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SS Waratah, Stories and Legends


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Many and varied are the tales of what happened to the Waratah, before and after her sudden disappearance. Some of our famous raconteurs, such as Eric Rosenthal and Lawrence Green wrote engaging accounts of first-hand information gathered from people who saw the ship founder, or spoke to others who had fresh material to add to the grist. Well, stories are one thing, evidence is another, and it is indeed difficult to cull fact from fiction. Let us have a look at some interesting theories and tales I have collected, and you can make your own mind up about what really happened.

Dates, Dimentions and Details
The SS Waratah was built by Barclay, Curle & Co., for Lund's Blue Anchor Line. She was launched on the river Clyde on 12th September 1908, being 465 feet in length, with a 59.2 foot beam, and of between 7500 to 9339 tons, depending on the system of measurement used.
With a design speed of 13.5 knots, she was capable of carrying 430 passengers, plus a crew of 119.
From what I can gather, she must have been largely fitted out before launch, because she began her maiden voyage to Australia on 5th November 1908, under two months later. Captain J.E. Ilbery was in command, and her return voyage to London was made in February 1909.

Last voyage, Sailing Time
She sailed from Durban on a winter's night, at 8 o'clock, Monday the 26th July, 1909 leaving her berth at "C" Shed, on the Point. The tug in attendence was the "Richard King", and there was a stiff wind blowing.

Acknowledged last Sighting
The Waratah caught up to the slower SS Clan MacIntyre, bound for London, just short of Cape Hermes, at Port St.John's. The position, announced later by Lloyds, was 31.36S 29.58E. Note, this position places Clan MacIntyre fifteen and a half miles offshore. The time was 6 o'clock on the morning of the 27th July. They exchanged messages of identification by signal lamp, and the faster Waratah drew ahead.

Unconfirmed Sightings
1) Eric Rosenthal writes "After 9:30am the crew of the Clan MacIntyre could see the Waratah making her way ahead, until she was opposite the estuary of the Bashee river". This raises a question regarding the speed of the two ships, and their relative positions following their exchange of signals.
2) At noon on the 27 th July, Edward Joe Conquer, a soldier who was standing on a rise near the Xora River mouth, looked through his telescope and saw a ship sinking.
3) Rosenthal mentions another sighting, at 6:00pm in the evening of the 27th July, twelve hours after passing the Clan MacIntyre.......
The SS Harlow, Captain John Bruce, was steering North East for Durban off Cape Hermes, when he caught sight of the Waratah. The Harlow was not more than two and a half miles offshore at the time. Suddenly the masthead lights and outline of a steamer appeared, barely a mile off Cape Hermes, and about ten to twelve miles from the Harlow. Two bright flashes were seen astern, they looked like explosions, and suddenly the steamer's lights were no longer visible. Rosenthal writes "The place was fifty-one miles from where the Clan MacIntyre last saw the Waratah".
4) Near East London, at 9:51pm on the night of 27th July, the Union-Castle liner Guelph, Captain Culverwell, saw the lights of a vessel. They exchanged signals, which were unfortunately obscure. The end of the ship's name appeared to end in "tah".

Analysis of reported sightings
1) It is unlikely the Clan MacIntyre still had Waratah in sight off the Bashee river mouth, at or after 9:30am. The Bashee is roughly 63 nautical miles from the position given by Lloyds. Waratah would have had to maintain 18 knots to achieve that distance in three and a half hours, whis was far beyond her capability of 13.5 knots.
Rather, if Clan MacIntyre still had Waratah in sight at 9:30am, and the seas were running high, Waratah had probably been forced to reduced speed to about nine knots, the Clan MacIntyre to about 7 knots. This is the only explanation how the Clan MacIntyre could still be within sight of the Waratah at that time. The visibility could only have been eight or nine miles in that weather. If Waratah had travelled any faster, she would have been out of sight earlier than 9:30am.
This taken into account, the Waratah would have been about 32 nautical miles from the 6:00am position, due east of Coffee bay, and still 31 nautical miles short of the Bashee.
2) No-one took Conquer seriously at the time, but in 1925, a Lieutenant Roos flying over the area near the river mouth, spotted a dark shape on the seabed that resembled a shipwreck. Coincidentally, Conquer had meanwhile joined the airforce. He and Lieutenant Roos met, and started talking about the Waratah. They came to the same conclusion as to the Waratah's whereabouts!
However, the SS Khedive sank in the area in 1913. Was it perhaps her remains Lieut. Roos saw?
3) If the ship the Harlow spotted was indeed the Waratah, and her estimated position at 9:30am had been due east of Coffee bay, then we have 8.5 hours in which to estimate how far South West she sailed, before turning back North East to end up near Cape Hermes at 6:00 pm.
Let us take it that she continued on her S.W. course, normally, for 3 hours at 9 knots. She would have covered 27 nautical miles, bringing her to near the Bashee river at 12:30pm, about the time Joe Conquer said he saw a ship "roll over and sink".
Again, IF the ship WAS the Waratah, she could have been reversing course at the time, turning out to sea, causing Conquer to lose sight of her. This leaves her with 5-odd hours to travel about 50 nautical miles back to Cape Hermes, at a feasable average speed of 10 knots, with the running seas.
4) There exists a theory that Waratah foundered outside the continental shelf near Port Elizabeth.

