Thursday, 5 January 2017


Mr. Hoehling presents an easy-flowing and illuminating section on Waratah's final moments at Durban, 26 July, 1909. (I highly recommend this excellent book. Hoehling, A.. Lost at Sea: The Truth Behind Eight of History's Most Mysterious Ship Disasters.) Waratah was ready for departure from St. Paul's Wharf (Hoehling) at 8 pm. 

Mr. Hoehling introduces a person hitherto unknown to me. Robert Dives, a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Newcastle-on-Tyne, who had been living in Durban for 12 years took a daily interest in the shipping comings and goings at Port Natal. He was there to witness Waratah making her way out to sea for the last time. It is quoted that his 'attention was drawn to the Waratah by her exceedingly high navigating bridge.' and he 'had a sort of premonition or presentiment that if he did not go and see the vessel then he would never have the chance again.' 'thought Waratah very high out of the water' 'he had never seen a vessel with such a high bridge'.

Mr. Hoehling remarks that Mr. Dives needed his eyes tested. The reason for this? Waratah by now, according to Mr. Hoehling, carried nearly 10 000 tons of fuel and cargo (including an additional 40 tons of scrap metal loaded at Durban - of which I was unaware). Continuing, Mr. Hoehling refers to Waratah as a 20 000 ton vessel (taking into consideration her own gross) which rode low in the water. 

I could not be more in agreement with this assessment if I tried. 

To further confirm this claim which contradicted both Sawyer and Dives' opinions, Mr. Hoehling draws our attention back to the expert witness statement of John Rainnie, port captain and master of the tug Richard King taking Waratah out.


John Rainnie

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. 

Alexander Smith Duthic. 

Master of Government tug "Richard King" at Durban. 

We towed the "Waratah" round from "C" shed. She did not lean towards us at all. Hawsers were put right on her port quarter. We accompanied her outside the bar. She was upright at the wharf, and when we started towing her round as nearly upright as possible. Had she been tender she would probably have leaned towards us. She did not do so. 

William George Miller. 

Leading mooring attendant, Durban. 

The ship looked in beautiful trim when she left the harbour. There was nothing in her appearance to indicate she was top-heavy. 

Hugh Lindsey 

Government pilot Port of Natal. 

Took "Waratah" out of port. 

The vessel did not appear to be at all tender. When we left the wharf I put the tug on her aft with a long hauling wire. I have noticed in some ships when they are tender they lie over to it whichever way the tug pulls them, but the "Waratah" just pulled off steadily. 

It does not get any clearer than this (short of a conspiracy theory which is pure fiction). Mr. Hoehling nails the final assessment of Waratah departing Durban for the last time. In fairness to Mr. Dives, Waratah was in a league of her own at Port Natal given her imposing superstructure and would naturally have drawn attention. But it was easy to talk of premonitions after the fact. 

One cannot allow Waratah to depart her final port of call without mentioning the highly controversial 240 to 300 tons of coal loaded onto her spar deck. How, under such circumstances, could these multiple witness accounts be true? Surely the flagship was top heavy? Waratah departed Australian waters with a whopping (for her) GM of 1.9 ft. achieved through 1300 tons of lead concentrates, hold 3, amidships, lowest down + more than 7000 tons of cargo judiciously stowed. As in the case of the Yongala, this dead weight produced a jerky recovery which was hazardous for passengers, and born out by documented falls and injuries. Captain Ilbery, who was not reckless as is so often suggested by present day commentators, loaded the coal onto the spar deck intentionally to reduce the GM to about 1.5 ft. and do away with the jerky recovery without sacrificing GM stability. 

Mr. Hoehling describes how the Richard King kept Waratah in tow toward the Point, safely crossing the sandbar at the entrance to Port Natal. It is interesting to note that in 1909 the sandbar in question was dredged to a depth of about 33 ft., which implies that Waratah would not have cleared it with a draught of 35 ft. (But Mr. Hoehling's point is well taken). Mr. Lindsey, the port pilot, handed back command to Captain Ilbery, climbed down to his waiting launch, and under the watchful eye of Chief Officer Owen, Waratah was brought around to head southward into a clear night.  

Such tragic majesty.

Port Natal, 1890's - courtesy Mole's Genealogy Blog 

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