Friday, 6 January 2017


Mr. Hoehling continues his excellent piece on Waratah detailing the sequence of events off the Wild Coast, 27 July, 1909. He begins by giving an account of the Clan MacIntyre sighting, 4 am - 9.20 am, and the exchange between the humble 4800 ton tramp steamer and the illustrious flagship.

“What ship?”

“Waratah for London,”

“Clan McIntyre for London,”

“What weather had you from Australia?”

“Strong southwesterly and southerly winds across.”

“Thanks, good-bye. Pleasant voyage,”

“Thanks. Same to you. Good-bye.”

We know (see previous post: that Waratah did not have a persistent list during her passage across from Australia to Durban, contrary to previous performance tendencies when she was tender. 'Strong southwesterly and southerly winds' would have induced a permanent list to starboard in tender condition, but with new dense dead weight in hold 3, Waratah was finally a stable steamer.

Mr. Hoehling accurately relates that Clan MacIntyre was abeam Cape Hermes at 7 am - the exchange above having taken place at 6 am, about 10 n miles northeast of Cape Hermes. Mr. Hoehling quotes the Inquiry figure of 13.5 n miles off Cape Hermes and remarks that visibility must have been excellent to visualize this land mark at such a distance. I believe this figure was erroneously quoted for the simple reason that when Waratah overhauled the Clan MacIntyre she was heading in a more southerly direction, and for her to have been about 12 n miles off the Bashee River when she disappeared from sight, implies that Waratah would have to have been heading in a more westerly direction relative to the Clan MacIntyre in order to achieve this. No, in all likelihood both steamers passed close to Cape Hermes, probably 5 n miles off shore.


Captain Weir and officer Phillips described Waratah as:

“appeared to be perfectly upright and to be in no difficulty, steaming rapidly.”

This was certainly in keeping with the 'new' Waratah and with the favour of the Agulhas Current and as yet no storm conditions whatsoever, her under powered twin quadruple expansion engines were not challenged. By 9.20 am Waratah, about ten n miles ahead of Clan MacIntyre and 12 n miles off the Bashee River (more likely to have been Xora River by my calculations), disappeared from view into hazy conditions. This was the last confirmed sighting of the grand steamer.

Finally comes the Harlow account through the lens of Mr. Hoehling. He refers to the tramp steamer being between 1 and 2 n miles off Cape Hermes at about 7.30 pm, when the lights of a large steamer coming up astern were sighted from the stern of the 4000 ton tramp steamer. At this point a misleading quote immediately creates confusion and justifiable skepticism. In addition to sighting two masthead lights denoting a large steamer:

“and the red light of a vessel eight or ten miles away.”


He saw smoke about 25 miles astern, which he took to be from a fast steamer coming up behind him. Later, about 7.15, he saw two masthead lights and a red light, right astern, about 10 or 12 miles away. The lights were at times obscured by the smoke, which was blowing forward. About 7.50 p.m. the master of the "Harlow" went to consult his chart. When he returned a short time after, he saw two quick flashes astern, one of which went about 1,000 feet into the air, and the other about 300 feet. The flashes were narrow at the bottom, widened out as they ascended, and were red in colour. He heard no noise. His own eyes were dazzled with the strong light in the chart-room, and he asked the chief officer, who was on the bridge, where the steamer's lights were. The reply was that they were again obscured by the smoke.
(and when the smoke cleared, the lights were gone).

It would have been unlikely to distinctly visualize the red side light at a distance of 10 or 12 miles. 

'Range of Visibility of Lights: The coloured sidelights are only required to be visible for 2 miles, but are usually visible for a greater distance depending materially on atmospheric conditions; the mast lights are 5 miles, but again will usually be seen further— especially in the exceptional conditions described in this book'. (exceptionally clear conditions when Titanic went down).

Padfield, Peter. The Titanic and the Californian (p. 334). 

