Friday, 13 February 2015


During the course of the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah, the following witness account was given:

'He gave similar evidence to the other witness about the boat rolling in the Bay of Biscay. The Waratah could not ride heavy seas, and the engines shook the vessel so much that the gear of the aftermast became loosened.' 

Apart from the references to the Waratah 'rolling' and not being able to 'ride heavy seas', the engines allegedly vibrated to an extent that the 'gear of the after mast became loosened'. This phenomenon could also explain why a bolt from one of the upper decks came loose hitting the cook in the galley below; gaps appeared in the superstructure and a steel ladder spanning three decks snapped in two during a calm spell at sea.

Previously I believed short-comings in the construction of the Waratah might have resulted in the above, but excessively vibrating twin engines might actually have been the cause. The Waratah was fitted with quadruple expansion steam engines. At the time this was thought to be an improvement on the successful predecessor, the triple expansion steam engine. As it turned out, the full potential of quadruple expansion engines could never be achieved due to inadequate steam pressure provided by boilers of the time. The enormous weights in quadruple expansion engines, reciprocating at high speed, imposed severe stresses on all parts, including the ship's hull. Under full steam the engine room was a very uncomfortable place to be due to the noise and heat generated by these monster engines. Overheated bearings required hosing down with water which together with oil, sprayed everywhere. The quadruple expansion engines were disbanded in favour of a new development in engines, the steam turbine engine. However, the triple expansion steam engine which had proved both reliable and efficient was continued in many vessels for years to come.

This revelation confirms that the above witness comment was probably true. It seems from the literature that the Waratah was fitted with problematic engines which could be considered a developmental failure. It is strange that none of the other numerous witness accounts at the Inquiry referred to unusual vibrations emanating from the engines. I would think under normal, economical operating conditions the engines' vibrations were not as noticeable on the upper decks. 

Irrespective, the literature claims that quadruple expansion engines caused hull strain, which clearly was one one of the main reasons why they were discontinued. The constant vibration would set up a similar vibration within the rivets potentially causing them to snap and brittle hull plates to crack. This is undoubtedly a recipe for disaster in a steamer already overloaded and with a history of grounding at Adelaide. Captain Ilbery probably took these factors into consideration when deciding to come about rather than subjecting the Waratah's hull to further, undue strain confronting the severe storm developing further to the south. Striking a reef or other object would have been the last straw for a stressed hull and the Waratah would have foundered within minutes.


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Waratah - why weren't lifeboats launched?

Not a shred of physical evidence from the Waratah was discovered after she disappeared, 27 July, 1909. There are anecdotal reports of a cushion with the letter 'W' and a deckchair washed up onshore, but these were never confirmed as originating from the Waratah. There were certainly no reports of lifeboats from the Waratah discovered adrift. It has intrigued 'Waratah Watchers' over the decades how a 465 ft. steamer could possibly disappear without a trace. It is not difficult to understand why the theory of the Waratah being swamped by a rogue wave became so popular. If this had been the case, the Waratah could have 'flipped over' and gone down like the proverbial stone. Under such circumstances, there would have been no residual evidence.

I choose to believe the Waratah foundered off Port St Johns and being a heavy, overloaded steamer, if she had struck a reef she would have gone down within minutes. If there had been a fire on board (progressively out of control) the crew would have been occupied with this crisis below decks and the passengers advised to remain in cabins. By 8 p.m. 27 July (mid-winter) conditions off the Wild Coast were cold and gusty. Even in the absence of an overt storm, most movables would have been adequately secured or stored away. Under such circumstances the Waratah would have slipped beneath the waves without a trace.

The question is raised; 'why were no lifeboats launched after the Waratah struck a reef?'  The obvious answer is there was not enough time to mobilise passengers and crew. Compounding the situation, the Waratah probably listed significantly which would have prevented both passengers and crew moving safely to the lifeboats and the complex operation of launching the lifeboats, a nearly impossible feat. Lifeboats need a relatively horizontal plane from which to be successfully launched. To further complicate matters the following reports emerged in the press after the loss of the Waratah: 

"Another witness declared that the ship's boats
were rotten, and that no proper boat drill
was carried out."

"At Cape Town, when going alongside the wharf a boat on
the port side was taken on board, and it
took 14 men to do it, because the davits
were so stiff. The same thing occurred
when taking a starboard boat on board
alongside the wharf at Port Adelaide.
These were the only two boats moved
while he was on board."

Stiff davits could have prevented the successful launching of lifeboats under the best of circumstances and certainly prevented any of the lifeboats from coming adrift while the Waratah foundered. There were 16 lifeboats capable of accommodating 787 people; one further boat capable of carrying 29 people and three patent rafts which could support up to 105 souls. There can be no argument, as in the case of the Titanic, that there were insufficient lifeboats. But the sad reality is this; unless circumstances were ideal and enough time available, these boats were useless.


These lifeboats pictured on the Titanic illustrate the complexity of launching - entangled ropes being a further hindrance.