and practically put it out at 11 a.m. The fire was caused by the heat from the several reducing valves and steam valves in the recess on the starboard side of the engine-room. The roof is insulated, but at the back of the reducing valves for steering engine and starboard side of the engine-room is not. As it will only be a small job, it would be advisable to have it done here."

Captain Ilbery did not report this to the owners.

Perhaps coal fires were of such common occurrence that it was not necessary to report them to the owners?

Perhaps the lack of reporting was so as not to blemish the reputation of the newly launched flag ship?

The second issue that strikes one is that of the fire reported to have been extinguished by 11 am 6 December, 1908.  We know from the above transcripts that the fire did in fact continue to require repeated attention until 10 December, 1908.

The location of the fire, adjacent to the engine room (boilers) suggests potential for explosion and a large piece of burning coal was reported to have settled on the casing of the one boiler.  Was the boiler in question left with residual damage?

If the casing and outer skin of a boiler were 'distorted' by continuous heat, there is the very real possibility of an explosion.

A boiler explosion in the case of the SS Sultana, 1865, a Mississippi side-wheel steamboat, occurred when a faulty and poorly repaired steam boiler exploded, setting off a further two boiler related explosions, killing 1600 passengers and creating an inferno on board.

A coal dust explosion could also certainly account for massive damage and distortion of hull plates causing a vessel to founder. Coal dust suspended in air is explosive and is susceptible to spontaneous combustion. A near empty coal bunker would be more risky for this type of explosion than a full one. The resultant shock wave would certainly be capable of destroying bulkhead and hull.

The crew of the Harlow were down wind from the Waratah, less than 4 nautical miles. If there had been an explosion they would have heard it (which they did not) and seen far more than the 'flares' rising into the night sky. Further to this, the Waratah was observed gaining on the Harlow which suggests that if a fire was out of control in one of the coal bunkers, a solution would have been to increase the rate of removal of the coal into the furnaces, thus pressing the engines and reducing the burning coal or getting to it within the pile. The Waratah under such circumstances would be travelling at or faster than her listed speed of 13 knots. This figure is 4.5 knots faster than the listed speed of the tramp steamer Harlow.

It would be imperative under such circumstances to return to Port (Durban) for assistance with control of the fire. Fire could have been a major factor causing the Waratah to founder.


The SS Sultana ablaze after explosion

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Waratah - oceanic whirlpool.

While ocean phenomena are fresh in our minds, let us explore another theory attempting to explain the sudden loss of the Waratah.  Some say that  a large (would have to be) whirlpool in the ocean off the Wild Coast swallowed the 500ft liner. We all know the principal of a whirlpool when the water in a bath swirls down the drain. However, this is very simplistic in the context of the ocean, where the swirling is created by two opposing currents, or tides. If it were indeed large enough to interfere with shipping we should rather use the term maelstrom.

There are a few recognised whirlpools in the world including the Saltstraumen in Norway (37 km/hr); the Moskstraumen, also Norway (27.8 km/hr); the Old Sow (not a happy day for whirlpool naming) in the US, with speeds up to 27.6 km/hr; Naruto in Japan (20 km/hr) and the Corryvreckan in Scotland (18 km/hr).

The most powerful whirlpools are created in narrow, shallow straits with fast flowing water.
Please note in all of the above, none feature off the South African coast, and there are no known records of ships being dragged into the murky depths by a whirlpool. But, without throwing in the towel and giving up too easily on this theory, let me quote Paul the Deacon, 8th century:

"Not very far from this shore... toward the western side, on which the ocean main lies open without end, is that very deep whirlpool of waters which we call by its familiar name "the navel of the sea." This is said to suck in the waves and spew them forth again twice every day... They say there is another whirlpool of this kind between the island of Britain and the province of Galicia, and with this fact the coasts of the Seine region and of Aquitaine agree, for they are filled twice a day with such sudden inundations that any one who may by chance be found only a little inward from the shore can hardly get away. I have heard a certain high nobleman of the Gauls relating that a number of ships, shattered at first by a tempest, were afterwards devoured by this same Charybdis. And when one only out of all the men who had been in these ships, still breathing, swam over the waves, while the rest were dying, he came, swept by the force of the receding waters, up to the edge of that most frightful abyss. And when now he beheld yawning before him the deep chaos whose end he could not see, and half dead from very fear, expected to be hurled into it, suddenly in a way that he could not have hoped he was cast upon a certain rock and sat him down." (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, i.6)

In "Vingt mille lieues sous les mers" (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), first published in 1869–1870, Jules Verne (1828–1905) wrote :

"'Maelstrom! Maelstrom!' s'écriait-il! Le Maelstrom! Un nom plus effrayant dans une situation plus effrayante pouvait-il retentir à notre oreille?"

"'Maelstrom! Maelstrom!' he exclaimed! The Maelstrom! Could a more horrifying name in a more frightening situation blare in our ear?"[3]

Clearly the classical writers of the past were terrified of the perils of sea travel and all that awaited their vulnerable vessels beyond the horizon.

Tsunamis and Sinkholes (seabed giving way for whatever obscure reason) have the potential to cause maelstroms.  But there are no known cases of maelstroms due to these phenomena dragging ships down.

There is however a scientific angle to all of this beyond the rantings of writers. Satellite images have revealed two powerful vortices in the South Atlantic Ocean. These swirling forces are believed to suck water and debris into the depths.  Estimates have them moving at 1.3 million cubic meters of water per second. These could potentially suck large vessels down. There is a whirly funnelly thing in the ocean off Brazil, but there again if the Waratah was there, I can assure you that whirlpools would have been the least of their troubles.

Seriously, whirlpools and maelstroms are not new to science in the world's oceans. There is a theory of vertical currents accounting for the phenomenon. The mechanics revolve around cold and warm masses of water generating vortex-type movement.

Having said all of this, consider for a moment that any vessel that has sailed into a maelstrom and disappeared removes from the scientific world that most vital of evidence - a witness account.

frankly this one looks like it can take the Empire State Building down