Friday, 14 February 2014

Anecdote Saturday - SS Marama

The SS Marama was built by Caird and Co, Greenock, Scotland in 1907, at a cost of 166 000 pounds (the Waratah cost 139 000 pounds). The Marama's gross tonnage was 6437, with a passenger capacity of 488 - 270 saloon class, 120 second class, 98 third class and 140 crew. Clearly smaller than the Waratah, she was more expensive to build partly due to the 'no expenses spared' approach to her lavish fittings. Unless the Waratah was constructed on a 'restricted' budget raising issues of build quality.

The Marama was initially earmarked for the Trans Tasman service, later the San Francisco to Vancouver mail route and also served as a hospital ship in the First World War. She could average 15.3 knots. The Marama was a three deck steamer (main, hurricane and promenade decks), overall bearing a resemblance to the Waratah. No queries or concerns were raised about her triple deck and the issue of stability and she was not referred to as 'top heavy'. In fact she was considered beautifully proportioned. Perhaps the eye of the beholder gazed more favourably upon the smaller Marama? But there again, the Marama did not disappear without a trace off the Wild Coast.

She was very well appointed with electric lights, furnishings of a very high standard, spacious airy cabins, and a Saloon Class Social Hall based on Victorian drawing rooms of the time. Captain Gibb commanded the Marama when she was launched in September of 1907. She serviced the route from England to Australia, via Cape Town and although confronted with fierce gales off the Cape coast, coped well.

On her maiden voyage via the Cape, she took on 1200 tons of coal at Durban before departing for Melbourne.  The crossing was rough, with gales and heavy cross-seas.  She rolled heavily but negotiated the rough weather without mishap. One passenger was said to remark:

"When she rolls she does so gently"

Again we have evidence from the era that passenger steamers with first class passenger accommodations were inclined to have long slow rolls for comfort.

By 1914 the Marama was servicing the San Francisco to Vancouver route, and in January 1915, while entering San Francisco harbour she 'grounded slightly'. What the exact definition of 'grounding slightly' is, remains obscure. Hull plate damage (buckling) resulted and repairs had to be carried out before she could put to sea again. Not only did the Marama resemble the Waratah but both vessels had a history of grounding, however 'slight' this might have been. The Marama case reminds us that the steel hulls were prone to damage of this sort and required attention before going back into operation. From what I understand, the Waratah was not inspected in dry dock before departing Adelaide where she took the ground alongside the wharf. Captain Ilbery was very unhappy about the grounding and for good reason.

At the onset of the 'Great War' the Marama was earmarked as a suitable vessel for hospital ship and after consultation with the Governor General of New Zealand, monies were made available to have her refurbished. At this point she was commanded be Captain W. Maclean, and Colonel W.E. Collins in military command. During the course of her war service the Marama had as many as 1636 wounded or ill soldiers on board at one time. The efficiency of the Royal Army Medical Corps saw to it that most injured soldiers were brought on board within a 12 hour period - the critical cut off point to prevent fatal sepsis of wounds.

During the war the Marama covered 52251 sea miles, carried 12639 patients and 580 hospital passengers. One one mission in 1917 while returning to England via South Africa from India, the Marama stopped in at Durban to take on coal. She encountered a raging storm along the Wild Coast with huge waves crashing over her decks. A patient and orderly sadly were washed overboard as a result. Passenger injuries were reported, but despite this, the Marama negotiated the storm without skipping a beat. Here we have an example of a triple deck steamer from the early 1900's surviving a gale force storm off the Wild Coast without disappearing without a trace.

The Marama completed her service with honour and was decommissioned at the end of 1919. She returned to her old post at San Francisco and was converted from coal to oil burning. In June 1920 the Marama returned to the Trans Tasman service. She was finally laid up at Evans Bay in 1936, having being in service for 29 years, 5 years longer than the average lifespan of steamers from the era.

So much for the triple deck design being 'an accident waiting to happen'.

SS Marama

SS Waratah

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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