Wednesday, 11 January 2017


I have examined the Inquiry transcript in great detail through the course of this blog. Mr. Hoehling draws attention to the essence of this much-awaited official investigation into the loss of Waratah. The Court convened in December of 1910, and after two months' deliberations, a conclusion was reached in February, 1910.

“lost in the gale of July 28, 1909, which was of exceptional violence for those waters and was the first great storm she had encountered…the precise manner of her loss could not be determined upon the evidence available.”

“on the whole inclined to the opinion that she capsized,” while the “particular chain of circumstances” remained a mystery.

"must have been sudden” - deduced by absence of confirmed wreckage.

Mr. Hoehling then makes a cryptic and intriguing remark:

She “should” be lying somewhere off the Bashee River in perhaps six thousand feet of water—more than a mile deep, many times below diving range.

I find this puzzling. Waratah was last claimed to be seen by the crew of the Clan MacIntyre, steaming swiftly and in good condition 10 to 12 miles off the Bashee River, heading southwest. I presume the assumption is based on some unpredictable event such as a rogue wave engulfing the flagship shortly after she was lost sight of by the Clan MacIntyre. I can think of no other explanation for this mysterious comment.

“so far as the court had been able to ascertain…[she] was not seen or spoken by any other vessel.” once she was lost sight of by the Clan MacIntyre. The Court disregarded the accounts of both the crew of the Guelph and Harlow. These two confounding accounts were diametrically opposed to each other and as such, rather than validating, dispelled the veracity of each other's account. There were problems with both accounts ranging from indistinct signals, "TAH", to bush fires and explosions. The very matrix of the mystery was embedded in these two conflicting accounts, with no attempt made on the part of the Court to establish if one of the accounts was true or not, by exclusion. No attempts were made by the authorities to drag the coordinates recommended by Captain Bruce of the Harlow. One does wonder why?

“disabled,” she “would have been found.” - a fair enough conclusion given the extent of searches and number of vessels instructed to be on the look out for the 'drifting Waratah'. 

"regards structure, and so far as the evidence went in a seaworthy condition; but there was not sufficient evidence before the Court to show that all proper precautions such as battening hatches, securing ports, coaling doors, etc. had been taken…the cargo was properly stowed.”

It seems rather unlikely that the highly experienced Captain J. E. Ilbery and his fine officers would have allowed Waratah to depart Durban, 26 July, without the above listed precautions having been attended to. This factor does have bearing on Waratah being subjected to a storm of 'exceptional violence', but in my opinion, Waratah was never subjected to this storm and foundered due to other factors, unrelated to seaworthiness - namely the consequences of a fire on board.

The Court attributed their most famous witness, Claude Gustav Sawyer, with “considerable prescience,” which ventured unabashedly into the realm of psychic powers. This would not hold up in any Court duty bound to establish hard, cold facts. The Court conceded (and I agree) that Sawyer imagined a persistent “list” during her final voyage (perhaps without being said, his health condition lent itself to a distortion of reality). And that  Waratah's “behavior” was no “different from that of other ships of similar size and type in like conditions of sea”. This statement could be taking things a bit far, but in general I agree, Waratah was no longer unstable during her final voyage. 

Two naval officers attested to Waratah's “slow majestic roll.” which, apart from affirming Waratah's stability, introduced a much-needed element of respect for the much-maligned steamer. There had been so much Waratah-bashing, it was time to put things into perspective.

Captain Bruce's theory of Waratah's bunkers firing and causing an explosion was disregarded, for good reason, and the bush fire theory, introduced by none other than Lund himself, accepted into evidence. There can be nothing so ridiculous as this lame analogy giving a mistaken impression of a large steamer in distress, which had been travelling at 13.5 knots for the past two hours. 

Bizarrely the Court came to the conclusion that both witness accounts of bodies afloat were untrue and what they in fact saw was “offal” from the whaling station at Durban. Clearly, by this stage, the Court was anxious to steer the outcome into the 'storm of exceptional violence' and a perils of the sea 'act of God' finale. All parties exonerated.

The Court did admonish F.W. Lund, acting on behalf of the owners, for withholding vital information. They put it in a round about way:

“No special report…was made by Captain Ilbery as to her behavior on her maiden voyage,” although such was “forthcoming from a number of persons.” Documentation produced: “in no one of them is the ship’s behavior at sea touched upon. Trivial matters, such as a cow or a little dog being on board were mentioned, emigrants’ . “In view of the fact that the Waratah was a new departure for this line and that her specification was being used as the basis of the specification of another new ship the Court was quite unable to understand how silence could have been preserved on such an important and interesting subject as the stability and behavior at sea.”

F.W. Lund had overdone his 'protection' of the inherently top heavy steamer, which contrary to intention, drew negative attention, suggesting a 'cover-up'. It was unnecessary. Captain Ilbery had finally conquered Waratah's stability issues by her final voyage and there was no good reason not to have come clean at this juncture of proceedings. The ploy back-fired spectacularly: 

“almost compelled to draw an inference unfavorable to the owners as regards their knowledge of the ship’s behavior on her maiden voyage.”

Further criticism by the Court came in the form of lack of fire drills (common deficiency on steamers of the era) and initial short-comings of the lifeboats which were made seaworthy by the second voyage.

One good thing emerged from the messy Inquiry and it related directly to the innovation of new steamers with upper decks stretching ever higher above the waterline:

“minimum stability requirements of different types of vessel.”, which also suggested that there were short-comings in the field of marine architecture and The Board of Trade's approval of such steamers. In my opinion, this was simply progress in action, the learning curve of making ships safer and more seaworthy.

Judge Dickinson's final words on the subject very importantly brought the technical side of the Inquiry back down to earth:

 “express its regret for the loss of life and its sympathy with the relatives and friends of those lost.”

This was a human tragedy, first and foremost.

Mr. Hoehling sums up by asking the crucial question: why did so many far humbler vessels survive the 'storm of exceptional violence' and Waratah not? And therein lies the crux of the matter. 

Barclay Curle and Co, the builders of the Waratah emerged from the Inquiry unscathed and continued to produce steamers for international service. Mr. Hoehling attributes this 'success' to their lawyer Butler Aspinall. I believe this is in part true, but also, the builders issued the owners with specific instructions and cautions on how to ensure Waratah's seaworthiness at sea. Waratah departed London on her maiden voyage without this vital information in the form of stability curves - not the builders' fault. The owners had played a significant role in laying out the specification requirements of Waratah and the builders obliged by building the inherently top heavy steamer. Who's fault was it at the end of the day when the Board of Trade approved Waratah for operation on the high seas, with a top rating?

The Blue Anchor Line, on the other hand, did not survive the Waratah disaster and after declaring insolvency, early 1910, sold off remaining steamers to the P&O Line. But the Lunds had established a profitable service to Australia via South Africa, which was to be adopted and enhanced by the P&O. At the end of the day the Lunds suffered for the loss of the Waratah - but nothing on the scale of those left behind without bread-winning spouses lost at sea.

Waratah - early days and in light condition - optimistically with awning deployed.


Mole said...

Fascinating as always, Andrew, and leaving some questions yet to be answered.

andrew van rensburg said...

And that's how it should be with a mystery of this stature. Thank you Mole.