Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Waratah - 'the stuff of legend', 1935.

Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, Friday 28 June, 1935

Unknown Fate of British Liner inStorm-Swept Ocean.
On July 26, 1909, the Blue Anchor liner Waratah left Durbanfor Capetown. Ten hours later she was spoken to by the ClanMaclntyre and passed on into a night of raging storm, to be heard ofno more. 
Many experts who knew the Waratah and were acquainted withher behaviour in heavy seas have held that she capsized andsank during one of the severest storms ever experienced off theSouth African coast. This is the story of her ill-fated voyage untilshe was sighted by the Clan Maclntyre (told by D. B. Somervillein the Auckland 'Weekly News.').
There has been no more perplexing, no more tragic mystery of the sea than the disappearance of the steamer Waratah soon after the vessel left Durban, South Africa, nearly 26 years ago. The liner which was less than a year from the builder's yards was considered one of the finest British ships afloat, literally vanished from the face of the ocean. taking 211 people to a nameless grave.
The Waratah was the latest addition in the Blue Anchor Line, a finelooking vessel of 10,000 tons fitted with twin screws. She had beenbuilt specially for the passenger service between England, South Africa, and Australia, and was on her second homeward voyage when she disappeared from human ken. 
She carried more than sufficient boats to accommodate her passengers and crew in the event of an emergency which allowedenough time to launch the boats safely. Her commander on the ill-fated voyage was Captain Ilbery, the senior officer of the line and a seaman of wide experience.
Ignorant of the terrible fate which was soon to overtake her, the Waratah sailed from Sydney en June 26, 1909, and called at Melbourne and Adelaide before commencing the long voyageacross the Indian Ocean to Durban. During the voyage the liner experienced four days of exceptionally heavy weather, but she behaved splendidly, and steamed into Durban on July 25.a day ahead of schedule.
Some of the passengers disembarked at Durban, but when the liner left on the following day, Monday, July 26 for Capetown, she had a total of 211 people on board, including 92 passengers, 53 of whom had travelled from Australia, and 39 who had joinedthe vessel at Durban. There were 40 women and 22 children among her passengers.
According to schedule, the Waratah should have reached Capetown the following Thursday. Ten hours after sailing out of Durban harbour, the Waratah was sighted by the Clan McIntyre, when one of the most violent storms experienced on the coast was brewing. 
The Clan Mclntyre, which had arrived in Durban from New Zealand ports to replenish her bunkers several days before, the arrival of theWaratah, had resumed her voyage about three hours in advance of the ill-fated Blue Anchor liner. The Waratah was signalled with flagsat 6 a.m. on July 27. She was steaming at about 12.5 knots, about 2.5 knots faster than the Clan Mclntyre. As the Waratah overtook the Clan steamer, the usual courtesy signals were exchanged. The Clan McIntyre asked;
'What ship are you?' and the response came: 
'The Waratah for London. Who are you?' 
The other ship replied: 
'I am the Clan Mclntyre for London. What kind of a voyage have you had from Australia?' 
Back came the reply: 
'Strong south-west and southerly winds across.' 
The Clan Mclntyre signalled: 
'Thanks. A pleasant passage. Goodbye.' 
The final message came from the Waratah:
'Thanks. The same to you. Good- bye.'
The Waratah passed on, churning her way through a moderate sea — to disaster. At about 9.30 a.m. she had passed out of sight of the Clan Mclntyre, and shortly afterward the wind changed and freshened. 
By evening the wind had increased to a strong south-westerly gale, accompanied by high seas, and during the storm reached hurricane force and raged with unabated fury for 15 hours. Small coastal vessels made for shelter, and their crews told of a night of unprecedented violence with the sea and elements.
The Clan Mclntyre weathered the storm and eventually reached London. It was only then that the master, Captain Weir, learned that the Waratah had failed to reach Capetown, and that she had been swallowed up in completely baffling obscurity. He learned with surprise that he had been the last to converse with the captain of the Waratah. which he found had been, missing since the night of thestorm.
At the time of the disappearance, of the Blue, Anchor liner there was no wireless communication between ships and there was a certain amount of doubt in some circles as to whether the ill-fated vessel had been spoken after leaving Durban. However, it was fairly definitely established that it was the Waratah with which the Clan McIntyre last communicated with signals in the wide wastes of the 'roaring forties' but to no purpose. 
Everything was done that could be done to locate the Waratah. It was all tragically and terribly unavailing. The list of the vessel has, through the intervening years, been the subject of much theorising and conjecture.  Apparently the nature of the liner's superstructure and deck fittings encouraged the theory in some quarters that she might be top-heavy.
