Wednesday, 21 December 2016


It does not get more tantalizing than this Star newspaper report - dated 1980. 

If Waratah had made it this far and Mr. MacGahoy's discovery was accurate (see image below) she would likely have foundered around 5.40 pm, 27 July. This estimate is based on an average speed of 15 knots (2 added by the Agulhas Current). There are reasons why Mr MacGahoy's hypothesis is unlikely to be true:

1. There would be no reasonable explanation for Waratah to have been so close to shore, particularly with the barometer dropping and physical signs of the approaching cold front storm. In fact, Waratah would have been about 20 n miles out from shore, if still on course for Cape Town.

2. The brunt of the storm had not yet struck the flagship abeam of the Great Fish River. There was as yet no good reason for Waratah to have foundered, apart from the extremely rare event of a rogue wave (scend) so close to shore.

3. Many Liberty ships were torpedoed and sunk off the South African coast during World War II. Liberty ships had dimensions similar to that of Waratah - length 455 ft., beam 62 ft.. Easily mistaken for Waratah - see images below.

4. Waratah did not have a high forehead and stern, whereas the Liberty ships had high foreheads, if one can use that expression.

5. The Xhosa lad no doubt did see some ship sinking and distress flares sent up, but there is absolutely no verification in the report exactly where this took place and the date. Many ships have foundered along the South African coast and as tantalizing as an eye witness account is, I think we have to dismiss this one.

6. If the trend of the outflow of the Great Fish River into the sea is one of scour preventing silt accumulating over a wreck, why then has this hulk not been proved to be the Waratah instead of a Liberty ship?

However, having said all of this and of all the many World War II ships sunk off the South African coast (most considerably out to sea) I can find nothing of a Liberty ship sunk virtually in the mouth of the Great Fish River. 

While in the vicinity of the Great Fish River, I am reminded of a bizarre account by Mr. F.W. Lund at the Inquiry:

(3) Six or seven months after the "Waratah" was missing a man called at Messrs. Lund's office, giving a name which Mr. F. W. Lund thinks was Brendon, and saying that he was master of a ship called the "Talis." He told Mr. Lund that he, on the 27th July, 1909, was bound in ballast from East London to Valparaiso, and when about 25 or 30 miles out from East London, about 5 or 6 p.m., the "Waratah" came up and had to alter her course to pass under his stern. He said that he hoisted his number and asked to be reported, which the "Waratah" promised to do. There was, he stated, a heavy swell with a fresh breeze from the south. This gentleman gave the address of an hotel in London. 

Every possible attempt has been made to trace Mr. Brendon, but without result, and no better success has attended efforts made to discover a ship named the "Talis."

Apart from the fact that Mr. Lund could not recall vital elements (the name of the master and confirming details of his ship) he did remember some extraordinary specifics such as time, distance from East London, weather conditions etc. and no less than an officer on the grand Waratah agreeing to report his number. Personally I believe this was a magician's act of misdirection and although the said Brendon could not be located at said hotel, the seed of confusion was planted - and believed by some to this day.

If, and this is a very big if, there was some truth in the account as documented let's take a closer look. I have plotted on the image below where the 'Talis' (or sv Pallas as some attest) was likely to have been between 5 and 6 pm, 27 July. If Waratah had passed her as described, she was at this point about an hour to two hours behind my estimate of averaging 15 knots (as yet no problems on board). It is possible that, for some reason unknown to us, Waratah was only making 13 knots despite the favour of the Agulhas Current, this timeline could be feasible. If we return to the account of the Clan MacIntyre, however, we know that the wind (and Clan Mac would not have been far behind, having just passed East London at about 5 pm and further away from the influence of the frontal system) between 4 pm and 8 pm had shifted to the Northwest by North. The cold front was approaching rapidly from the southwest and a fresh breeze from the south at this stage of the game just does not cut it.

Clever, clever Mr. Lund. But I simply don't believe you.

Before we depart the shores of Algoa Bay it would be interesting to remind ourselves of a bottle-message discovered on Bird Island. 

"Now comes the intelligence from Cape Town to Buenos Ayres by a recently-arrived ship of the discovery of a bottle containing a message of despair from one of the passengers on the ill-fated vessel. If the authenticity of the epistle can be established, it forever dispels all doubts about the Waratah's end."

"The bottle with its weird message from the deep has been had been cast up upon the beach of Bird Island (located some 100m off the shore of Lambert's Bay), which lies between Durban and Cape Town, and is charted almost directly in the course the Waratah would have steered after passing the Port Elizabeth light."

"The message bears a signature similar to that of one of the passengers known to have been on the liner. It is brief and dramatic in its hopelessness. Securely corked and carefully sealed in a bottle, it bears the ship's name, and reads:--

"Ship in great danger. Rolling badly. Will probably roll right over. Captain is going to heave her to (bringing the vessel to a complete stop)."

"Later. If anything happens, will whoever finds this communicate with my wife, 4, Redcliffe-street, South Kensington, London."

(Signed) John N. Hughes.

Another hoax of the many which were to surround the tragedy of the lost Waratah.

Red Oak Victory (Liberty) ship - courtesy wikipedia

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