The sighting of the Waratah astern was not exclusive to Captain Bruce and his Chief Officer, Robert P Owens. Chief Engineer, Alfred Harris, described how he noticed two white lights of a large steamer after exiting his cabin at 7.30 pm, 27 JulyHis immediate impression was that the lights represented a steamer about 4 to 5 n miles astern (not 10 to 12 n miles). He also, very importantly, remarked that the sea was calm. The cold front storm had not yet reached this position. Harris further confirmed his impression when distinctly noticing a red side light. The impression was affirmed when he asked Captain Bruce what the lights were and received the reply that they represented a steamer. He also observed that a large volume of smoke came from the steamer, which substantiated earlier observations made by Captain Bruce and the chief officer. This smoke was blowing towards the Harlow (prior to the arrival of a cold front the wind comes from the northwest). Harris could not make out the hull of the steamer. This is significant because being at night, the black hull of the Waratah would have been difficult to distinguish. He noticed a glow in the smoke further suggesting that the steamer was on fire. Harris then observed half an hour later, the separation distance between the two steamers significantly less than 4 n miles:

'a glow among the smoke - then a large flare up in the heavens lasting a minute or two'.... 

'narrow at the bottom and mushrooming out at the top.'

This description was mirrored by Robert Owens:

“flames” were “narrow at the bottom, mushrooming out on top.” 

The flashes were not accompanied by the sounds of explosions (wind blowing from Waratah to Harlow) and could very well have been distress rockets (without detonators and red coloured, suggesting they were deployed in haste) or flame-flares from the burning Waratah. The two masthead lights and red side light disappeared once smoke had cleared. These specific white and red lights which then disappeared cannot be accounted for either by continuous bush fires on land or the lighthouse at Cape Hermes.

If Bruce, his chief officer and chief engineer had acknowledged the flares as distress signals or flames from the burning vessel, they would have been obliged to go back and investigate - which they did not. Captain Bruce clarified that he thought the flares were the results of explosions on Waratah. But no sounds were heard, which should have been with such a close separation distance. Explosions = total destruction of the ship and her souls = reason for not going back to investigate.

Captain Bruce in later months became more adamant that they had witnessed the disappearance of a large steamer Waratah and expressed what can only be described as placing his head on the block in the following press report:

Clarence and Richmond Examiner, Tuesday 14 December, 1909.
The captain (Bruce) estimates that at the time of the alleged explosions the vessel was only three  miles from Cape Hermes, and he considers that the wreck would lie in about 20 fathoms of water between that cape and St.  John's River (latitude 31.38 S., longitude 29.55 E.- a point, it will be noticed, where the effect of tides must be considered.

See previous post:, 

In reality the Waratah's last known position is 3.247 nautical miles northeast of Cape Hermes, 0.45 nautical miles short of Poenskop and 0.5 nautical miles offshore.

31 36 33.22 S
29 36 19.02 E

These coordinates coincide with a depth of 20 fathoms - 36.6 m, 3 n miles from Cape Hermes. The mouth of the Inkadusweni River, Poenskop, could easily be confused for the mouth of the Umzimvubu River (St Johns River) at night. The wreck probably lies beneath a layer of silt, within the silt zone of both Umzimvubu and Nkadusweni Rivers.

Why then, given such specific information, did Captain Bruce refer to the red side light being about 10 or 12 n miles astern at the Inquiry? I believe that despite his conscience and a desire to share the truth, which he did in exceptional detail with the press, he was still wary of some form of censure at the Inquiry for not going back to investigate. At the end of the day he had his career to look after.

Mr. Hoehling disputes the veracity of this account, as do the majority of Waratah 'enthusiasts'. Mr. Hoehling refers, as do most, to the Guelph account confirming that Waratah was still on course for Cape Town by 9.51 pm, 27 July, if somewhat behind schedule. Guelph, the 5000 ton Union Castle passenger liner, was abeam of Hood Point, East London during the sighting of a large passenger liner some 5 n miles further out. Captain James N. Culverwell instructed Chief Officer Thomas R Blanchard to 'raise' the steamer. The now famous, incomplete response included the letters 'TAH' which convinced the crew of the steamer's identity - SS Waratah. As far as most observers are concerned this is the smoking gun proving that Waratah was still en route for Cape Town and not lying in the depths off Poenskop.

There is however the question of a single ceramic tile and section of copper piping discovered very much further to the northeast of Hood Point (the Agulhas Current flows in the southwest direction) which, after extensive analysis in the United Kingdom, were proven to have originated from the late Waratah. This is more of a smoking gun, and a tangible one at that.

to be continued...


Port St Johns, with Poenskop in the distance - note silt output.

view astern from Harlow - note rocky outcrop backdrop to Waratah position - no obvious source of bush fire flames.

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