Monday, 29 February 2016


The Argus (Melbourne) Wednesday 11 August, 1909.

Mr O. C. Beale commented on the maiden voyage:

'Captain Ilbery', says Mr. Beale 'is a watchful, earnest and cool commander, who maintains excellent discipline without a display of authority. His Chief Officer, Mr. Owen, was considered by his colleagues to be an exceptionally accurate and careful navigator. Chief Engineer Hodder himself received the whole of the machinery when it was erected in the ship, and the entire mass was delivered in 36 hours, while she was under the sheer-legs. It is a magnificent installation throughout of the most modern type, and it worked with perfect smoothness throughout the voyage. Upon the trial of the Waratah a portion of the main steam-piping was considered by Mr Hodder to be inadequate, and it was removed on his advice, and replaced by more reliable work. During our voyage a fire broke out in one of the coal bunkers and it was subdued by the staff without flooding the bunkers, which probably have been the last resort had serious danger threatened. The Waratah carries much top hamper, because of her numerous decks far above the water, her enormous funnel, many boats, and rafts, water tanks and some few stores. Nevertheless she was very stable during the whole trip. 'Fiddles' were scarcely once required on the tables, and on my dressing-table pot plants stood the whole voyage.'

It is heartening to come across positive character references. There has been a tendency to point a finger of blame at the master and crew of Waratah. Thank you Mr. Beale for setting the record straight!

In all the many posts on this Blog, little has been said about the copper used in the steam pipe system. Mr. Hodder recognised flaws as early as when the Waratah went on trials. It is common sense that flaws could have had catastrophic consequences. It is assumed that the problem was solved before the Waratah entered into service. But this was not the case: 

"The Waratah did have one small repair carried out here, but it was of so insignificant a character that the cost did not exceed 3 pounds 15 shillings.  Mr Booth (of R Booth and Son, engineers, Greyville), who effected the repair, as being the removal of a suction pipe from one of the auxiliary feed pipes, from what is known as the Weirs pump to the heater, which raises the temperature of the condensed water preparatory to its being fed again into the boilers."

"The job was quite a small one, and was needed owing to a fracture which having occurred in the pipe - a copper one - due to a flaw in the metal. This took place some time before the steamer's arrival in Durban, on the voyage from Australia."

The removal and replacement of the 'suction pipe' was carried out at Durban during Waratah's final voyage. The 'fracture' pointed to a flaw in the copper used in the pipe's construction. This indicates that the full extent of the problem noted by Mr. Hodder at trials, was not thoroughly attended to. It took three complete voyages for the problem to manifest. This shortcoming in construction points once again to inherent faults - relating to a limited budget or not. It is not surprising to me that this issue was not raised at the Inquiry. Every effort was made to steer the Court's attention away from inherent defects in the Waratah. 

Mr. Beale outlined the Waratah's significant top hamper and drew attention to the enormous size of her funnel. By the time the SS Ballarat, Waratah's successor, was constructed a significantly smaller funnel graced the steamer. No one wanted a repeat of the Waratah incident.

Mr. Beale claimed the voyage was smooth and pot plants on the table remained in place. This statement certainly flies in the face of comments describing a list to outrageous degrees which would have had objects sliding off tables en masse. 


Northern Times, Saturday 1 January, 1910

From Durban October 28, 

....a passenger by the s.s. Suevic
writes to a Melbourne friend, as
follows :- "The feeling at Durban
and Cape Town is unmistakable that
the Waratah has gone down. Many
theories are advanced, but the most
favored is that by some means a hole
was made in her hull, and that she
filled and sank. The absence of
wreckage is explained by the set of
currents seawards, and the failure of
any of the ship's boats to reach land
by the extraordinary heavy sea running 
at the time. Anyway, one does not meet 
a person who expresses any
hope whatever as to her recovery."

One assumes that the prevailing opinion at the time regarding the Waratah's disappearance would have centred around issues of stability, top heaviness and the storm of exceptional violence. However, 'most' people thought that a 'hole in the hull' accounted for the Waratah foundering. Further to this there was a logical explanation for the absence of wreckage.