However, the Durban harbour officials were emphatic that, when the Waratah left port she was well  trimmed and absolutely stable. In addition, Captain R. H. Shepherd, who had handled the Waratah in a high gale on her first visit to Durban, discounted the theory that her superstructure tended to make the vessel top heavy.
The findings of the nautical inquiry were issued in February, 1911. The principal clauses were as follows: 
The Waratah was lost in a gale on July 28, 1909. The Court was inclined to hold that she capsized. The Waratah was manned considerably in excess of Board of Trade requirements.
The actual cause of the vessel capsizing has never been definitely established, but theories that have evolved around this point would fill books.
It is on record that, at the inquiry, Captain George Phillips, who was at that time chief officer of the Clan Mclntyre expressed the opinion that the Waratah 'lost steerage way, swung broadside on to the storm, and turned turtle.' The evidence on which Captain Phillips based this conclusion was given in the following statement byhis nephew, Mr. C. Jones. It appeared in the Johannesburg 'Star' about five years ago.
'The weather outside the harbour was extremely 'dirty' but before long it became worse, finally reaching a stage where it was the worst my uncle — who had served his apprenticeship on that most famous of sea clippers, the Cutty Sark— has ever known during his sea-going career. The Clan Mclntyre bucked her way round the coast like a frightened horse. The morning of July 27 (28), 1909, dawned coldand dull, with a tremendous gale blowing and the sea rearing high above the vessel.
'For the past 24 hours the Clan boat, at full steam ahead, had notshifted her position, being unable to make headway against the mountainous seas. Captain Phillips (then Mr.) was keeping double watch on the bridge in company with the third officer. At about 9 o'clock, when the weather lifted slightly, be sighted alarge vessel on the starboard bow, about two miles distant. On communication being established, the vessel proved to be the Waratah. She was rolling badly, but being a faster boat, had overhauled the Clan Mclntyre, which, as she passed, wished her the best of luck on her homeward voyage.
Soon 'she was lost to sight again, never again to appear in human ken. The point at which the two boats signalledone another would be somewhere off the Transkei coast.'
The following statement was made some years ago by Mr. Percy Trim, of Kimberley, the son of the captain of the tug which escorted the Waratah from Durban harbour, and appeared in the same paper.
'Amidst cheers, music from the ship's band, calls and shouts, thisproud vessel swung in the channel and slowly moved her way through the pier heads. My father's tug followed her up behind, his duly being to see her clear on her way and take off the pilot. To anyone familiar with sea craft, the Waratah had somehow anominous look about her. While proceeding out to sea my father passed the remark, 
'If that ship strikes bad weather she is doomed.' 
'Why, dad I asked.' 
'Just then the Waratah caught the full heavy swell of the bar and it was truthfully a case of looking down her funnels (funnel) — the frightful roll she took.'
My father then made his reply, 
'If that ship should get out of control in a bad storm, she will turn completely over and slowly sink.' 
'We followed her out a good way and let down the boat ready to catch the pilot. So frightful was the roll of the Waratah that the pilot clamouring down the side had to make a wild and blind leap of many feet from the rope ladder into the waiting craft alongside. And after the pilot got aboard the tug all three of us stood on the bridge and watched the Waratah, and the pilot remarked: 
'Trim. I do not like the look of the Waratah; she does not seem built for heavy weather.' 
'I never did see another ship like her in all my 50 years at sea,' replied my father.
And then the Waratah gave a final farewell blast from her siren and my father replied with three blasts from the tug as a farewell.'
Of course, the loss of the Waratah produced the almost proverbial 'premonitions,' which always make themselves evident after a disaster of this nature. During the intervening years there have been several occasions on which derelicts, believed to be the Waratah have been reported off the South African coast. None of these reports have been substantiated. 
In June 1933, it was reported that a marine surveyor, who had left Durban in an aeroplane to attempt to locate an obstruction on the bottom of the sea off Umgababa River, coast of Natal, had sighted a large, dark object, 165 ft. long and 45 ft, broad, which, it was suggested, might be the Waratah. This theory was discounted after investigation for several reasons, the chief being that the lost liner was last spoken 150 miles southward, and that the Waratah, with herhigh deck fittings, would have been easily visible periodically in the 60 ft. of water where the supposed wreck lay. The explanation for this object seen, if it was the wreck, was that it may have been the Trichera, which was last heard of in 1903. She carried a load of sleepers from Bunbury, Australia.
The story of the Waratah remains that of another victim of the relentless ocean, which still holds the secret of this tragic mystery.

