Monday, 27 July 2015

Waratah - 'red light distinctly seen'.

Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton) Tuesday 14 December 1909
The captain of the British steamer, Harlow, declares that on the evening of July 27, when about 8 hoursout from Durban, he sighted a steamersmoking fiercely. She appeared, to thecaptain of the Harlow, to be steaming muchfaster than his own vessel, and he couldsee her red light distinctly and two masthead lights. 

This day, 106 years ago, the Waratah bade farewell to the steamer SS Clan MacIntyre (off Cape Hermes). This was to be the last official exchange with the Waratah before she steamed out of sight in a more southerly direction than the course tracked by the Clan MacIntyre. 
Crew of the Clan MacIntyre first sighted the flagship proceeding closer to shore at about 4 am. The Waratah was then seen to change course, heading in a more southerly direction, until she was a short distance from the Clan MacIntyre at about 6 am, when signals were exchanged. Continuing on her more southerly course, the Waratah (faster by at least 3 knots), crossed the bow of the Clan MacIntyre from starboard to port and faded out of sight by about 9.30 am.
What became of the Lund liner after this remains in the realm of conjecture. There are a number of well known theories attempting to explain her disappearance, but readers of this blog will know that I believe that a fire on board and the ferocity of an approaching cold front gale, forced Captain Ilbery to bring the Waratah about, a valiant attempt to navigate the Waratah and her souls safely back to the protection of Port Natal.
To cut a long story shorter, Captain Bruce of the SS Harlow, maintained (even when those around him wavered) that he sighted what could only have been the Waratah coming up astern in the vicinity of Cape Hermes at dusk (roughly 5.30 pm). The steamer was a good distance astern, but Bruce immediately was given the impression that she was large and faster - but more importantly, displayed visual clues there was a fire on board.
By 8 pm, the steamer astern disappeared after two flashes of light were witnessed by at least 3 crew members on board the Harlow. In this report, Captain Bruce clearly saw a port side red light associated with the steamer before she disappeared. I have mentioned that it is unlikely that bush fires and the light from Cape Hermes lighthouse could mimic a red port side light and two white masthead lights. 
In order for the crew of the Harlow to have seen a red port side light just before the steamer disappeared (4 to 5 miles astern) suggests that the Waratah was either further out from shore relative to the Harlow or:
- the crisis on board reached a catastrophic level and an attempt was made to approach shore off the mouth of the Umzimvubu River, with a view to beaching the Waratah and landing her souls. The currents, sandbar and reefs presented a very real danger which probably outweighed the potential success of beaching the Waratah safely at that location. My feeling is that the Waratah had approached too close to the sandbar / reefs forcing Captain Ilbery to reconsider and alter course away from shore. This would have given the crew of the Harlow an oblique port-side view of the Waratah, and 'seen her red light distinctly' shortly before she went down.   
I believe the Waratah struck an object, her hull integrity failed and she foundered rapidly; described by the crew of the Harlow, 'once the smoke cleared, there was no sign of the steamer'.
In my opinion, by the close of 27 July, 1909, the Waratah had foundered off Cape Hermes.

the inaccuracies depicted in this image add to the mystery surrounding the great ship. 



Mole said...

Thanks for this super post, Andrew. All Waratah enthusiasts must be thinking of the big liner gliding out of Durban harbour, never to be seen again, apart from a couple of chance encounters by other vessels such as the Clan Mac. There is real Waratah weather on the coast at present, appropriately in time for the anniversary. It is so often the case. The Waratah and her souls sail on in our memories. It would almost be a pity if the truth of her final hours was ever to be discovered. The mystery remains and we are pleased with it.

andrew van rensburg said...

The Waratah and her souls certainly do sail on in our memories.