Why then did passengers and crew not have time to escape the sinking ship in lifeboats?

The Waratah was very heavily laden and a sudden breach in the dull hull would have caused her to founder quickly. The Wild Coast is aptly named, particularly in winter months. Currents and swells would have made the rapid launch of lifeboats a both treacherous and challenging operation. I doubt whether crew would have had enough time even if they could mobilise the lifeboats from the chocks (previous reports of difficulties requiring a number of seamen). The Waratah was prone to falling into a list and under such critical circumstances I doubt whether lifeboats could have been launched from a significantly listing Waratah.

What could have caused a significant 'hole in the hull'?

- striking an uncharted rock pinnacle (or a protrusion of the St John Reef)
- striking partially submerged wreckage
- striking dynamite
- hull failure due to dead weight, fire damage, prior damage (grounding at Adelaide) etc.  

Sunday, 28 February 2016


The Argus (Melbourne) Saturday 6 November, 1909.

LONDON, Nov. 4.
The "Lloyd's Register" shipping report,
just issued, shows a sinking decline of
shipbuilding, both British and foreign.
The vessels classified by Lloyd's in 1908-9
numbered only 834,984, compared with
1,484,722 classified in 1906-7.
The total tonnage under construction in
June last in Great Britain was only 53
per cent of the quantity under construction 
at the same period of 1906.
(It is well to note, in regard to the above
message that the depression which began
at the end of 1907, when the American financial
crisis had an unsettling effect, is now
passing away. Since May there has been
a marked change in the trade returns of the
United Kingdom in the important ship-building 
trade. "The Times" noted as early
as July 10 that the prospects were much
better than at the beginning of the year.)
Orders for new tonnage were being placed
freely, and the number of ships idle at
lying-up berths was being greatly reduced.

This illuminating article might explain why short cuts were taken in the construction of the Waratah. The wishlist for the flagship stretched beyond the budget price of 139 900 pounds. The result? Lack of adequate heat insulation, engine room (fire 1908); 'boltheads broke loose'; 'wooden structure moving bodily athwart the ship'; 'saloon door separated from the ironwork'; 'the gear of the aftermast became loosened'; 'a steel ladder spanning three decks snapped in two' etc.

It might also explain why structural modifications were not carried out on Waratah's return from her maiden voyage. The Lunds had to keep the original steamer in operation come what may until the financial crisis lifted?

This article also ties in with the important controversial issue whether there was significant gold on board Waratah during her final voyage. A previous post reinforces the comment made about 'the American financial crisis' and explains why there could very probably have been gold on Waratah, despite relatively low production during 1909:


The Advertiser (Adelaide) Tuesday 21 September, 1909.

Optimistic views as to the possibility of
the Waratah being yet safely towed to port
are held by Mr. R. H. Shepherd, a pilot
from Durban, who is now on a visit to
Adelaide. Interviewed by a representative
of "The Advertiser," he said:
"I know the Durban coast and the currents well, 
and have had a long acquaintance with Captain Ilbery, 
of the Waratah. It has been taken for granted by some
people that the Waratah has capsized.
Many remarks have been passed to the
effect that the vessel was unstable and
unseaworthy. I do not know how her
cargo was stowed on her last voyage, but
I heard there was a lot of silver concentrates 
in the hold. 

Lead concentrates are widely quoted, so how could silver enter the picture? 

'Silver-bearing ores are mined by open-pit or underground methods and then are crushed and ground. Since virtually all the ores are sulfides, they are amenable to flotation separation, by which a 30- to 40-fold concentration of mineral values is usually achieved. Of the three major types of mineralization, lead concentrates contain the most silver'.

Interesting! Recover lead, get silver.

However, she went out of Durban on her last trip 
drawing 28 ft. 9 in., and, speaking as a practical seaman, I
say that no question of her instability entered 
anyone's head there. 

