Thursday, 22 December 2016


I have just read A.A. Hoehling's fascinating 'Lost at Sea'. He devoted a chapter to the Waratah, headed 'Safe as a Church'. Biographical summary:

Adolph August Hoehling (1914-2004) was a writer and military historian. He worked as an editor, journalist, and author. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and it was his experience there as a lieutenant commander of the Armed Guard on merchant vessels that provided inspiration for his memoir, "The Fighting Liberty Ships." He published at least thirty titles of historical non-fiction, focusing on the Civil War, the Great War, and World War II.

A.A. Hoehling graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Was a reporter for the Washington star in the late 1930s. During World War II served aboard minesweepers and blimps and was an armed guard for merchant vessels. After the war was a journalist for the Portland telegram. Was a freelance writer of articles and stories with maritime and naval history themes.


Mr. Hoehling was clearly a remarkable man, both writer and journalist as well as experienced mariner. I am going to devote the following posts to commenting on extracts from his section on the SS Waratah.

Claude Sawyer:

Was this man a credible witness or given to exaggeration and a certain degree of hysteria based on his visions of a doomed Waratah? He claimed that 'as usual Waratah had a slight list to starboard (when she departed Durban for the last time) and was never upright'. The following is an extract from the Inquiry:

John Rainnie 

Port Captain, Port Natal 

So far as I could see when that ship left Durban, I do not think it was top-heavy. She was not at all "tender." I observed that when the ship was leaving the wharf she had no list whatever, and when our tug commenced to pull upon it, it seemed to have no effect in the way of creating a list. We often see, if when we take hold of a tender ship with one of our heavy tugs, that she at once lists to the pull. But there was nothing of that in the case of the "Waratah." 

I have not the slightest doubt that when the vessel left the Port of Durban she was far "stiffer" than when she arrived at this port two days before.

It is a toss-up whether we are to believe Mr. Sawyer or the Port Captain of Port Natal. Frankly, Mr. Rainnie was called as one of the expert witnesses and I doubt very much if he was inclined to lie about the Waratah. He was not a stake-holder in the Blue Anchor Line and had his professional status and position to uphold. To go so far as to suggest that he was influenced in some way to fabricate Waratah's condition would be leaping into the realm of unfounded conspiracy theories.

Sawyer claimed to have had three visions warning him of the fate which lay ahead for the Waratah.


Claude G. Sawyer 

Director of Public Companies. (A successful man)

Booked by the "Waratah" from Sydney to Cape Town with option to continue to London at a cheaper rate. 

Left the ship at Durban, forfeiting his passage money to Cape Town, a sum of eight guineas, and the right to cheaper fare to London. 

Accustomed to ocean travelling. Had been on twelve ocean steamers within nine months. (A man experienced in sea travel)

It is not surprising that the Court of Inquiry took Mr. Sawyer's statement seriously given his credentials and experience at sea - not to mention that the Waratah had in fact vanished without a trace. 

Mr. Sawyer experienced three visions of an apparition clasping a sword in one hand and bloody cloth in the other, warning him of the doomed Waratah. A.A. Hoehling fleshed this out by adding that Mr. Sawyer was not sure if the 'three visitations' were visions or nightmares and allegedly considered the possibility that the visions were 'during daylight', in which case they would have been hallucinations, suggesting some form of mental disorder or being under the influence of an hallucinogenic. Either way, credibility out the window in one foul swoop.

On Mr. Sawyer's return to England (Phoenix Lodge Mansions, Brook Green, London) he intended to visit a doctor about what he attributed as 'pains of neuritis'. What exactly this meant is in the realm of speculation. It does however imply that Mr. Sawyer was not well and could have been suffering from diabetes, hypothyroidism, thiamine deficiency, an autoimmune disorder. All of these conditions could very well have affected his judgment and treatments, circa 1909, might have induced hallucinations and paranoia.

Medicine, 1909, was not what we take for granted today as this period article illustrates

Cairns Post.

Neuritis is the inflammation of a nerve 
or group of nerves, and its principal 
symptom is pain. Sometimes the pain 
is sharp and,boring, sometimes it is 
shooting, and in some cases there is 
a numbness of the affected nerve.

This is a generally accurate representation of neuritis, although the symptoms do overlap with other disorders such as pinched nerves in the lower back. The following is where matters start to become hairy:
The disease becomes evident as part
of a general condition of debility; when 
the blood becomes thin and weak it 
cannot carry sufficient nourishment 
to the nerves. 

