Wednesday, 26 March 2014


Manawatu Standard, Volume XLI, Issue 9071, 16 November 1909, Page 2

The Waratah

"Seen Off Cape Hermes
Burning Steamer Mystery
Captain Bruce's Report"

'Dear Sirs, Captain Bruce, of the steamer Harlow, reports the following : -

'On 27th July at 7.30 pm, noticed a large steamer, with two masthead lights and the red side light. (As she was on his quarter he could not see the green light).'

In this account the Waratah is referred to as a 'large steamer' rather than a 'fast steamer'. Large steamers had two masthead lights. Smaller vessels had one. Nothing could be more specific and un-bush fire-like than two masthead lights and the red side light.

'From the way she gained on him he would say she was travelling at the rate of thirteen to fourteen knots an hour.'

This is precisely the listed speed of the Waratah, without the favour of the Agulhas Current, because she was travelling in the opposite direction ie. towards Durban.

'A tremendous amount of smoke was issuing from her, and he called the chief engineer's attention to it.'

The smoke is a description we cannot ignore and although steamers under full steam could produce a great deal of smoke, the mere fact Captain Bruce consulted with his chief officer suggests the Waratah was probably on fire - a chronic coal bunker fire, steadily progressing and spreading. This was also a dual witness account and discussion at this point.

'They came to the conclusion she was on fire, and returning to Durban for assistance.'

Here we have two separate individuals aboard the Harlow agreeing that there was indeed a large steamer astern, probably the Waratah, on fire and attempting to return to Durban, and moreover an acknowledgment that the steamer was Waratah because she was returning to Durban. How did they know it was Waratah if they were en-route from England and did not stop at Cape Town? This might have been a modification of the account after the fact.

'While they were watching her, a huge flash occurred, throwing a flame about 300 ft into the air. A few seconds later a much larger explosion took place, the flash going fully 1000 ft into the air.'

The description of the 'explosions' when related in detail at the Inquiry equated more with distress flares substantiated by the simple fact Captain Bruce claimed he 'heard nothing'. 'Hearing nothing' in relation to an explosion is highly unlikely taking into account the wind was blowing from the direction of the Waratah to the Harlow, and the distance between the two vessels was less than 10 (probably 4) miles.

Second Officer Alfred E Harris (Harlow), 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'.

Even he referred to the flashes of light as 'flares'.

News broadcasts of explosions clearly show create dark clouds of smoke and not dazzling red lights rising into the sky, persisting for up to two minutes. No debris confirming an explosion was ever discovered off the Wild Coast. Socket distress signals resembled the description above. Captain Bruce did nothing to come to the assistance of the Waratah in distress which, in my opinion, is precisely why he stuck to this story of explosions rather than the very obvious distress flares. Nothing could excuse the Harlow for not going to the Waratah's aid.

'When it had cleared, all lights of the steamer had disappeared.'

All of this appears to have taken place within a short period of time creating the initial seeds of confusion, when the bush fires had conveniently 'allowed' the smoke to clear and no longer resembled a steamer's running lights.

Anecdotal posts have revealed that hitting uncharted rocks or reef resulted in steamers foundering very rapidly indeed - within minutes. It is also conceivable the fire on board had compromised both bulkheads and the very hull itself, adding to the rapidity with which the Waratah slipped beneath the waves.

'As there were bush fires along the coast, the chief officer was of the opinion the flames were from the bush fires, but they could not understand the disappearance of the steamer's lights.'

The chief officer questioned blaming bush fires for the entire incident. He could associate the flashes with bush fires but logic dictated that steamer's lights were far too specific and another matter entirely.

Captain Bruce and his chief engineer questioned the disappearance of the steamer's lights but could not rationalise the rapidity of the disappearance and thus started to QUESTION what they had just witnessed.

'The steamer had not signalled for help before the explosions, though she was right abreast the Cape Hermes signal station.'

This implies that the crisis on board Waratah escalated dramatically in the distance of 3.7 miles between Cape Hermes and her final position.

'The captain cannot understand how they did not see her, for her lights were burning brightly, and above her was a dense volume of smoke.'

What ever  the reasons for no one at the signal station responding to the crisis Captain Bruce reinforces the truth of the account by questioning why Waratah's distinct lights and smoke were not noticed.


'From the terrific explosions they were of the opinion that everyone must have been killed instantly.'

Again, this is an attempt to explain to themselves what had just been witnessed, and 'everyone must have been killed' is an excuse not to have gone to their aid or at least to investigate.

'The Harlow arrived in Durban the following day, and remained two days. As there was no report from Cape Hermes, and nothing reported missing, Captain Bruce forgot about the explosions.'

In another report Captain Bruce made inquiries at Durban as to whether any vessels were overdue.
Captain Bruce attempted to trivialise the incident as something of little consequence. Understatement of this nature suggests a cover up of 'failure to act'.

'On arrival of the last Australian mail in Manila, Captain Bruce heard of the loss of the Waratah, and, on comparing notes and dates, felt sure that the steamer was the Waratah.'

So, he had kept notes after all. At this later stage and with the mounting hysteria surrounding the loss of the Waratah, Captain Bruce felt he had to do something, and in so doing ACKNOWLEDGED his witness account of the Waratah foundering.

'She left Durban on 26th July and must have discovered the fire on 27th July, and was returning for assistance when she blew up.'

'I give the position as near as possible:

Latitude 31 degrees 38 min South, longitude 29 degrees, 55 min East.' 

These coordinates are the very essence and core of the Waratah mystery.

'He says if two launches are sent out and sweep with a wire a mile or two long, they will surely locate her.'

By this stage Captain Bruce must have reconsidered his moral position on the question of what he and his crew had witnessed and bravely gave advice regarding the search for the Waratah wreck. He would not have suggested such an expensive undertaking if he was not sure.

'She is in about 20 fathoms of water, right off St Johns River (no - Nkadusweni River), and a diver could easily work there.'

Twenty fathoms is 120 ft, 36.6 meters! This is relatively shallow, certainly within the scope of experienced divers.

'He also mentions that the weather was very calm all the way from off Cape Town to Durban.'

This almost certainly excludes rough seas and freak waves as a cause for the Waratah foundering at that position and time, even though Port St Johns can be known for freak waves. The 'fierce gale' was evolving considerably further south and had nothing to do with the final moments of the Waratah.

'Immediately on giving me the news I cabled you, but so far have received no reply; therefore I presume you do not put much faith in it.'

How could Captain Bruce blame them after the confusion he and his first officer had created in earlier witness accounts?

'However, it would not be much trouble for the launches from HM ships Pandora and Forte to run the drag'.

Again a commitment to an endeavour which could have turned out very embarrassing for a respected steamer master - IF HE WAS LYING, which I do not believe he was.... 


to be continued...

Port St. Johns

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