Of course. She was heavily laden - note that Mr. Shepherd was careful not to refer to functional overloading in any shape or form.

I boarded the vessel five minutes before she sailed out
of the harbor to say good-bye to the captain. 
There was no coal above the deck.
The coaling foreman at Durban was loud
in his complaints because he was obliged to
load his coal all down one hatchway. This
points to the fact that all the coal bunkers
were full, which would make the vessel
more stable. 

If the 'tween deck coal bunkers were full this would be an accurate statement. The Waratah was peculiar in that 'tween deck coal decreased stability, and were not used for that purpose on the final voyage. Captain Ilbery had overcome the stability problem by not using those bunkers for coal, but rather cargo at a reduced weight per square foot. must look at the position from the point  of view that 
would be adopted by a prudent seaman like Captain Ilbery. 
What would he do under the circumstances? He was off East London, 
the barometer was low, presaging a storm of unusual violence. 
There were two alternatives, one to make his way back to Durban 
for repairs, and the other to continue his voyage. If he did the latter, naturally his 
instincts, developed by long experience on sailing vessels, would be to put as much blue water 
between him and the coast as possible. Thus, when he was due at Port Elizabeth it
was possible for him to be 60 miles from the coast.  At this time the gale was exceptionally 
severe, and it raged for upwards of three days.

There is no doubt that Captain Ilbery was aware of the approach of a storm of exceptional violence. With a fire on board rather than mechanical trouble, it is logical that he would have brought the Waratah about and attempted to return to Durban. 
It has been stated by a visitor that there
is a possibility that the Waratah may have
had the misfortune to strike some floating
dynamite. Mr. Shepherd stated that a few
weeks ago half a hundredweight of dynamite 
was jettisoned from a vessel, and was
subsequently observed floating in the ocean
along the Durban coast. ''I had an experience once," 
he said, "with floating dynamite, when a few pounds 
of it was caught in the propeller of a vessel, and exploded, 
tearing a hole in the hull and doing
damage to the extent of £1,500. If the
Waratah struck the jettisoned dynamite,
which floats for weeks before sinking, with
her propeller, it might account for her being posted as missing."

Striking dynamite off Cape Hermes would certainly have caused major damage and probably flashes of light. There has to be a reason for the large steamer foundering rapidly. This one is as plausible as any.

Also see:

Saturday, 27 February 2016


The Advertiser (Adelaide) Monday 20 December, 1909

.................or she has gone down in such 
circumstances as would prevent wreckage 
being washed ashore A mariner of long 
experience whom I met at Port Elizabeth 
made a statement which has an important 
bearing on the question. He said that there 
were many indications that the AguIhas bank, 
which extends for some distance from the 
south-eastern and southern coast of Cape Colony, 
is a quick-sand. If this be the case, it would
swallow up the remains of any wreck that
occurred in its immediate vicinity, and no
trace of the disaster would remain to show
what had occurred............

If the wreck of the Waratah lay readily exposed on the seafloor, there is a strong possibility that she would have been discovered by now. This extract highlights the challenges confronting any team searching for remnants of the wreck off Cape Hermes, or elsewhere. From what I understand, the challenge identifying wrecks beneath the seafloor (covered in sediment) relates to differentiating iron in rock from that of a steamer hull, using a magnetometer. This paper gives an important insight into the complexity of the task:

Friday, 26 February 2016


The West Australian, Saturday 13 April, 1912


- To the Editor.

Sir, Now that the missing Koombana
may certainly be listed as lost, like the
Waratah and Yongala, the travelling public
might very well be interested in studying
for themselves the simple proposition of stability
in ships.This proposition lies buried
in scientific jargon as far as the man in the
Street is concerned, and can easily be 
demonstrated in ordinary language. 

