Friday, 25 April 2014

Anecdote Saturday - SS Waikato 'impossible to reach land'.

Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 - 1918)   Friday 13 August 1909


'Mr. J . A. P. Turnbull, who was second
officer on the s.s. Waikato when she was
adrift for 103 days in the same sea as the
Waratah is supposed to be, and is now a
resident of Glenorchy, supplies the following'

"The Waikato was a steamer of about
5000 tons, bound from London to Wellington,
New Zealand. On the night of 5th June, 1899,
we were suddenly aroused by
a terrific noise in the engine-room, the engines
running away with a loud buzzing
noise, and the ship vibrating horribly."

"When at last she was shut off and all examination made,
it was found that the tail-shaft
had snapped in the stern-tube, in a place
impossible to repair at sea without cutting
the stern-tube and tipping the ship, an experiment
our engineers would not risk in stuck in a rough and unsettled part of the

"The Waikato carried a fair amount of
square sail on her foremast, and we were
able to rig a small jury-mast as a main
mast, but they might just as well have
been set on the flagstaff, as they were continually
blowing away without giving the
ship steerage-way: and, though several sea
anchors were tried, none of them were successful
in keeping the ship's head to sea,
and she drifted broadside to the seas, rolling continually."

"Luckily for us, she made such a broad, smooth wake
going sideways, that some of the force of the seas
was reduced before reaching us. But it
was anything but pleasant to have big Cape
rollers tumbling down on us, looking as if
they must roll right over us. However,
no serious damage was done."

"At the time of our breakdown we were
120 miles from Cape Agulhas, and suggestions
were made that a boat should be sent
to try and make the coast, but the
captain and officers thought that it would
be almost impossible to reach land again,
the strong Agulhas current that runs down
the South African coast past Port Natal
East London, and Algoa Bay, so there was
nothing for it but to wait in hope of being picked up."

"At night we had a huge flare-up, consisting of
a large iron drum on the upper deck, with a coal fire in it.
On this, at short intervals, oil was thrown,
which blazed up, lighting up the sky for
miles around."

"The current took us at first in a westerly direction,
and then shot us all down south to latitude 40deg.,
the ship drifting as much as 60, 80, or 100 miles a day.
Some days when we expected to be driven north by
the gales we would find instead that we
were miles south of the previous day's position."

"We were, adrift for 52 days without
sighting a sail, rolling and wallowing all
the while between latitudes 36deg. and 46
deg. south, gradually working east."

"On the 103rd day the tramp steamer
Asloun hove in sight, and at last our long
wait was to be ended in long. 60deg. east,
lat. 41 deg. south."

"After drifting about 2500 miles, and 1800 miles
in an easterly direction, going round in squares, circles,
and triangles, and crossing our own track
seven times, we were really in tow at last,
heading for Fremantle."

'The Waikato's hull was undamaged, with the exception of
the loss of a good many of our deck fittings.
Oil was used with very good effect
when the seas were extra high."

''From our experience I should think
that it would be almost impossible for a
well-founded ship like the Waratah to go
down, as our packet was only a cargo boat,
and she withstood over three months' buffeting
from some of the heaviest seas found
in any part of the world."

"It is not improbable that  the Waratah has met
with a singular mishap."

"I think we spoke six sailing ships during our drift, all having been
attracted by our flare-up."

"Judging from our experience I feel confident that the
Waratah would not drift to the north, but
in a south-easterly direction, immediately behind
the track of steamers and sailing-ships
bound for Australia, and in that case there
is every probability that she may be heard
of before many weeks have passed."

One of the theories explaining the disappearance of the Waratah relates to this experience of the Waikato. It is conceivable the Waratah sustained mechanical problems of such a nature that she drifted at the mercy of the Agulhas Current and then retroflected south in an arc, finally catching the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) flowing eastwards.

There is argument that the ACC flows further south during the winter months, compared with that experienced by the Waikato, and the vessels sent out in search of the Waratah followed the Waikato's coordinates and not the current. The Waikato was sighted by no less than six vessels during her drift.
Vessels, circa 1909, sailing from the Cape to the Antipodes made use of the ACC, thus 'creating' the seasonally shifting shipping lane. I doubt very much whether the Waratah could have escaped detection by other vessels between Cape Hermes and Cape Aghulhas, and thereafter along the favourable track of the ACC to the Antipodes.

SS Waikato

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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