Sunday, 13 December 2015


The Search. 

The "Waratah" should have arrived at Cape Town on the 29th July, 1909. 

The first search was made by a salvage steamer called the "Fuller," despatched by Messrs. Lund from Cape Town on the 31st July. She was driven in by bad weather a week later. She searched some distance along the coast. About the same time the "Harry Escombe" tug left Durban in search of the vessel. She too was driven back by heavy weather. Captain Black, her master, stated that the waves 7 miles off the coast were running 30 feet high. The coast was also searched from the land side. 

Both immediate searches were called off due to bad weather. Areas covered, minimal.

The search was next taken up by three of His Majesty's ships, the "Hermes," the "Forte," and the "Pandora." A chart was put in showing their tracks, which lie roughly within that part of the sea included in a trapezium shaped area whose angles are Cape Town, Port Natal, a point 35º 10' S. latitude, 38 E. longitude, and a point 40º 15' S. latitude, 25º E. longitude. The search lasted from the 4th to the 22nd August, and within the area covered was exhaustive. It included a search right along the coast from Port Natal to Algoa Bay, and the ground where the officers of the "Tottenham" reported the presence of dead bodies on the 11th August was thoroughly traversed.

Unfortunately, by the time the area off the Bashee River, 'was thoroughly traversed', the bodies by the very forces of nature were not likely to be there. These, more comprehensive searches, were initiated 4 August, one week after the Waratah went missing. Any crucial evidence was lost with time, wasted.

The steamship "Sabine" was then chartered by the owners and underwriters, with financial assistance from the Australian Government. The Admiralty lent Lieutenant Beattie, with seventy-five naval ratings. The ship was equipped with a search light. 

The "Sabine" left Cape Town on the 11th September, 1909, and returned on 7th December. She searched as far south as the Crozets, and as far east as St. Paul's Island, the searchlight being constantly worked during the hours of darkness. The plan adopted was to apply the set and drift experienced by the "Waikato" to the assumed position of the "Waratah" at the time of breakdown. This position was midway between the Bashee River and the position of the "Waikato" on 6th June, 1899 (the latter was a point about 150 miles south of Cape Agulhas). Then the scheme was to cross and recross the track of the "Waikato," never getting too far ahead of the assumed daily position of the "Waratah." 

The "Waikato," it should be explained, was a steamship which broke down on the date, and in the position above mentioned, being picked up on 15th September, 1899, in about latitude 39º 20' S., longitude 65º E. it was hoped that similar good fortune might have attended the "Waratah," and as she was well provisioned, and had a large cargo of frozen meat and other edibles, all would have been well. 

Lieutenant Beattie carried out his programme, zigzagging continually across the line he had adopted as the basis of his operations, making in addition a most exhaustive examination of an area lying within a circle whose centre was 39º S. latitude, 40º E. longitude, and whose diameter was between six and seven degrees of latitude. This area lay south and east of that traversed by the three ships of the Royal Navy in August. Possession Island was visited on Sunday, the 24th October. No signs of recent habitation were found. On Friday, the 12th November, St. Paul's Island was visited, with a like result. The "Sabine" then zigzagged back to Cape Town, covering an area lying north of her previous chain of zigzags. The total distance covered by the "Sabine" was over 14,000 miles, within an area of about 3,000 miles. No wreckage of any description, save one piece of wood covered with barnacles, was seen. 

In addition to the search by the "Sabine," every eastbound vessel leaving Cape Town and other South African ports between the 2nd August and the 10th September, was asked to keep a look-out for the "Waratah." Such vessels included the "Suffolk," the "Suevic," the "Salamis," the 'Geelong," the "Narrung," the "Bergadorf," the "Tainui," the "Firth," and the "Oberhausen." Their tracks form another network within and beyond the area of the "Sabine's" search, and it is only reasonable to suppose that any other shipmaster in that neighbourhood, knowing of the "Waratah's" being missing, would have been on the alert. 

The whole search has been fruitless in any positive result, but it establishes the moral certainty that the "Waratah" did not break down and drift, or that if she did, she succumbed at some point to the heavy weather which was frequently met with by the "Sabine." It is the carefully considered opinion of the Court that, so far as certainty can be attained in human affairs, no person survives of those who left Durban in the "Waratah." 

Searches were unparalleled, but unsuccessful. One does wonder if there was a motivation beyond rescue. Let us for a moment return to the possibility of a significant tonnage of gold and silver on board the Waratah, when she disappeared. Don't you think that this may very well have been a hugely motivating factor??

Harry Escombe tug (courtesy Flickriver)

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