It is a long time since Archimedes proved that a
floating body is exactly the same weight as
the water it displaces. A steamer with
whatever cargo or ballast she may have in
her is exactly the same weight as the water
she displaces. The water she displaces is
what would fill the cavity. Her weight and
shape impose below the water line or surface
of the water exactly in the centre of this
cavity, which in the floating ship is called
the vessel's centre of buoyancy, and through
this centre there acts an upward pressure
from the sea in its endeavour to become
level against the weight of the ship.

When a steamer is floating upright, this centre of
buoyancy lies amidships in a vertical line
or plane, dividing the vessel in two. If
one thinks of  a partition being built from
stem to stern amidships from the keel forward, 
then in this partition lies in the centre
of buoyancy when the steamer stands upright, 
and it lies nearly half-way between
the keel and the water line.

The water line is a imaginary line or plane joining
from side to side through the vessel the 
surfaces of the surrounding sea. Not any of
the painted lines on the hull are alluded
to as the "water line." When a steamer
heels over; that is lists or rolls from side to
side, part of her hull comes out above the
level of the sea on one side and another part
sinks further in on the other side. When
this happens the centre of buoyancy changes
position in the hull while always retaining
its position about the centre of whatever
portion of the hull is immersed. Thus, as
she rolls to starboard it leaves the assumed
partition amidships, moving to starboard,
returning to partition, and then towards
port, as she rolls from starboard, through
upright, and then to port.

As before explained, there is always an upward 
pressure from the ocean, in a straight
line perpendicular to its level of surface
through this moving centre of buoyancy, and
that line always passes through a given
point in the midships partition above it. This
point is termed the "meta centre", and it will readily 
be imagined that the centre of buoyancy swings from 
side to side like a pendulum suspended from it
when the vessel is rolling at sea.

There is now the centre of gravity, which
everyone nowadays understands is simply
the centre of weight to be considered. It
must readily be realised that a vessel's
centre of gravity depends upon the amount of
cargo or ballast she may be carrying,and
how such is stowed or disposed in her holds.
But such as the cargo or ballast is placed,
stowed, or disposed in the vessel, the centre
of gravity remains constant, and does not
shift (unless the cargo shifts), like the centre
of buoyancy. If the vessel be stowed properly 
it will be found somewhere in the assumed 
'midship' partition and at a point
below meta centre point.

The pressure from the weight of the ship is always in the
direction of an assumed plumb line hanging
from the centre of gravity point, and as the
vessel rolls at sea this plumb line or direction 
of pressure swings from side to side
in harmony with the line of buoyancy,
exactly coinciding when the vessel is upright, 
and parallel with an increasing distance between 
them, as the vessels rolls to one side. 

The degree of stability - that is safety from 
capsizing - depends on the distance of the 
meta centre above the centre of gravity. 
This distance is termed the metacentric height. 
The force downward from the centre of gravity
is exactly equal to the force upward exerted
by the ocean endeavouring to get level; and
these two forces tend to right the ship when
the undulations of the sea swing her away
from the upright.

The greater 'the meta centric height which is 
the same as saying the "greater the safety 
from'' capsizing, the more uncomfortable 
the vessel to travel on. The more leverage 
the forces of buoyancy and gravity have the 
more quickly they can right the vessel swaying 
on the undulating "surface". 

Too great safety from capsizing
brings about other dangers. Sailing vessels
with heavy dead-weight cargoes have been
known to lose their masts and strain their
hulls to such an extent, in so rolling, their
masts break, they have sprung a leak. and
foundered. Iron and such like heavy
cargoes have often to be stowed in
narrow trunkways or on platforms
specially built in the ship to keep her centre
of gravity higher when loaded. When we
hear people say that such and such a vessel
is a grand seaboat, etc., etc., such a vessel
may have been very unsafe on that particular 
voyage, her very unsafety contributing to the 
comfortable travelling. 

This important point highlights that when the Waratah was tender (first three voyages) this should have created a more comfortable voyaging experience for her passengers  - as reported by Mts. Agnes Hays.

