Thursday, 13 March 2014


dazzling red distress flare

Captain Bruce at the Inquiry:

”At about 5.30 p.m. on the 27th July, he was to the southward and west of Cape Hermes, proceeding on a N.E. by E. course, at a distance from the coast varying from 1 to 2 1/2 miles. He saw smoke about 25 miles astern, which he took to be from a fast steamer coming up behind him."

The Harlow averaged 9 knots compared to the Waratah's 13 knots.

"Later, about 7.15, he saw two masthead lights and a red light, right astern, about 10 or 12 miles away. The lights were at times obscured by the smoke, which was blowing forward."

'Right astern' at 7.15 implies that the 'Waratah' was further out to sea relative to the Harlow. 

"About 7.50 p.m. the master of the Harlow went to consult his chart. When he returned a short time after, he saw two quick flashes astern, one of which went about 1,000 feet into the air, and the other about 300 feet. The flashes were narrow at the bottom, widened out as they ascended, and were red in colour."

"He heard no noise."

"His own eyes were dazzled with the strong light in the chart-room, and he asked the chief officer, who was on the bridge, where the steamer's lights were. The reply was that they were again obscured by the smoke."

The chief officer's response implies that at that time he believed that there was a steamer astern, otherwise he would have said 'what steamer's lights', I only see bush fires onshore.

"No steamer overtook the Harlow, although, judging by the rapidity with which the following ship had hitherto come up, she should have overhauled the Harlow."

"Long after, on hearing of the loss of the Waratah, Captain Bruce arrived at the conclusion that her bunkers had fired, she had turned back to Durban, the nearest port where the fire could be dealt with, and, when between Cape Hermes and the St. John's River, near the Hole in the Wall, she had blown up."

These locations caused confusion. I believe that Captain Bruce confused the Nkadusweni River mouth with that of the St John's River (Umzimvubu), which makes sense in context of the coordinates he offered to the press. Hole-in-the-Wall is about 40 miles southwest of Cape Hermes, which further created confusion, although relatively speaking it is 'near'.

"Of course, such an occurrence is within the range of possibility, but there are several circumstances which tell against its probability in this case. The wind was blowing from the direction of the flashes to the Harlow, and such a violent explosion ought to have been heard as well as seen."

Agreed. But explosions are conclusive in terms of survivability.

"Reports were received from the light keepers at the Cape Hermes Lighthouse. They saw no flares or fires at sea."


"Another circumstance is that a bunker explosion would probably have taken effect inwards, and is not likely to have destroyed the floating power of the vessel so suddenly as to prevent boats being lowered."

Unless the boats were difficult to mobilise which was suggested by witnesses at the Inquiry.

"It is to be noted that the chief officer of the Harlow does not support Captain Bruce in his account of what he thought he saw. The chief officer says that what Captain Bruce took for a steamer's lights was really the flare of a distant bushfire, several of which were visible at different heights, some on the hills, and some low down towards the shore."

He changed his story. Why?

"The chief officer adds the pertinent observation, with which the Court agrees, that had any steamer on fire been in the vicinity, she would have been sending up rockets and signals of distress, and these would have been easily distinguishable from the bushfires and flares."

Unless the two witnessed flares (persistent dazzling red light) were in fact distress socket signals.

"The facts that Captain Bruce made no attempt to verify what he believed himself to have seen, and made no report at Durban, indicate that he could not at the time have attached much importance to his observations."

Or he felt guilty not going back to investigate...

"The only circumstance which does lend some weight to this suggestion is the bunker fire on the first voyage, which has already been dealt with at length (see ante); but if the repairs mentioned were properly effected, a second outbreak of fire from the same cause was extremely unlikely."

Not if repairs were localised.

The Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah started 18 months after the Waratah disappeared.
I have pieced together the sequence of events as best I can, accepting the limitations and putting forward my own analysis. There are however inconsistencies which we simply cannot ignore.
Captain Bruce was an experienced master and he was not likely to have made an assumption that a large (some sources), fast steamer making lots of smoke was gaining on the Harlow over an extended period of time, unless he was mentally unstable, which I do not believe to be the case.

"Later, about 7.15, he saw two masthead lights and a red light, right astern, about 10 or 12 miles away. The lights were at times obscured by the smoke, which was blowing forward."

These two sentences are very specific and informative - certainly not the observations of an hallucinating master. It is highly unlikely that bushfires onshore would be seen maintaining a course approaching rapidly astern, producing smoke 1 to 2 1/2 miles out at sea, and displaying 'masthead lights'. The court was far too lenient on  the chief officer's account. Captain Bruce was familiar with the coast and the winter brushfires. It is inconceivable that he would confuse the two very distinct and separate entities. The description of the 'flashes' of light do not equate with brushfires - 'dazzled his eyes in the chart room'. If there were brushfires creating this dazzling red light, the light would have persisted on and off for much of the voyage along the coast, given the frequency of brushfires onshore. Furthermore the flashes came from astern (sea) not the shore.

Captain Bruce also makes a jarring error in equating 'Hole in the Wall' (Coffee Bay) with 'between Cape Hermes and St John's River' (Port St Johns), 40 miles apart. Clearly this was not an error he was likely to make under oath unless he WANTED his statement to be misleading and confusing. But no one at the Inquiry questioned the 'hole in the wall', Cape Hermes inconsistency. Why did Captain Bruce claim that the Waratah had exploded when he 'heard nothing' - the wind was blowing the smoke from the direction of the 'steamer' to the Harlow? Captain Bruce's chief officer fundamentally accused his master of being delusional or at the very best, a man of exceptionally poor judgement.

However, Captain Bruce made one particularly loaded statement:

...."he asked the chief officer, who was on the bridge, where the steamer's lights were. The reply was that they were again obscured by the smoke."

This is a blatant acknowledgement on the part of Bruce that his chief officer at that point in time concurred with his assessment of a steamer astern. If not, the chief officer would have responded to the effect that there had NEVER been masthead lights obscured by smoke, only bushfires onshore. Why would they have misconstrued such vital evidence? They had witnessed the Waratah in distress, but had done nothing about it. Between the two of them, they created enough doubt with their conflicting witness accounts, almost guaranteeing the Inquiry would disregard the veracity of the collective account - thus 'letting them off the hook'.

The inconsistencies of these and other accounts at the Inquiry point to murky waters. Were any of the witnesses, including Captain Bruce and his chief officer subjected to some form of pressure regarding their testimony? It certainly would not have been in the Blue Anchor Line's best interests if the Waratah 'had exploded off Port St Johns'. With the sensationally mysterious loss of the magnificent Waratah, there was an awful lot at stake:

The reputation of the Blue Anchor Line.

The misery of desperate families and friends of those lost.

The insurance implications.

A mystery that had captured the public attention, spinning virtually out of control in the press.

Captain Bruce and his chief officer needed a justification for not going to investigate the area where the steamer's lights were last seen and 'needed a way out'.


steamships - NOT on fire

bush fires - with tears in my eyes......

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