Tuesday, 13 June 2017


The West Australian, 2 November, 1909.

In connection with the Harlow account:

"If the explosions occurred only three
miles off Cape Hermes it is strange that
nothing was heard of them at the Cape
Hermes lighthouse and that no wreckage
was found on the coast. 

Although Captain Bruce of the Harlow believed the Waratah exploded, accounting for the two distinct flashes seen, no sounds of explosions were heard by the crew - wind blowing from Waratah to Harlow. Personally I believe that the two flashes were due to red socket signals (without explosive devices) or that there was a contained explosion within the engine room (sounds muffled) causing flashes of flames to be emitted from the funnel.




In connection with Messrs. Lund and Co.'s 
suggestion that the captain of the Harlow 
saw bush fires, this very explanation occurred 
to the Harlow's chief officer, and owing to
this difference of opinion between himself, 
the chief officer, and the first engineer and 
the investigations at Durban failing to show 
that any ship was overdue the captain of the 
Harlow did not report the occurrence until he 
heard of the Waratah's loss."

This paragraph is loaded. The Lunds put all their eggs in the Waratah adrift theory and clearly did not wish to entertain the possibility that Waratah had 'exploded' off Cape Hermes. If they had it would have opened a can of worms leading down a perilous route to probable culpability - Waratah had experienced a bunker fire on her maiden voyage and repairs to insulation defects were limited to the bunker in question. 

This report, and others, is very clear in that the Lunds suggested the bush fire theory, adopted by the chief officer, who was no doubt looking for a way out, not having gone back to the scene of the 'explosion' to investigate or attempt to save lives. Clearly this failure, contrary to the Customs of the Sea, to return to the scene of the disaster would not have gone down at all well at Durban. It helped that no steamers by this stage were reported overdue at Durban. Mum was the word - until Captain Bruce's conscience got the better of him!! 

If one wishes to pursue the image of a moving bush fire with distinct masthead lights and a red side light, 0.5 miles offshore, there is the possibility that a drum of burning oil on Waratah's foredeck, signalling distress, might fit the bill. The image below associated with the deck of a steamer is highly convincing!


Mole said...

Nobody believed the bush fire story surely ... a bush fire on land, on a stationary spot, looks very different from a fire or other bright light on a moving (at least up and down) ship. And how to account for masthead lights and a red side light. It was remiss, to say the least, that the Harlow did not report the incident till later. But if the Waratah did explode or there was a fire how come no wreckage - unless the vessel was totally and quickly engulfed by said fire.

andrew van rensburg said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Mole. Yes, the bush fire story was lame to say the least. The masthead lights and red side light were viewed as such by three separate witnesses on Harlow. As a doctor, it seems impossible to me, that three separate individuals experienced precisely the same hallucination. But bush fires were a way out of the mess and adopted by the first officer and chief engineer, eager I'm sure, to avoid censure for not having gone back to assist survivors. The general public was keen to follow suit, no one wishing to believe that Waratah had been on fire, finally exploding before disappearing from view. Wreckage will always be a counter argument, particularly if there had been an explosion - which I do not believe to be the case given that no one on Harlow HEARD explosion/s. The source of the two flashes of light remain in the realm of speculation, ? socket signals. My belief is that Waratah was very heavy, perhaps too heavy, and foundered very quickly after a breach in her hull - possibly taking a knock off the St John reef or fire heat damage to inner and outer hull plates. Being winter and a storm approaching, everything would have been secured and battened down. What wreckage there was would swiftly have been carried by the offshore current running northeastward, finally entering the Agulhas Current, flowing southwestward down the South African coast. In the case of the SS Pericles, she went down only 6 miles offshore and according to newspaper reports, no wreckage came ashore. See: http://waratahrevisited.blogspot.co.za/2017/06/pericles-vs-waratah.html. There were many such instances, examples of which appear in the blog, of steamers foundering without traces of wreckage. There is also the possibility that wreckage did find its way onto the surrounding coastline, escaping detection of the authorities due to the remote and sparsely inhabited stretch of Wild Coast northeast and southwest of Port St Johns. I hope this goes some way to answering your important question. Andrew