Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Inquiry transcript:

George Purssey Phillips. 

Chief officer of "Clan Macintyre." 

At 6 a.m. on the 27th July we exchanged signals with the "Waratah." She had no list but seemed to be in good order, and not to be in any difficulty whatever. 

"I am chief officer of the steamship 'Clan Macintyre,' of Glasgow, the official number of which is 115775. I was on watch on the said vessel, in charge, from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the 27th July, 1909, the vessel having left Durban on the 26th July for London; the steamship 'Waratah' was in Durban when we left. I saw her there as we were leaving. When I came on watch at 4 a.m. on 27th July a steamer was in view a good distance astern of us, on our starboard quarter. She was bearing north-easterly from the 'Clan Macintyre,' that is nearer the land. She gradually overhauled us, and when abeam, at 6 a.m., and distant from 2 to 3 miles, we exchanged signals" 

" The 'Waratah' was showing the usual navigation lights, there were also numerous electric deck-lights, &., on and off from time to time. She had no list, but seemed to be in good order, and not to be in any difficulty whatever. We saw nothing more of her after she passed out of sight."

It has always intrigued and puzzled me why Waratah, when she was first sighted at 4 am, was closer to shore (however close that might have been) relative to the smaller cargo steamer Clan MacIntyre. Waratah was heavily laden and due to her size would have benefited far more being either in the same lane as Clan MacIntyre or further out where swells and wave lengths are more predictable and favourable - not to mention gaining from the full impact of the Agulhas Current. Furthermore, Mr. Phillips remarked that her novel electric 'deck lights etc. were going on and off, from time to time'. This makes no sense. Seen from a distance, individual lights would have made no impact. This must refer to deck-lights going on and off en-mass. This would not have been normal and could infer that Waratah was experiencing electrical difficulties, hence being closer to shore should drastic action need to be taken. As it was, she overhauled Clan MacIntyre, heading more south into the heart of the Agulhas Current and stable waters. By this time one might assume that the electrical difficulties had been 'sorted'. The following extract from Charles River Editors' excellent volume on Titanic makes an interesting point about the new addition of electricity on board luxury steamers: 

One of the reasons that those who built the Titanic were so concerned about fire was because the Olympic class ships were wired throughout with electrical lighting, a relatively new concept that many still feared.  One man explained to a board of inquiry, “With regard to fire, I think the Attorney-General mentioned the question in the course of his very exhaustive examination: I suggest to you … that this question of fire,especially since the electric light has become the method of illuminating ships, is a matter which ought to be very carefully considered - the possibility of fire at sea through the fusing of wires.”

Electricity also powered “562 electric heaters and 153 electric motors"

Charles River Editors. The Titanic: The History and Legacy of the World’s Most Famous Ship from 1907 to Today (Kindle Locations 634-635). Charles River Editors. Kindle Edition. 

Fires at sea could occur due to the 'fusing of wires' and relate back to the initially observed deck-lights going on and off. This might in fact have been the cause of the fire which forced Waratah to turn back for Durban (if the Harlow account be true). Such a fire would have spread fast, as is frequently seen in modern day tragedies, overwhelming fire-fighting equipment and rendering crew incapable through smoke inhalation. Against this theory would have to be the observation made by Captain Bruce of the Harlow that he could not understand why keepers at the Cape Hermes lighthouse did not see Waratah with her multitude of deck-lights blazing. Surely if there had been an electrical fire, there would have been no electrical light during her last moments. But the concept remains intriguing....


Mole said...

A ship afire must be a terrifying disaster. I was reminded of the use of fireships e.g. by the British Navy to cause devastation among the Spanish Armada in the time of Elizabeth I - fearsome in that both fleets consisted, of course, of wooden vessels. Either side could lose ships in this way; it was impossible to control the course of a fireship - no crew on board. An unguided yet effective missile. The Waratah may have had a fire due to electrical or other problems but surely a fire could not be mistaken for a blaze of deck lights. Or for deck lights going on and off intermittently.

andrew van rensburg said...

I agree Mole, deck lights were one of the highly specific descriptions offered by Captain Bruce and were quite apart from the large volume of smoke tracking Waratah's course. Deck-lights going on and off will have to remain a mystery and preceded any signs of fire on board Waratah. What happened between 9.30 am and 7.30 pm 27 July is as mysterious as the disappearance of the steamer itself. Andrew