Thursday, 12 February 2015

Waratah - why weren't lifeboats launched?

Not a shred of physical evidence from the Waratah was discovered after she disappeared, 27 July, 1909. There are anecdotal reports of a cushion with the letter 'W' and a deckchair washed up onshore, but these were never confirmed as originating from the Waratah. There were certainly no reports of lifeboats from the Waratah discovered adrift. It has intrigued 'Waratah Watchers' over the decades how a 465 ft. steamer could possibly disappear without a trace. It is not difficult to understand why the theory of the Waratah being swamped by a rogue wave became so popular. If this had been the case, the Waratah could have 'flipped over' and gone down like the proverbial stone. Under such circumstances, there would have been no residual evidence.

I choose to believe the Waratah foundered off Port St Johns and being a heavy, overloaded steamer, if she had struck a reef she would have gone down within minutes. If there had been a fire on board (progressively out of control) the crew would have been occupied with this crisis below decks and the passengers advised to remain in cabins. By 8 p.m. 27 July (mid-winter) conditions off the Wild Coast were cold and gusty. Even in the absence of an overt storm, most movables would have been adequately secured or stored away. Under such circumstances the Waratah would have slipped beneath the waves without a trace.

The question is raised; 'why were no lifeboats launched after the Waratah struck a reef?'  The obvious answer is there was not enough time to mobilise passengers and crew. Compounding the situation, the Waratah probably listed significantly which would have prevented both passengers and crew moving safely to the lifeboats and the complex operation of launching the lifeboats, a nearly impossible feat. Lifeboats need a relatively horizontal plane from which to be successfully launched. To further complicate matters the following reports emerged in the press after the loss of the Waratah: 

"Another witness declared that the ship's boats
were rotten, and that no proper boat drill
was carried out."

"At Cape Town, when going alongside the wharf a boat on
the port side was taken on board, and it
took 14 men to do it, because the davits
were so stiff. The same thing occurred
when taking a starboard boat on board
alongside the wharf at Port Adelaide.
These were the only two boats moved
while he was on board."

Stiff davits could have prevented the successful launching of lifeboats under the best of circumstances and certainly prevented any of the lifeboats from coming adrift while the Waratah foundered. There were 16 lifeboats capable of accommodating 787 people; one further boat capable of carrying 29 people and three patent rafts which could support up to 105 souls. There can be no argument, as in the case of the Titanic, that there were insufficient lifeboats. But the sad reality is this; unless circumstances were ideal and enough time available, these boats were useless.


These lifeboats pictured on the Titanic illustrate the complexity of launching - entangled ropes being a further hindrance.

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