Sightings of flotsum
Over two weeks after the disappearance, say 13/14 August, the captain of the SS Tottenham saw the body of a ten or twelve-year old girl floating in the sea. She was wearing a red cape with a hood, and black stockings with bare knees. He believed other bodies came past, but he was unable to recover any of them. It is not stated where on the coast this occurred.
A similar statement came from the captain of the SS Insizwa, in the vacinity of the Bashee river mouth. Four fully-clothed bodies were seen floating in the waves. No attempt was made to pick them up either. In this case, we don't have the date of the sighting.
During March 1910, a cushion bearing the letter "W" was reported having been washed ashore at Mossel Bay, and in February 1912, a lifebelt with the name "Waratah" on it, was washed ashore in New Zealand.

Speed and course
When abreast Port St.John's, (Cape Hermes) Waratah had travelled roughly 114 nautical miles from Durban in ten hours, which is an average of about 11 knots, which is nomal, giving her time to clear the Bluff at Durban. Her course would have been roughly South West.

The Weather and it's effects on shipping
Really severe weather in the form of storms from the south began to confront Clan MacIntyre and Waratah from 6:30am onward. At that time, the two ships were still in visual contact, having just passed. There was unusually severe weather over a wide quadrent of the Indian Ocean from the 26th July, and it continued for some time after the disappearance.
As an example of how severe conditions become along this stretch of coast, the 28 000 ton Edinburgh Castle had a frightening experience in August 1962. She sailed from Durban on an unpleasant, overcast day, and set off down the coast en route for East London. That evening, passengers felt the ship pitch steeply by the head, followed by a violent shudder, as if she had hit something solid. She had apparently pitched into a deep trough, and a huge wave had broken over the bows on to her foredeck. Damage was quite severe, some deck equipment was bent out of shape, a couple of empty horse-boxes stored forward were completely destroyed. Two plate-glass windows at the forward end of the promenade deck were smashed and water had entered the forward end of D deck.
In the 1970s, the Bencruachan ran into similar conditions on the same stretch of coast. The whole forecastle was smashed down out of alignment. Only her steel hatch covers and welded hull construction saved her. She limped back to Durban for temporary repairs, and later sailed to the Far East where her bow was reconstructed. Her master said a massive wave appeared out of nowhere and without warning.
There are many more such reports of damage sustained by shipping on the Wild Coast.

Ports of Call
Waratah was scheduled to dock at Cape Town, before continuing to London. I calculate that she would have been expected at Cape Town during the afternoon of Thursday 29th July

Theories and arguments
The most common theory is that she was swamped by a freak wave, and foundered. Variations to this theory include machinery breakdowns and/or explosions on board, causing her to turn back to Durban, and succumbing to the heavy seas running at the time.
The second theory, as subscribed to by the enquiry, was that she had suffered some sort of mechanical breakdown, and was adrift. Either way, the absolute absence of wreckage of any sort swung the ensuing enquiry to presume Waratah was adrift.
Mr. Lund, her owner, was waiting for the ship in Cape Town. He remarked, "There has been very bad weather off the coast, and we are of the opinion that some part of the machinery has been disabled, such as the main steam pipe, which would take several days to repair. The vessel is probably drifting". Ships searching the coastal waters spoke of mountainous seas and cyclonic weather, and no trace of wreckage found. Other ships searched the route to Australia and New Zealand without success.

Posted Missing
The SS Waratah was officially posted missing on 18th December 1909. The search, however, was not abandoned immediately, but trickled on for some months.

Dr. Clive Cussler's site at NUMA is interesting to browse through regarding attempts to locate the Waratah.

Schooners and Skyscrapers by Eric Rosenthal, Howard Timmins, Cape Town 1963., The Daily Dispatch., The Sunday Times., Die Burger., Emlyn Brown., The Natal Witness., The S.A.B.C.

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