It may be taken for granted there is very little 
difference in modern cargo vessels, 
when carrying complete cargoes that nearly fill
them. With like loading they may safely
be expected to behave much the same in
similar storms. The common design for such
vessels provides a breadth equal to about
twice the moulded depth below the main
deck, and as there are no passengers
carried there is very little superstructure
above the main deck.

I have often wondered if the Waratah's beam of +/- 60 ft. was too narrow. According to the writer the beam should have been roughly twice the moulded depth. The Waratah's moulded depth was 38.5 ft. which should have had a corresponding beam of 77 ft., not 60 ft.. However, Waratah's actual depth of hold was 35.1 ft. (3.4 ft. accounted for by the space between the double hulls) which gives us a beam of 70 ft.. In theory this might have been the case but in practice many steamers with similar dimensions to Waratah had similar beams in the region of 60 ft..

On the flip side of the coin better GM stability is achieved with a deep, narrow hull which would confirm a beam of 60 ft. rather than 70 ft. taking into consideration the destabilising triple deck superstructure.

When we consider passenger steamers, however, 
the tendency to build additional decks and keep the passenger 
accommodation all above the main decks. Here it is 
an open question whether we're not sacrificing safety for
comfort and carrying capacity. The fact that we have had
the Waratah, Yongala, and Koombana mysteries in 
these latitudes during the last three years is sufficient 
excuse for the public requiring some practical
and expert investigation made on their behalf.

This valid point was observed in the construction of the Waratah's successor, SS Ballarat ( 

In the case of the Waratah it seems abundantly clear
from the evidence given at the Law Courts that this 
vessel was not considered to have sufficient ballasting
power when sailing without cargo, to counteract 
the weight of superstructure supplying the passenger 
accommodation. She was to some extent in the same 
predicament as out famous sailing clippers of last
century, which needed nearly half a cargo
of ballast to go seeking for cargoes from
one port to another. When the Waratah was 
lost she had nearly a full cargo on board, and, 
whatever her degree of stability was when empty, 
had surely nothing to do with her degree of stability 
when loadedYet, as far as the writer can learn, there
was little or no evidence forthcoming as to the weight 
and disposal of the cargo she was lost.

Absolutely! The Waratah was heavily laden and no concrete proof establishing the degree to which she was functionally overloaded.
In the case of the Koombana there is
considerable food for reflection. She was
probably carrying less than 500 tons of
cargo and:appears to have been engulfed
in the centre of a "willy-willy." It is the
opinion of the writer that the Koombana
in terms of stability was not fit to encounter a
hurricane centre. The writer has been
caught near a cyclone centre off Mauritius
in a sailing vessel, and remembering
how that vessel, although in ideal load and
trim was smothered under almost bare poles
with bulwarks under water and hatch comings 
awash, he cannot conceive it possible
for a steamer like the Koombana in light
trim, exposing such an area of superstructure
to such a force of wind, to live through it.

There was very little ambiguity in the case of the Koombana which was significantly top heavy (to clear sandbars at ports along the Northwest coast).

The question is, "Is it a legitimate risk to
send such a vessel in such a trim to hurricane
latitudes in hurricane seasons?" 
It must be remembered that the law of
storms is getting on towards being an exact
science with barometer to provide indications
of approach and with means to indicate the 
vessel's position from the centre
and to show from collected data the most
probable path of the centre, a good steamer
with an experienced and expert master
should easily avoid being caught. It is
a matter of vigilance and judgment just
as in the case with a pedestrian avoiding
motor cars. These remarks are applicable
to cyclones, typhoons, and other well
known and studied storms, but have we
done our duty with regard to the Nor'-West
"willy-willy ?? Is there a published hand
book with information, instructions; and
suggestions as is the case in other hurricane 
parts of the world for the seafaring mariner?
If not, is it not a work worth taking in hand at once?

In my opinion, Captain Ilbery had no intention of subjecting his steamer to the gale forces moving up from the southwest. He had a fire to contend with and reinforcing the opinion of the writer came about in the hope of outrunning the storm and making it safely back to Durban.

Yours; etc.,
Fremantle, April 4

SS Koombana