Monday, 18 January 2016



(5) Subsection (1) of section nine of the Merchant c.48. Shipping Act, 1906, (which requires the master of every British ship to enter in the official log book a statement of every occasion on which boat drill is practised on board the ship) shall be amended by inserting at the end thereof the words "and if, in the case of a passenger steamer, boat drill is not practised on board the ship in any week, the master shall enter a statement of the reasons why boat drill was not practised".

The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 March 1910. the Commercial Travellers' Conference yesterday there came up the question of the safety appliances provided, and the boat drill carried out, on interstate steamers. The association had inquired during the year of the Marine Board and the Australasian Steamship Owners' Association as to what the regulations as to boat drill and appliances on interstate boats were. The Steamship Owners' Association answered that the companies provided in their regulations for boat drill to be carried out at frequent intervals, and to be logged when carried out. The Marine Board answered that the regulations made under the British Merchant Shipping Act as to the appliances to be provided had been adopted by the British colonies; and in New Zealand boat drill had been made compulsory. By the laws of the various Australian States, which in the past controlled navigation, no boat drills were required. But in the Federal Navigation Bill which had been under consideration, 1904, it was proposed that regular boat drill be made compulsory. The Commercial Travelers' Conference on this letter being read to, yesterday decided without hesitation that it strongly approved of the proposal forthe Federal Navigation Bill. The chairman said that he been travelling for 20 years on interstate boats along the coast, and had never seen a boat drill yet. Other members said that although ships might be certified as having proper appliances for normal travel, they had known them occasionally to carry holiday traffic, for which there were apparently extra lifeboats provided.

During the time period preceding and subsequent to the Waratah disaster, legislation governing boat drills on commercial passenger vessels was a gray zone. Boat drill was encouraged but not enforced, prompting the above amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act. If boat drill was carried out, it had to reflect in the vessel's log and if routine boat drills were not carried out, reasons had to be given / logged. But note, boat drills were not compulsory, even though  a Bill to this effect was under consideration from as early as 1904. The interstate shipping organizations of Australia took this further by agreeing to enforce the Bill, March 1910, making me to wonder if the Waratah disaster had influenced this decision. It is interesting to note that the 'chairman' had never witnessed boat drill during 20 years of sea travel along the Australian coast. 

It was widely quoted by passengers that boat drill was not carried out on the Waratah during her 4 voyages. Boat and fire drills were not compulsory. But why would a conscientious Captain Ilbery and his officers neglect this critical component of safety at sea?

The following is an extract from a period newspaper by a lady passenger:

Cairns Post, Monday 11 December, 1911

They started to let the lifeboats down into thewater, and it gave us such afright. I thought there was a manoverboard, but we afterwards foundthat the sailors were only goingthrough boat-drill. Another day wewere having dinner, and all of asudden the siren blew. The stewardsleft us and scampered down ondeck. After having shut the water-tightor fire-proof (I don't know which) doors, we all looked at each other with scared faces, wonderingwhat was wrong. 
But it was only the usual fire drill.

This extract gives us two important clues. 

- Passengers were not used to boat and fire drills on large steamers. This confirms the above 'chairman's' comment that boat and fire drills were not routinely carried out on many large ocean-going steamers (over a 20 year period). 
- Lady passengers found the drills very unsettling and exhibited 'scared faces'.

The Waratah had a justified reputation for top heaviness and unsteadiness during her first voyages. Captain Ilbery was acutely aware of conversations circulating among passengers on board regarding this sensitive subject. If he had ordered routine boat and fire drills this might have reinforced fears about the seaworthiness of the new steamer. It was probably considered pragmatic to avoid drills (which were not enforced by legislation) and keep ticket-paying passengers happy and nerves at bay.
The Waratah was considered unsinkable due to her double hull and water tight compartments which is a further reason why boat and fire drills were probably not carried out. 
The following image relates to the SS Imperator, with an additional caption:

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