The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) Thursday 25 February, 1911 SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 1911.
THE WARATAH INQUIRY.
The inquiry into the circumstancesand cause of the loss of the ill-fatedsteamer, Waratah, held at the instance of the Imperial Board of Trade,has been brought to a conclusion, andthe court has given its judgment. Thejudgment is certainly neither conclusive nor greatly illuminating, and it has in it little or no element of satisfactionto either the relatives of those who met their fate in the devoted ship, or to the general public whose interest has been singularly aroused, and whose empathy has been keenly excited by a catastrophe the mystery and the tragedy of which alike have seldom been excelled in all the mysterious and tragic happenings of the sea. The fact that there was no survivor of the loss of the Waratah, that not a solitary person was left to say either what was actually the fate of the steamer, or by what circumstances it was led up to, greatly, indeed almost hopelessly, handicapped the Inquiry and the difficulties by which the Court was faced were appreciably added to by the remarkable reticence upon certain points, the elucidation of which was highly desirable, if it was not necessary to the fulfilment of the purpose in the Inquiry, upon the part of the owners and builders of the lost ship, who are explicitly declared by the Court to have been guilty of at least an economy of the truth.
All manner of statements have beenmade at various times, by officers andothers who had been employed onboard the Waratah, which seriouslyreflected upon the seaworthiness of theboat. But these failed to materialiseto any extent when they were calledfor as evidence at the inquiry. It wasthen found difficult to get anyoneabove the lowest rank as employee tomake any damaging statement, or togive evidence that would be in the wayof confirmation of the alarming andcompromising reports that had been ingeneral circulation. There was a wholesale repudiation by the superior and responsible ex-employees of the ship of the statements as to the unfitness of the boat to meet the demands of adverse sea and weather conditions attributed to them by trustworthy persons. There scorns to be no doubt at all that such statements were incautiously made before and about the time of the disappearance of the boat, but those who had been betrayed into making them, for reasons very good to themselves, and that can be quite understood, refused to confirm them when the inquiry into the disaster which might have serious consequences to the owners, came to be made. However much we may regret the change of attitude on the part of those who were expected to be valuable witnesses at the Inquiry, it can be easily accounted for. Those who were called upon to give evidence are men who have to make their living by following the sea, as the expression is, and who had they spoken out as freely at the Inquiry as they were reliably reported to have done before, it would have run the risk of imperiling their means of livelihood, and of wrecking their professional careers. They evidently felt, and no doubt they had good reason for so feeling, that to have been as frank and explicit at the Inquiry as they had been when surprised and shocked by the news of the disaster, would have been to run the risk of being placed on a black list the inclusion in which would have made it practically impossible for them to obtain further employment as ship's officers. There is notoriously a freemasonry amongst ship-owners, as there is amongst all large associated employees of skilled labor, and it is only too likely that those having common ground for irritation at criticism would have no use for men who would deem it their duty to make inconvenient and incriminating disclosures before a tribunal at which their owners were on trial.
Thus the court, which, of course,could not take account of hearsay evidence, however interesting and suggestive it might be, had to content itself with the testimony of inferior employees, whose comparative independence made it possible for them to speak out, and with such admissions as it was able to drag from the owners and builders of the ship. And these were remarkably few, and of remarkably small value. In fact the court has felt itself constrained to so seriously comment on the evidence of Mr. F. Lund, the representative of the owners and the builders, as to practicallycensure them.
The Court places it on record that inits opinion ''Neither Mr. F. Lund norPeck and Co., the builders of the Waratah,, gave a complete account" of a certain important interview at whichsome serious defects of the ship, if notits actual unseaworthiness, were discussed. The Court added that as the only witnesses who could be explicit as to this interview elected to be reticent and inconclusive, it could only leave the matter there. That comment is just about as severe a one as the Court could make, and is pointed by the Court's declaration that the silence of the owners in another connection, that of their opinion generally as to the stability of the ship, "almost compelled an inference, unfavorable to them." This is poor satisfaction to those who have been bereaved by the disaster, or to the public. But at least it is something that the owners,whose knowledge of the unreliablenessof the boat was very broadly suggested,have been judicially placed under aban of the popular endorsementofwhich there can be no doubt.
The finding of the court exculpatesthe Waratah's owners so far as all legalconsequences are concerned. It appears to amount to this: That the Waratah was, on much evidence as could be obtained, seaworthy under ordinary circumstances, but that it was unequal to contend with some extraordinary conditions which it was calledupon to face. The court's decision indicates that a ship may be what is known as "tender," that is to say, easily rolled from one side to another to a certain extent, but still ordinarilysafe from capsizing, its resistance tooverturning increasing greatly afterthe first moderate degree of rolling hasbeen reached. The court has, in effect,found that the Waratah was such aship as this, and that though tender(very liable to be easily rolled fromthe perpendicular), it possessed toomuch stability to be in danger of capsizing except , under circumstances ofextraordinary severity. Such circumstances unfortunately the Waratah encountered. Hence the tragic fate which it and its unhappy company and passengers, the majority of the latter Australians met. And that is the endof it all. The conclusion is cold comfort to the bereaved relatives of the doomed crew and passengers, as indeed, would have been any conclusion, even much more definite conclusion than this, that the court could havecome to. We know just as much as we knew before the inquiry was held. What were conjectures then remain for the most part conjectures still; whilst the suspicions that have been entertained as to the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy have been strengthened, even if they have not been confirmed. This damning report captures the frustration felt by those connected with the loss of the Waratah and the public in general. Unfortunately, in the absence of physical evidence or survivor accounts, the Court's judgment was doomed from the start. I believe the owners and builders adopted a very successful ploy to divert the Court's attention away from the very real limitations of the Waratah and the report virtually accuses the owners of having undue influence on crew in their employ and casts a generally scathing light on the brotherhood of shipowners and the lengths to which this perverted the course of justice. One wonders if this brotherhood extended to the officials representing the various ports of call, as well ? Not all blame can be left at the feet of the owners and builders. The Court made no attempt to explore the reasons for Waratah not complying with her class and registration for a freeboard and draught outside that which one would consider safe for the era. The Court blatantly ignored the issue of general cargo value and insurance for fear of revealing the true total tonnage and its implications. Witness reports that lifeboats could not be easily mobilised (whether leaky or not) were left up in the air. I could go on and on... My personal opinion is that Waratah was inherently top heavy and under powered for her size. GM stability could only be achieved by functional overloading and excessive ballasting (lead). Her under powered engines sufficed for fine weather but would have been detrimental in challenging conditions. Therein lies enough culpability. Captain Ilbery was confronted with the impossible. No wonder he went away when the heeling test was conducted and almost did not take command of the second doomed voyage.