Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Waratah - numerous wrecks and hazardous lifeboats.

The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) Tuesday 19 March, 1912

THE collision between the Germanbarque Pisagua and the P. and O. linerOceana, adds another to the list of deepsea tragedies which have occurred within the last few years. The rapid progress in shipbuilding and the enormousincrease in the size of the vessels constructed in recent years has beenaccompanied by shocking disasters. Theloss of the Waratah, the Pericles, theYongala, and other large steamers well known in Australia have been emphatic reminders that the terrors of the deep have been by no means overcome by modern shipbuilding and navigation.
(This is an important reminder that shipping accidents were far more common than they are today, and the loss of the Waratah was not unique. It was the mysterious nature of the tragedy which captured public attention.) 
The details of the disaster which befellsubmarine A3 had only just reachedAustralia, when news of the founderingof the Oceana, a fine steamer wellknown in the Indian passengertrade, came to hand by cable. Itwas a sensational experience for thepassengers to leave London for Bombayand in a few hours be back in London,clad only in their sleeping clothing,after having escaped from one of themost thrilling wrecks of recent years.
(It is extraordinary to read the words 'sensational experience' and 'thrilling wrecks' in the context of a tragedy at sea. It goes some lengths to explain the public hysteria surrounding the loss of the Waratah and the bizarre practice of hoax bottle messages. The tragedy could be ignored in favour of 'thrill seeking'.)
The wreck of the Delhi only a fewmonths ago showed what dangers thereare even in waters that are familiarto mariners and on coasts which arewell lighted and charted. The accidentto the Oceana had all the features of a tragedy of the first magnitude, steaming down the Channel in the early hours of the morning, when no doubt passengers and crew were taking a last look at the lights which mark the English coast, or settling down comfortably in their cabins after the excitement and strain of embarking on a long voyage and the farewelling by friends, no one was prepared for so thrilling an adventure. To be rammed by a barque would he a terrific shock, and the hull of the liner must have been cut like a box.
(Again the words 'thrilling adventure' are used, incongruous in the context of 'hull of the liner must have been cut like a box'. The writer also reminds us that even in well lit and charted waters, accidents could happen.) 
In the meantime the Oceana musthave been filling with water and sinkinglike an old hulk that had been torpedoed, in spite of bulkheads and other appliances which are supposed to make modern passenger steamers almost unsinkable.
(A very important observation, despite double hulls and watertight compartments, steel steamers could go down like 'an old hulk'.)
Passengers are not aware of half of the risks they run or the dangers they pass through. It is necessary to withhold a great deal from them for their own personal comfort, and even for their safety. Happily, the coolness of the officers on this occasion and the comparative calmness of the passengers, in circumstances which were rather disquieting, saved the situation. No doubt the nearness of the shore possibly with some cheering light in view, had pacifying effect.
(This gives a very realistic insight into how little information was given by officers to passengers in times of crisis on board, including fires. It appears that the belief was that passengers should know as little as possible until the last moment of boarding lifeboats. This may in fact have had an adverse effect, triggering panic instead of preparation and orderly evacuation.)
The disaster which befell the first boatlowered was a shocking affair; worseeven than the cutting down of theOceana herself. Had the boats beensuccessfully lowered it is probable thatthere would have been no loss of life.It is astonishing how many accidentsthere are in lowering boats in time ofdistress. One would think that theworking of the boats would be a dailyexercise on a vessel, if only for thepurpose of testing the tackle and keeping it in order. How seldom is boat drill seen on any vessel ! 
(The Waratah was not alone, it seems, when it came to criticism leveled at the condition of lifeboats and boat drill. It is unfair to single the crew of the Waratah out for failing to organise routine boat drills, as alleged. What might seem like negligence in the modern era, was perhaps the order of the day circa, 1909. Regulations were no doubt improved upon over time, and particularly after the Titanic disaster, which was about to take centre stage the following month, when the shortcomings of lifeboats came into shocking, world focus.) 
It is not uncommon, too, to see steamers trading on the Australian coast with very questionable looking boats provided forcases of emergency ; even then theyappear to be more like fixtures thanappliances for getting ready in a hurry.Leaky boats with rotten tackle describes the life-saving appliances on not a few passenger boats which carry hundreds of lives.
(This paragraph simply reinforces the limitations of safety consideration for passengers and crew, 1912.)
To what extent the accident to thefirst boat was responsible for the lossof life in the Oceana-Pisagua collisioncannot be said on the informationreceived. The cable messages indicatethat it was this mishap and not thecollision itself that was the direct causeof the fatalities. No doubt there willbe some investigation which will showwhether the equipment of the boatswas all that it should be. 
The cause of the collision will also be the subject of a searching inquiry. These proceedings, however, are small comfort to thefriends of those who lost their lives.

I am relieved that the writer chose to end his commentary by reminding us of 'small comfort to the friends of those who lost their lives'. 'Thrilling adventure' could not have been further from the minds of those who suffered.

SS Oceana - 6610 tons, built 1888, Belfast. 468 ft. in length almost the same as Waratah's 465 ft.

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