This is a fascinating anecdotal account, written 26 years after the Waratah was lost. It is clear that Waratah 'hysteria' had by no means diminished over the years, and exaggerated stories handed down through the generations. 
It is interesting to note, from this account, that the Clan MacIntyre departed Durban 3 hours ahead of the Waratah, which makes sense given the differential speeds of the two vessels. It also suggests that both vessels made reasonable time to the vicinity of Cape Hermes.
Mr Jones, the nephew of Captain Phillips, claimed that 'The morning of July 27, 1909, dawned cold and dull, with a tremendous gale blowing and the sea rearing high above the vessel'. This was highly exaggerated, as the brunt of the cold front storm was only met much later in the day and ensuing night. He probably meant 28 July.
Mr Jones also claimed that 'for the past 24 hours the Clan boat, at full steam ahead, had not shifted her position, being unable to make headway against the mountainous seas.' It seems a bit odd, considering that the Clan MacIntyre made Cape Hermes by 6 am. She could hardly have been 'stationary' since departing Durban.
Both Captain Weir and officer Phillips (as he was then) claimed at the Inquiry that the Waratah, when sighted, was upright, and proceeding steadily. But as the story got passed down, it was a 'badly rolling' Waratah which greeted the Clan MacIntyre on the morning of 27 July.
Mr Percy Trim of Kimberley took exaggeration to almost ludicrous lengths. It is quite clear from the records that when the Waratah departed Durban she was upright and stable. Alleging that they could 'look down the Waratah's funnels', and 'the pilot had to leap blindly to the safety of the craft', smacks of exaggeration and untruths which were to become reality in the minds of generations to come. To set the record straight, Alexander Smith Duthie was the master of the Government tug, Richard King, not Mr. Trim. Hugh Lindsey was the Port Pilot who did NOT leap from the Waratah in blind faith!
As for the wreck of the Waratah being sighted off the Umgababa River, 1933, this was quickly reigned back to reality by dimensions clearly not matching those of the Waratah.

This image is similar to that of the Trichera.  Built in 1860, by Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast, the Trichera was an iron barque of 1003 gross tons, 200 ft. in length (not 165 ft.). Owned by  A. Olsson, Gothenburg, the Trichera ran aground in the vicinity of the Umgagaba River, 31 May, 1905, en route from Bunbury, Western Australia to East London with a cargo of hardwood timber. 8 souls were lost.


Mole said...

Ah yes, embellishment is the stuff of legend. There has always been an apparent compulsion for people to associate themselves (or friends or relatives) with the Waratah story, often without a shred of proof in their anecdotal versions. This desire to be part of a great historical event continues to this day. It is so interesting to find that the Waratah was being discussed in such a lively manner in the 1930s, throwing caution to the winds as to embellishment of the facts. I do so much enjoy these newspaper extracts you offer on your blog, Andrew.

speedbird said...

Quite a bit of exaggeration here of course. Leaping in blind faith? Worst storm in 50 years? Looking down her funnel? None of that is truQuite a bit of exaggeration here of course. Leaping in blind faith? Worst storm in 50 years? Looking down her funnel? None of that is true. I've always felt Waratah was a well-built liner which proceeded down a path of events which lead to her loss. I'm sure the circumstances were extraordinary. Any disaster is an unbroken chain

andrew van rensburg said...

I agree, a multitude of sequential factors probably led to the final outcome. Waratah was in keeping with steamers of the time - progress circa 1909 had its limitations and there is a plethora of marine disasters and stories from that era. However, what makes the Waratah mystery so unique??