Possibly to some extent thiamine deficiency, but far off the mark in most causes of neuritis and neuropathy. Here comes the all-cure....

The tonic treatment is especially 
effective in cases of neuritis, and 
many other forms of nervous trouble
The first effect of the treatment is to 
build up the blood.
To build up the blood there is one
remedy, which, during a generation,
has remained unsurpassed, and that 
is Dr. Williams' Pink Pills. 

Oh dear, all is lost. Nowhere in the extract are ingredients of the 'Pink Pills' listed and how are we to know that side-effects did not include visions of swords and blood and a conviction that the Waratah destined for the bottom? In fact if hallucinations were caused either by the underlying disorder or the pills themselves, such disturbances of reality could have led Mr. Sawyer to claim that Waratah 'wobbled about a great deal when going through disturbed water'. Don't forget that during the final voyage Waratah was exceptionally heavy (+1300 tons of lead concentrates in a lower hold), and if anything did not 'wobble'. Such claims included:

- 'heeled over till the water was underneath...and remained so long' (while Sawyer was on the boat deck).

- 'the angle of his bath water had slid off to an angle of 45 degrees'. Gross exaggeration.

- 'did not get a satisfactory answer when asking officers about the angle of list'. Paranoia.

- deciding that he 'better be off that ship' 10 days out of Durban. Mounting paranoia.

- sharing his visions with Mrs. Hay and encouraging both herself and daughter to disembark Waratah at Durban. Scare-mongering based on a personal conviction of the truth of paranoid beliefs.

- harrassing Captain Ilbery about the state of his ship. Actions of a man not in full command of mounting paranoia and progressively losing of a sense of gentlemanly discretion and decorum, which was one of the demanded social graces expected on the upper decks, 1909.

Mr. Sawyer was not a well man and although entitled to his opinion of the Waratah, took it too far. Unfortunately Waratah was lost and his testimony immediately gained some form of validation. I do not believe in 'psychics' foretelling the future and it remains, in my mind, a sad coincidence that Sawyer's prophesy was played out in tragic consequence.

Claude Gustav Sawyer


Anonymous said...

You keep mentioning Waratah had 1,300 tons of lead concentrates in the lower hold, yet in all your many earlier blogs you always stated 1,000 tons of lead concentrates but now you make no mention of where the extra 300 tons came from or 330 tons to be correct, as the ships manifest clearly shows 970tons shipped in Adelaide. Can you help on this one.

andrew van rensburg said...

This is a very good question. A blog, in my case, has been a process of knowledge evolution. Later posts will naturally have greater understanding of the mystery that was Waratah. The 1000 tons of lead concentrates (or 970 as you have more accurately quoted) was standard blurb on this subject. At the Inquiry it was well documented that all forms of cargo were NOT accurately listed on respective port manifests and great confusion was caused by trying to correlate these items and weights for the Court. Given this background, the additional tonnage of lead did not appear on official documentation. Stanley Robinson claims that he has documentation to prove that 500 additional tons of lead were loaded at Adelaide. A general trend in period newspaper reports quoted 300 additional tons of lead. I am inclined to go with the latter for the simple reason that the concentration of dead weight lead steadied the inherently top heavy Waratah, but created a jerky recovery. This phenomenon was also noted in the case of Yongala, another inherently top heavy steamer. Pig iron was added to steady her but also created a jerky recovery when there was no deck cargo to improve the recovery pattern. Waratah had a jerky recovery on the passage to Durban from Adelaide. I believe that Captain Ilbery intentionally loaded approximately 300 tons of coal on the spar deck to reduce the GM from 1.9 ft. to about 1.5 ft. and thus do away with the jerky recovery, but still maintaining stability. It seems more feasible that if 300 tons of coal were added to the spar deck this offset the approximately 300 tons of additional lead lowest down. I don't think that we shall ever fully know the truth about the extent and accurate figures of cargo and ore on Waratah, and at the end of the day does it matter significantly apart from the one unassailable fact that when Waratah departed Durban for the last time, she was stable in terms of GM but very heavy indeed - with a reduced buoyancy factor, which may or may not have contributed to the disaster.

Anonymous said...

300 tons of lead, that solves my problem thank you.