Saturday, 11 June 2016


Having established a more accurate picture of Captain Bruce's coordinates,

I believe it is time to put the relative positions of Harlow and Waratah into perspective. In order to achieve this I need to return to a post which appeared on Waratah Explained blog:

The author of this blog is both an experienced mariner and well known for attention to accurate detail. He states that Captain Bruce first noticed Waratah (large steamer), indicated by significant dark smoke, astern at 5.30 pm 27 July, when Harlow was 12 to 14 miles southwest of Cape Hermes and the Waratah roughly abeam of Coffee Bay. Waratah was further out to sea relative to the Harlow which was coasting 1.5 to 2 miles offshore. 

During the subsequent 2 1/2 hours, Waratah gained steadily on the Harlow, an estimated speed of 13.5 knots relative to the Harlow's 9 knots. 

By 8 pm, 27 July, Harlow was roughly 4.5 miles northeast of Cape Hermes, when Captain Bruce, his chief officer and Alfred Harris (chief engineer) observed from the port quarter, two distinct flashes of light emanating from Waratah, which by this stage was significantly closer to shore - see image below.

The coordinates widely quoted in the press for Waratah's last position place her 0.5 miles offshore, 1.6 miles astern of Harlow - see image below.

In addition to the fact that Waratah was smoking fiercely - due to fire or pressing her under powered quadruple expansion engines - the three separate men observed two white masthead lights, and the port side red light. Red light is the colour least readily seen at night - green light is seen three times further. This makes the report all the more convincing in terms of being the port side light, rather than the green starboard light. Individual visual acuity limitations due to health issues cannot be attributed to both Captain Bruce and Alfred Harris. Further to this, the separation distance between the two vessels was less than 2 miles (1.6 miles) which would have made the colour red distinctly visible.

Why was Waratah initially further out to sea relative to Harlow and then in the final moments significantly closer (0.5 miles) to shore? Why was Waratah's attitude relative to Harlow heading virtually southward in order for the red port side light to be visible rather than the green starboard light?

I believe that there was a problem, probably fire, on board Waratah, hence an attempt to return to Durban. There is a possibility that Captain Ilbery considered weighing anchor in Gordon's Bay (off the Umzimvubu River) in an attempt to land his passengers, but due to current conditions and the sand bar at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River, not to mention problematic lifeboats which required a number of men to mobilise from chocks, altered course back out to sea hence being 0.5 miles offshore by 8 pm, the attitude of Waratah heading in a south to southeastward direction to regain the inner steamer track (avoiding reefs etc). 

There is also the desperately unsettling notion that Captain Ilbery was trying to get as close to Harlow as possible, for assistance. 

I have always steadfastly believed the two distinct flashes of light were socket signals (distress), misinterpreted or ignored by the crew of  Harlow. After the flashes of light and when the smoke had cleared, the distinct twin masthead lights and port side red light had vanished.

Waratah had gone down 3.247 miles northeast of Cape Hermes, 0.5 miles offshore. 

Note the immediate backdrop to the position of Waratah (yellow marker) is rocky elevation rather than brush. Bush fires mimicking Waratah and the flashes of light just don't cut it.

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