Thursday, 10 December 2015


I think it can be safe to say that I have explored every inch of the Harlow theory in the course of this blog. I am going to list salient points. Apologies to those who are bored to death by this:

- Captain Bruce claimed that the Waratah foundered less than 4 nautical miles astern of his tramp steamer SS Harlow, +/- 8 pm, 27 July, 1909. (see image below)

- the witness account took place over two and a half hours. It was not a momentary 'mirage' created by bush fires.

- in this time a number of factors were established; large steamer (two masthead lights); steaming at 13.5 knots / gaining on the Harlow; producing excessive smoke; and which disappeared after two flashes of light.

- NO steamer overhauled the Harlow.

-  there was more than one witness including Alfred Harris.

- a navy officer on a cruiser witnessed a burning steamer off Cape Hermes.

- the two flashes of dazzling red light, as high as 1000 ft., persisted for up to two minutes. Explosions do not produce this effect, and neither do intermittent flareups of bush fire.

- one of the modes of sending out a distress signal, circa 1909, was to create a contained fire on deck (oil in a drum). This might have contributed to the confusion regarding bush fires and smoke.

- the large steamer did not explode; wind blowing from her towards the Harlow carried no sounds of such.

-  the position of the Harlow and large steamer +/- 8 pm, 27 July, are subject to some controversy. Initially alleged between Cape Hermes and the mouth of the Umzimvubu River, but probably about 3.247 nautical miles further up the coast. Captain Bruce could have confused the mouth of the Nkadusweni River with that of the Umzimvubu (St Johns River)

- charred wreckage discovered at Port Alfred some time after incident. No other associated reports of burning steamers.

- Captain Bruce of the Harlow, insisted at a later date, that he had witnessed the end of the Waratah.

- a heavy, overloaded steamer with hull strain and fire damage, would 'disappear' quickly.

- no other alternative theory has as much circumstantial evidence.


The only circumstance which does lend some weight to this suggestion is the bunker fire on the first voyage, which has already been dealt with at length (see ante); but if the repairs mentioned were properly effected, a second outbreak of fire from the same cause was extremely unlikely.

The following extract gives details of the cause of the fire:

 'Mr. Ryan, the former senior fourth engineer of the "Waratah," was examined as to the circumstances of the fire. He said that it was over the after set of boilers and near the engine-room, in the 'tween decks; that no coal was destroyed in putting out the fire, that the bulkhead over the engine-room was pretty warm, but that the bunker plates never got distorted.'

 "The fire was caused by the heat from the several reducing valves and steam valves in the recess on the starboard side of the engine-room. The roof is insulated, but at the back of the reducing valves for steering engine and starboard side of the engine-room is not. As it will only be a small job, it would be advisable to have it done here." 

That work was done in Sydney to the engineer's satisfaction. 

It is an assumption that localised repairs, such as those carried out above, addressed any further areas of heat insulation deficiency. It raises questions regarding the overall quality of construction, if such a vulnerable area was passed by surveyors. It seems obvious enough that such a deficiency would ultimately result in the fire detailed above. The mere fact that it was referred to as a 'small job', implies that repairs were localized and no attempt made to address a greater problem. 'A second outbreak of fire from the same cause was extremely unlikely', is a naive statement, to say the least.  

On the whole, and in view of the much greater likelihood of the ship having met disaster in the storm of the 28th July, the Court is not disposed to regard a bunker explosion as the cause of her loss.

An explosion, perhaps - a fire, yes. 

The theory put to the Court by Mr. Bucknill was that she was an unstable ship, and that she capsized. The question of her stability has been very fully discussed, and all the opinion the Court can express has been set out in the answers to the Board of Trade questions. 

A number of vessels, including modest, heavily laden tramp steamers, survived the storm of 28 July. Waratah was heavy, but GM stable. There was absolutely no circumstantial evidence to prove that she capsized in this storm due to instability.

Where so little is known the range of conjecture is wide. It would be idle to discuss in detail all the many guesses which might be made to account for the loss of this ship. It must not, however, be supposed that the Court has lost sight of other possibilities merely because they are not set forth here. Every suggestion which could be extracted from the evidence, or evolved from the long experience of the Court's technical assessors, has been carefully considered. 

The Court was confronted with an unenviable task. There was no concrete evidence pointing to the cause of the catastrophe. The Court had limitations, which may or may not have been compounded by undue influence from certain parties......


No comments: