Saturday, 31 December 2016


Mr. Hoehling tackled the diverse array of quotes by those who had experienced Waratah's vagaries, with a degree of amusement, intelligently introducing much-needed perspective. Yes, Waratah was relatively top heavy during initial voyages, but taking into consideration the almost equal split between favourable and unfavourable opinions, there was no smoking gun to predict an inevitably catastrophic outcome.   

Gerald Steel (passenger):

“did not roll comfortably but would get down on either side and hang there.”

W Church (passenger):

“stood very high out of the water…usually listed on one side even in good weather. She shivered or shook at the end of a roll…most of the ladies were much affected by the rolling.”

C S Sanders (passenger):

“Indeed she seemed to be everything that a first-class sea-going liner should be. In a storm off Fremantle, although it was one to try a big steamer like the Waratah, I did not even have my elbows brought in contact with the sides of the bunk. She was not a bad roller.”

Alexander Reader (able seaman):

“noticed nothing out of the normal” “behaved wonderfully,” “no complaints.”

H M Bennett (third officer):       (promoted to Narrung)

“behavior was nothing extraordinary. She frequently had a list with a strong wind, and on account of her bunkers…four or five degrees at most.” "slow roll"

An apt and succinct summary. Acknowledgment of the wind factor and uneven working down of coal bunkers. Again, list not more than 4 or 5 degrees. The following period expert added a further contributory factor as follows: 

Captain Inglis, Melbourne:

“the large awning on the shelter deck, which gave too much space to the wind…but still I wouldn’t say she had an excessive top-hamper.”

"He did nor like the large awning or shelter deck,
because it presented too much space to the
wind if the ship heeled over with the
wind broadside on. If she were rolling it
would help her over, and when over tend
to prevent her righting herself quickly."

Awning not deployed in this photo.

Friday, 30 December 2016


Mr. Hoehling gives us an entertaining excerpt about Professor Bragg, the Nobel Prize physicist. There can be no doubt that this man's witness account was to be taken seriously and his observations revealing. Apparently the ladies on the superior decks were unable to take baths on occasion due to the angle of the list - water slopping out of baths. Mr. Hoehling emphasised that this information was not gathered first hand by the good Professor :) On a more serious note, Professor Bragg  “continued to query the captain at breakfast whether he could not do something about the list.” and asked Captain Ilbery if he had stability curves on board, which they were not. It must have been a somewhat embarrassing moment for the experienced and dedicated master. Taking this matter further, Professor Bragg cornered the chief engineer Mr. Hodder about the persistent list and received the now famous reply: “Why, she’s as safe as a church—sir!” Despite it all I agree that Waratah was safe, if somewhat tender. Personally I believe the bilge keels contributed to the puzzling phenomenon of Waratah hanging in a list. With 756 passengers on board and 154 crew (total 910) during her maiden voyage, apart from a fire, Waratah made good time and did not give cause for alarm. Professor Bragg's full statement at the Inquiry (second homeward voyage) was as follows:

William H. Bragg. 

Passenger and Fellow of Royal Society and Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds; fourth long voyage. 

I was very alarmed 

Thought she was unstable for small displacements, but stable for larger ones. 

My impression was that metacentre was just slightly below centre of gravity when she was upright, and then as she heeled over on either side she came to a position of equilibrium. 

Judging by the camber the list was four or five degrees 

The list would last for several days in one direction 

One morning she came upright, then went over, and stopped down on the other side. 

The vessel got more upright getting towards Durban. After leaving Cape Town the list developed again. 

I was surprised to find how little she rolled, but that fitted in with her being in neutral equilibrium. 

Thought she was a remarkably steady and comfortable boat 

Often talked to the captain about the stability of ships, but never put a direct question about this ship and asked for stability curves, but was told they were not on board. 

Spoke to the chief engineer who said she was safe as a church, that if necessary the tanks would be filled, and she would then be as stiff as a board.   

When all is said and done I believe that this comprehensive statement is as close as we shall ever get to the truth regarding the first three voyages. Waratah was top heavy, but steady. 'Alarm' is a harsh word and has lived on in legend. This word was significantly modified by the further statement that 'she was a remarkably steady and comfortable boat'. In reality Waratah never listed beyond 5 degrees, which was satisfactory and with her ballast tanks filled, lowering centre of gravity, had the potential to be as 'stiff as a board'. It is interesting that Waratah 'got more upright getting closer to Durban'. We know from the Inquiry that GM improved by as much as 10 inches when coal was burned out. This would certainly have accounted for Waratah being 'more upright'.


Mr. Hoehling wrote a delightful section in his book describing the first voyage. As much as Waratah's list swung from one side to the other from one day to the next, so did opinion on board. Steward H.C. Herbert remarked that “She seemed to roll excessively.…I did not like the large amount of crockery that was broken.” B.J. Shore, a steerage steward backed up this claim: “a job to keep the tables laid sometimes.” Herbert also became known for pointing out deficiencies in the construction quality of Waratah and famously claimed that the promenade deck moved about so much that he could place fingers between the planks. He also claimed that a bolt came loose, striking the baker's head in the galley below. The papers fleshed this out:

 The evidence of witnesses was 
proceeded with to-day. A steward named Herbert deposed that he left the boat because he disliked the way she rolled and because of her terrific creaking. He once called the engineer's attention to a movement of her promenade deck. The whole wooden structure moved bodily athwart the ship. Boltheads actually broke off owing to the strain, while woodwork around the saloon door was separated from the ironwork to the extent of a couple of inches.

Some of these quotes have become legend and it is interesting to compare with actual Court transcript:


Herbert Comer Herbert. 

Steward. Four years at sea on passenger steamers, none larger than the "Waratah." 

Left because he did not like the ship. 

She had a list nearly all the time 

Would stop for a day or two on the same side, then go to the other side, and stop a day or two. 

No excessive rolling.

Still carried list from Australia to Durban 

Rolled excessively in dirty weather (between Durban and Cape Town) 

Very slow recovery

Brightmer John Shore. 

Steward on "Waratah" 

Always had a list; would change her list as often as three or four times in the course of an hour or an hour and half; rolled heavily. 

Undoubtedly during the first three voyages Waratah was relatively tender. This manifested in persistent lists with slow recovery, compounded by wind force against her prominent superstructure, and in my opinion, bilge keels extending 40% of the length of the steamer, amidships. The irony of this is that for stewards a persistent list is less likely to cause crockery breakage than constant rolling from one side to the other. Yes, in 'dirty weather' on all steamers, loose items had to be secured to prevent breakage. Interesting that Shore contradicted his colleague by claiming that Waratah changed her list 3 or 4 times in an hour. Between conflicting evidence and legend, there was never clarity about Waratah's true performance before Captain Ilbery altered ballasting for the last, fateful voyage. 

Thursday, 29 December 2016


Mr. Hoehling referred to Waratah departing on her maiden voyage 'less than two months after her launching' jam packed with emigrants.


On Thursday, the 5th November, 1908, the "Waratah" left London on her maiden voyage. She carried 67 cabin passengers, 689 emigrants, and a crew of 154. She was surveyed the same day off Gravesend by the emigration officer, Captain M. H. Clarke, who found she fully complied with all the requirements of the Merchant Shipping Acts.

Mr. Hoehling captured another interesting facet of the Waratah story; 'less than two months after her launching'. Was there pressure to get the new flagship into service as soon as possible? Waratah did not have stability curves on board when she departed London, 5 December, further suggesting that from an organizational point of view, her departure was 'hurried'. 

On the other hand....

Koombana, another steamer destined to vanish under mysterious circumstances, was built across the Clyde from Waratah at Alex, Stephen and Son Ltd., and launched 27 October, 1908. She departed Glasgow for Australia on her maiden voyage at the end of December, 1909 - which was roughly 2 months after launch. However, Koombana's official maiden voyage with passengers, cargo and mails, took place 1 month after her arrival in Australia.

Waratah, departing London for the first time, did not comply with the Merchant Shipping Act. A steamer carrying emigrants was limited to one statute adult to every twenty tons of the ship's registered tonnage. If one makes the calculation an alarming figure of 300 emigrants (net tonnage) and even if gross tonnage were used, 450 emigrants, was limited by the act. How could Captain Clarke have allowed such a thing? It raises the issue of the Lunds' influence on the Act regulators. Stanley Robinson quotes 10 men per 100 superficial feet. The Act stipulates, 1 man per 36 superficial feet. There is no doubt that the Lunds contravened the Act on the Waratah's maiden voyage. What else was contravened, one wonders?


Mr. Hoehling referred to Captain Ilbery's claim, allegedly made during 'sea trials', that 'she (Waratah) had a very fine righting power or stability', but however, Geelong had 'somewhat improved stability'...'more responsive to steering.'

Mr. Hoehling captured the mixed messages emerging after the disaster to perfection. The reality was that Captain Ilbery absented himself from the sea trials at the last moment, reasons unknown. He could not have known what Waratah's righting power or stability were until he received hearsay reports from those present at the heeling experiments. Captain Ilbery was Commodore of the Blue Anchor Line, but more than this he was an employee who, after being actively involved in the design and construction of Waratah, could not very well have made any form of public statement to the effect that Waratah was flawed. Stability and righting power were factors of judicial ballasting and stowage and I believe that Captain Ilbery had reservations but was able and willing to find the best way to improve the inherently tender Waratah's stability in service. Naturally, in my opinion, comparing Waratah with Geelong, allowed Captain Ilbery in a roundabout way to express the limitations of the additional third deck and towering navigation bridge fitted to Waratah. Geelong was inherently more stable due to this obvious difference and did not require the same degree of dead weight lowest down to steady her - hence more responsive steering. Also, and again my opinion, Waratah was relatively under powered for her size - only 5400 ihp - which would also have impacted negatively on handling and steering.   

Wednesday, 28 December 2016


Mr. Hoehling remarked in his book that when loaded Waratah 'drew between 29 and 35 ft.' which ensured stability, even in adverse conditions. 

The Inquiry quoted that Waratah had a maximum draft of 30 ft. 4 1/2 inches (30.375 ft.). 35 ft. is 4.6 ft. over her limit! Waratah's depth of hull was in the region of 39 ft. which would have left about 4 ft. freeboard! I am inclined to accept the data listed in the Inquiry report suggesting Waratah departed Durban 26 July with about 28 ft. 3 in. forward and 29 ft. 5 in. aft.  But having said this it is interesting, coming from an experienced maritime historian with appropriate timeline knowledge of steamers, that he would make such a claim, reinforcing my own beliefs (covered many times on this blog) that Waratah was too heavy / overloaded and needed to be such in order to offset her potential top heaviness.


Mr. Hoehling made reference to the absence of wireless communication on Waratah.

Much has been said about the absence of wireless on Waratah, which was due for installation after returning from her last, fateful voyage. Some 6 months prior to the disappearance of Waratah, the RMS Republic was involved in a collision with the steamer Florida in fog off Nantucket, Massachusetts. Of 742 souls on board only 6 perished. The badly damaged Florida was able to take survivors on board, but being dangerously overloaded, had to wait for the arrival and assistance of the Baltic, summoned by wireless distress calls by Republic's Jack Binns operating a Marconi apparatus. This proved the efficacy of the system and necessity for such installations on ocean-going steamers.

If Waratah had had such a wireless could this have saved her souls or at least indicated where she had run into trouble and why? This reminds me of the Koombana years later, 1912, when she too disappeared without a trace off Port Hedland, Western Australia. Koombana was fitted with Marconi and the day before her departure and disappearance had communicated with a German steamer some 800 miles distant. However, despite the new-fangled appliance, Koombana disappeared without any distress messages being received either on land or at sea. Why? The answer applied both to Koombana and Waratah. There were no land-based stations along the coast to receive messages from shipping and the majority of steamers did not carry wireless to receive distress calls from other steamers. I don't believe it would have been of any help to those on the doomed Waratah if she had been fitted with wireless. In my opinion, as in the case of Koombana, Waratah went down so rapidly that even if there had been wireless on board there would have been little chance to deploy it before the flagship took her final plunge.  

RMS Republic

SS Baltic


A. Hoehling reminds us of the impressive distillation capacity of Waratah - 5500 gallons of fresh water produced from sea water per day.

Waratah carried a water distillation apparatus manufactured by John Kirkcaldy Limited, based at Burnt Hill, originally the site of Abbey Mill of Netteswell. The principle of the apparatus required heating water to boiling point (but not too hot as to convert soluble salts and impurities into steam); collecting steam in a condenser, whereby it would be converted back into pure liquid form fit for consumption.

5500 gallons of fresh water per day seems excessive for washing, cleaning, food preparation and consumption by crew and passengers.  Prior to 1865 steam engines used seawater directly, but this was complicated by the build up of brine and scale, which had to be cleaned out at regular intervals, not to mention corrosion of boilers. With the advent of the evaporator systems, fresh water could be produced from seawater for both consumption and the feed water supply of the steam engines themselves (making up loss from evaporation) - in some extreme cases of consumption, up to 100 tons, when under full steam. The system was therefore a dual one, both for consumption and for the twin quadruple expansion engines. The evaporator consisted of a drum filled with a circuit of coiled pipes which passed to a distilling condenser. A further advantage of this system, utilising seawater directly, prevented contamination from water used in the boiler circuit of the steam engine.   

Tuesday, 27 December 2016


Waratah, despite stability limitations, was the latest in technology for 1908. The following extract from A. Hoehling's book describes an important innovation:

“fitted with Bilge Keels, which make them exceptionally steady at sea'

Hoehling, A.. Lost at Sea: The Truth Behind Eight of History's Most Mysterious Ship Disasters.

Bilge keels, long fins of steel welded along the length of the steamer (190 ft. (40%) amidships in the case of Waratah - see image of model below) at the turn of the bilge, on either side, increase the hydrodynamic resistance (creating inertial forces) when a vessel rolls, limiting the amount of roll a vessel has to endure. This is known as a passive stability system. Bilge keels absorb roll energy through the viscous-eddy effect - interrupting the flow of water around the chine of the hull (sharp change in angle in the cross section of a hull), a low pressure created behind the fin which in turn absorbs energy of motion. This effect is velocity-sensitive, and the faster the steamer travels, the stronger the damping effect. The effect of bilge keels can be so pronounced that in conditions of a following sea and the deep slow rolls generated, the steamer, as in the case of Waratah, might hang in a list - i.e. the inertia generated by the bilge keels make it harder for the steamer to right herself from heavy rolls. Bilge keels were introduced primarily for the comfort of passengers and to reduce the incidence of sea-sickness. They did not improve the safety factor of a steamer's stability. In the case of Waratah, which was significantly tender / top heavy during her first three voyages, the tendency for long, slow rolls was accentuated by the bilge keels which in turn in all probability contributed significantly to the Waratah's tendency to hang in a list, compounded by windage of course and enhanced by a following sea, with or without adverse weather conditions.  

Friday, 23 December 2016


A feature of Waratah, mentioned by A.A. Hoehling, was her 'tall funnel stamped with the line's blue anchor'. This was a feature of all the Blue Anchor Line steamers servicing the Australian trade. There is no doubt in my mind that the tall funnel added to inherent top heaviness and presented a significant wind catchment surface area contributing to Waratah's tendency to hold in a list. It seems almost strange that this was not taken into consideration during the design phase. After all Waratah was pioneering new ground for the Lunds with her triple superstructure decks raising centre of gravity significantly. Waratah could be ballasted in such a way as to stabilise her, reducing the top heaviness factor, but at a huge price (which I have covered at length in this Blog). So why then the tall funnel? I found the clue to this when investigating the loss of the Yongala:

The Advertiser, Adelaide, Monday 9 November, 1903.

'could not help being struck
by her elegant appearance and 
the length of her funnel, the latter 
feature being devised to provide a 
better draught for the inferior quality 
of coal met with at the antipodes.'

With luxurious superstructure decks stretching ever higher towards the heavens, one didn't want first class passengers being overwhelmed by nasty smoke discharges from the funnel. These tall, prominent funnels were built into the structure of the steamers, which seems like sound construction practice. However, in storms of 'exceptional violence', instead of breaking off as many funnels did, such funnels had the potential to remain fixed, in effect assisting the forces causing the demise of the vessel. I don't personally believe the Waratah foundered due to storm forces, so this conjecture remains hypothetical. But in the case of Yongala I firmly believe the funnel played a part in the disaster.

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

Wednesday, 21 December 2016


A man by the name of Mr. C.F. Le Clus, a trader at Idutywa,Transkei, reported that he saw the 'Waratah' labouring in heavy seas off Cebe - see image below. His report specified Wednesday 28 July, 1909, which is accurate in terms of date, day and storm. He claimed that the gale 'sprung up' at around two o'clock in the early hours of the morning and continued unabated throughout the day. He remarked that in all the years he had been frequenting this resort, he had never seen such adverse conditions both on land and at sea. At about nine o'clock in the morning Mr Le Clus alleged that he saw the 'Waratah' battling in heavy seas. His impressions were that the great liner pitched and rolled excessively, and at times appeared to plow through waves rather than riding them - very typical of the Waratah. Between nine o'clock and some time in the afternoon Mr Le Clus estimated that the 'Waratah' only made about three miles. Although Mr Le Clus specified that the 'Waratah' was six or seven miles out to sea, he did not say in which direction the large steamer was moving. A further crucial flaw in the account was this; Mr. Le Clus specified that the steamer had only one mast. She could not have been as large as estimated and certainly could not have been the Waratah.


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

Tuesday, 20 December 2016


The Advertiser, Adelaide, Friday 20 August, 1909.

Perth, August 19.
The Steamer Bannockburn, bound from
New York to the eastern States, put into
Albany unexpectedly for coal yesterday.
The vessel coaled at Cape Town and left that
port on July 24, two days before the Waratah 
sailed from Durban. On July 26 the Bannockburn 
ran into a gale from the east north-east of such 
violence as the captain states he never before 
experienced. Some coal taken on board at Cape 
Town had been placed on deck, and the gale 
threw the steamer on her beam ends, in which
position, she remained for a considerable
period, until all the deck coal was washed
overboard. Had that not happened Captain 
Willett questions whether the Bannockburn 
would have righted herself, and after his 
experience he has no doubt as to the fate 
of the Waratah. It was because of the coal 
the Bannockburn lost in the gale she was
obliged to put in at Albany.

If one makes a rough calculation of where the Bannockburn making 9.5 knots could have been 26 July when the gale struck, one gets a mean position roughly off Cape St Francis (Storms River or Algoa Bay as outside possibilities) - see image below. The gale from East Northeast is descriptive of the area directly ahead of the cold front. Worse was still to come for the Bannockburn. By this account we may deduce that during 26 July the leading edge of the frontal system had not yet reached Algoa Bay.

If we go back to the account of the Clan MacIntyre, as per Inquiry transcript:

"During the 27th July the wind was first S.S.W. fresh, then about noon S. by E. strong, after that S.W. strong gale, moderating between 4 and 8 p.m. and being N.W. by N., going round to W. towards midnight. The sea was at first moderate, then from 8 a.m. to noon rather rough, then from noon to about 5 p.m. a high head sea, ship pitching and shipping heavy seas over the forecastle head, and then from 5 p.m. to midnight it was rather less rough. The weather was fine and clear throughout the day. 

"On 28th July we experienced a great storm. I never met with anything of such violence on this coast during the 13 years I have been sailing in this trade."

What does this tell us? Just prior to the arrival of a cold front system moving up the South African coast (southern hemisphere) one would expect winds to predominate from the northwest and northeast, NOT the southeast, so the rough conditions from noon to 4 pm were not as a direct result of the cold front storm, as yet. However, between 4 pm and 8 pm the wind shifted to the Northwest by North which was an indicator that the cold front system was approaching from the southwest and imminent. This phase can be accompanied by light patchy rain and haze. According to the extract it was generally fine and clear throughout the day which makes sense. In fact it was 'rather less rough' between 5 pm and midnight. At midnight things started to change dramatically with winds shifting to the west = leading edge of the cold front storm arriving = roughly the vicinity of the Bushman's River (CM making about 11.5 knots with the favour of the Agulhas Current). 

Where would this have placed the Waratah, IF she had still been on course, when the brunt of the storm struck her? My calculations are rough but I estimate that Waratah would have been approximately abeam of Bird Island, Algoa Bay, some 23 n miles out, close to the edge of the Continental Shelf. If she had gone down at this position or some position not very much further southwest, she would have disappeared into the abyss taking all evidence with her. If this is the case I very much doubt whether the wreck of the Waratah will ever be found. 

Fortunately I do not believe this scenario to be true and stand firmly by my assertion that the wreck of the Waratah lies a mere 0.5 n miles off the coast just short of Poenskop.

One thing, however, is very clear; Waratah could not have been abeam of East London at 9.50 pm 27 July when the Guelph was alleged to have sighted her. She was at least 100 n miles further down the coast by this time or having come about due to a fire on board, long gone to the bottom.