Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Waratah - Harlow summary.

In this blog I have studied the witness account of Captain Bruce (CB), SS Harlow and concluded the Waratah foundered off Port St Johns (Cape Hermes), 27 July, 1909. But the question remains; why did the Harlow not go to the aid of the Waratah?

Let's review the facts:

- The Waratah was the only large steamer which could have been astern of the Harlow, gaining on her steadily between 5.30 and 7.50 pm, 27 July. There were no other listed steamers of that size and speed in that location, at that time.

- CB made his judgement based on the steamer's twin masthead lights - smaller vessels had one.

- He estimated the steamer was making 13 knots (the Waratah's listed speed) relative to the Harlow's 9 knots.

- CB assumed the Waratah had come about and was attempting to return to Durban, and based this assumption on his observation she was producing smoke in excess of that which could be expected from her single funnel. He concluded the Waratah was on fire.

- But the fire was not of a serious enough nature to prevent the Waratah maintaining a steady course, making 13 knots.

- The volume of smoke associated with the Waratah, being blown by the prevailing wind towards the Harlow, was consistently associated with the approaching steamer, and did not originate from land.

- Bush fires onshore did however contribute to general smoke and light. Smoke produced from coal is dark (almost black) compared with the lighter shade of dispersed smoke-haze produced by bush fires.

- The description of the steamer's lights is highly specific - twin masthead lights and a port side red light - which excludes light from bush fires which create 'lines' of light on land, not out at sea and don't have port side lights.

- The Waratah was initially further out to sea relative to the Harlow, steadily closing towards the coastline (port side light visible but not the green starboard light).

- The Waratah had turned around out at sea and was making her way on a heading which would ultimately 'hug the coast' - as one marine expert of the time said 'in case Captain Ilbery needed to beach the Waratah'. Additionally, a course closer to shore would be faster, making use of the winter 'sardine' current and avoiding the counter Agulhas Current.

- The crew of the Harlow observed two flashes of light from the direction of the Waratah, the descriptions of which match distress flares (socket signals).

- Explosions were NOT heard despite the prevailing wind blowing from the Waratah to the Harlow, less than 4 miles astern.

- Shortly after the flashes, the consistent dense volume of smoke which had accompanied the Waratah for two hours, started to clear. Once the smoke had dissipated, the lights of the Waratah ('which had been shining brightly') were no longer visible despite the continuous bush fires onshore.

- The smoke and steamer lights had been consistent markers of the approaching Waratah over a period of two hours and the factors by which CB estimated the Waratah's speed. This was not a once off momentary sighting dispelling the notion of mirages, hallucinations and bush fire flares.

- Something catastrophic had occurred and the Waratah disappeared within a matter of minutes. The time was 8 pm, 27 July, 1909.

- It was dark out at sea and in all probability overcast, taking into account the time of year and the approaching cold front from the south. CB was confronted with a dilemma. If he came about, attempting to locate the Waratah, he would be faced with difficulties establishing her last exact position.

- The Harlow was not fitted with a searchlight.

- Although a cold front storm was developing far further south, the winter seas off Port St Johns are rough, which would make rescue efforts difficult.

- His search would further have been hampered by smoke from shore drifting over that segment of sea, compromising navigation and therein lay his next problem.

- The last position of the Waratah was estimated to be less than a mile offshore. There are a number of submerged reefs and rocks off Cape Hermes and Port St Johns, which would present a threat to the Harlow. CB no doubt considered the possibility the Waratah had struck one of these reefs, hence her rapid disappearance. Even if he was able to find the location where the Waratah sank, there was a significant probability the Harlow would strike the very same reef and founder. Maps of coastal regions, circa 1909 (even off the coast of the UK) did not have all reefs / rocks well demarcated and highlighted.

- The Harlow was a small tramp, cargo steamer with limited passenger accommodation. If they did indeed manage to find survivors in the water, how many could be taken on board and how many would have to have been left in the water?

- It would realistically have taken the Harlow about half an hour to come about and cover the distance to where the Waratah was last seen, by which time the likelihood of finding survivors was remote.

- CB realised there was in reality very little he could do to help, without placing his own crew at risk.

- When all was considered, the Harlow continued on her voyage and the fate of the Waratah was consigned to the perils of the seas.

- CB upon his arrival at Durban inquired if any vessels were overdue there. None had been reported.
This must have reinforced his belief that the steamer they witnessed could only have been the Waratah, which had turned around. His belief (which he later related) was confirmed when the Waratah was listed overdue at Cape Town.

- The disappearance of the Blue Anchor Line flagship was to capture the attention of the world, generating distress and hysteria alike. Cruisers were deployed at great expense to scour the coast and extend the search far out into the Indian Ocean. CB was no doubt overwhelmed by a sense of duty to share his witness account which appeared in the press.

- The Inquiry and even more so, the public, were likely to take a dim view of his decision to continue on course, ignoring obvious distress flares and making no attempt to locate the Waratah's last position and rescue any survivors - as remote as that may have been.

- CB and his First Officer carefully considered the best way to share their witness accounts without drawing negative attention to the fact that they had done nothing to assist a vessel in distress.

- CB needed to convey the essence of truth, preventing further expensive and lengthy searches at sea, and allowing families and friends of those lost the dignity of mourning, rather than holding onto false hope the Waratah was still adrift in the Southern Oceans.

- The owners of the Waratah planted a seed of doubt at the Inquiry suggesting bush fires onshore created enough smoke and light over the sea to confuse the crew of the Harlow, thus establishing doubt by conjuring up a 'mirage' of an approaching steamer.

- CB's First Officer 'ran with this ball' at the Inquiry and in the process significantly questioned his Master's judgement.

- I believe CB opted for a massive explosion as a likely cause for the rapid disappearance of the Waratah and went on to say that all souls were likely to have been killed. In one swoop he was released from the moral obligation to have searched for survivors. After all, there had been smoke suggesting a fire and a catastrophic explosion could account for the sudden disappearance of the steamer. But he contradicted himself by clearly stating that he had not heard explosions.

- CB's reliability as a witness was lost.

- If the Waratah had indeed exploded, there WOULD have been scattered debris, which was never discovered.

- The keepers at the Cape Hermes lighthouse did not report the sound of explosions. But why did the keepers not see the flashes?


- CB, who had demonstrated sound reasoning, establishing a plausible sequence of events and a convincing description of the Waratah, resorted to one blatantly misleading 'suggestion' to save himself and crew from the wrath of the Inquiry and the public. The seeds of doubt had been planted, confusion established, and his witness account much like that from the Guelph, relegated to the realm of the unsubstantiated.

- CB and his First Officer had overshot the mark, accounts which could not to be taken seriously.

- Fate placed the Harlow in the wrong place at the wrong time and dished up a smorgasbord of difficulties, hampering attempts to establish what had become of the Waratah or to rescue survivors.

- When all is said and done, the large steamship consistently gaining astern of the Harlow over the period of two and a half hours never overhauled her.



The Waratah, so near, yet too far

This is the 211th post, every one of them in memory of the brave souls lost with the Waratah.

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