Vintage: SS Waratah: The mystery of the disappearance of the ‘Titanic of the South’ lives on
SS Waratah was a passenger and cargo steamship weighing almost 10 000 tons, was 500-foot long and was built in 1908 for the Blue Anchor Line to operate between Europe and Australia. In July 1909, on only her second voyage, this steamer ship en route from Durban to Cape Town disappeared with 211 passengers and crew aboard. The Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909 but never reached its destination. No trace of the ship has ever been found.
The SS Waratah left Durban at approximately 20h15 on 26 July 1909 with 211 passengers and crew. In the pre-dawn hours of 27 July 1909, the brand-new triple deck passenger and cargo steamship, the SS Waratah, drew level with the SS Clan MacIntyre, off the Transkei Wild Coast. Though clouded in darkness, the two ships communicated by lamp signal, exchanging customary information about the name and destination of their respective ships. They sailed within view of each other for a few hours, before the faster Waratah, on only her second voyage, gradually sped away.
The Waratah and her 211 passengers and crew members were never seen again in what would become one of the greatest maritime mysteries of the southern hemisphere.
Titanic of the South
The Waratah was of the spar-deck type ship and had three complete decks ie lower, main and spar. The first-class accommodations were built on the promenade, bridge and boat decks and could house 128 passengers. In addition, a nursery was provided on the ship for first-class passenger's convenience. The vessel also had third-class passenger accommodations constructed on the poop deck that could house upward of 300 people but was certified for only 160. The Waratah was constructed for both speed and luxury and had eight state rooms and a salon whose panels depicted its namesake flower, as well as a luxurious music lounge complete with a minstrel's gallery. With an intent of also being an emigrant ship, her cargo holds would be converted into large dormitories capable of holding almost 700 steerage passengers on the outward journeys, while on the return the steamer would be laden with general cargo, mainly frozen meat, dairy products, wool and metal ore from Australia. In order to be able to carry frozen produce, her entire front end was fitted with refrigerating machinery and cold chambers. She also had Kirkcaldy's distilling apparatus installed on board capable of producing 5 500 imp gal (25 000 litres) of fresh water a day. At the time of construction, the Waratah was not equipped with a radio, which was not unusual at the time.
At around 4h00am on 27 July1909, the SS Waratah was spotted astern on the starboard side by the Clan Line steamer Clan MacIntyre, drawing level at around 6am. The Waratah, going approximately 13 knots, then overtook Clan MacIntyre at a location abeam of the Bashee River and remained in sight, speeding gradually away from Clan MacIntyre until she disappeared over the horizon by about 9h30am. This would be the final confirmed sighting of Waratah.
Later that day, the weather deteriorated quickly (as is common in that area), with increasing wind and rough seas. On 28 July 1909, a hurricane sprang up in the area, so bad that the captain of the Clan MacIntyre said it was the worst weather he had experienced at sea in his 13 years as a seaman, with winds of exceptional strength causing tremendous seas.
At around 17h30 on the 27th, a ship called the Harlow saw the smoke of a steamer on the horizon. However, there was so much smoke that her captain wondered if the steamer was on fire. When darkness fell, the crew of the Harlow could see the steamer's running lights approaching. While still about 16 to 19km behind them, there was suddenly two bright flashes from the direction of the steamer and the lights vanished. The captain thought they were caused by explosions but the mate of the Harlow who had also seen them, thought the flashes were brush fires on the shore, a common phenomenon in the area at that time of year. The captain agreed and did not even enter the events in the log; only when he learnt of the disappearance of the Waratah did he think the events significant.
That same evening at around 21h30, the Union-Castle Liner Guelph, heading north to Durban from the Cape of Good Hope, passed a ship and exchanged signals by lamp. Due to the bad weather and poor visibility, however, she was able to identify only the last three letters of her name as “T-A-H”.
Another possible sighting, which was not disclosed to the Inquiry at the time, was by Edward Joe Conquer, a Cape mounted rifleman who on 28 July 1909, was posted to carry out military exercises on the banks of the mouth of the Xora River along with Signaller H Adshead. He recorded in his diary that he and Adshead had observed through a telescope a steamship that matched the description of the Waratah, which appeared to be struggling slowly against heavy seas in a south-westerly direction. Conquer observed the ship roll heavily to starboard and then before it was able to right itself, a following wave rolled over the ship, which then disappeared from view, leading Conquer to believe it had gone under.
He reported his sightings to his base camp and to his orderly sergeant, who apparently did not take the matter seriously. He did not come forward with his story until 1929.
Searching in vain
Initially, the non-appearance of the ship did not cause alarm as it was not uncommon for ships to arrive at port days or occasionally even weeks overdue.
As Waratah was considered unsinkable, it was at first thought likely that she had been delayed by a breakdown or mechanical fault and was still adrift. Fears started to grow for her safety, when ships which had left Durban after the Waratah and had travelled on a similar course, began arriving at Cape Town and reported having seen no sign of her en route.
The first search effort was launched on 1 August 1909, when the tugboat TE Fuller was sent out to look for any sign of the ship but was forced to turn back after encountering dreadful weather. She later returned to search along the coast.
The Royal Navy deployed cruisers HMS Pandora, HMS Forte and later HMS Hermes to search for the Waratah. The Hermes, near the area of the last sighting of the Waratah, encountered waves so large and strong that she strained her hull and had to be placed in dry dock on her return to port.
On 10 August 1909, a cable from South Africa reached Australia, reading, “Blue Anchor vessel sighted a considerable distance out. Slowly making for Durban. Could be the Waratah”.
The Chair of the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament halted proceedings to read out the cable, saying, “Mr Speaker has just informed me that he has news on reliable authority that the SS Waratah has been sighted making slowly towards Durban.” In Adelaide, the town bells were rung but the ship in question was not the Waratah.
Numerous other ships in the area joined the search including the Waratah's sister ship Geelong, which deviated from its course from Cape Town to Adelaide, to search waters east of South Africa where the Waratah was thought to be possibly drifting.
The German steamship Goslar also kept special lookout for Waratah for 1262 miles of ocean while en route from Port Elizabeth to Melbourne.
On 13 August 1909 the steamship Insizwa reported sighting of several bodies off the mouth of Bashee (Mbashe) River, near the location of the last confirmed sighting of the Waratah. The Captain of the Tottenham also allegedly saw bodies in the water, more than two weeks after the Waratah disappeared.
In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Union Castle cargo ship Sabine to search for the Waratah. The Sabine was specially fitted out with search lights and other equipment. Its search covered 23 000km and zig-zagged across the drift path of the aforementioned Waikato but yielded no result.
Wreckage was reported to have been found at Mossel Bay in March 1910. A life preserver reportedly marked with the name ‘Waratah’ washed up on the coast of New Zealand in February 1912. In 1925 Lt D J Roos of the South African Air Force reported that he had spotted a wreck while he was flying over the Transkei Coast. It was his opinion that this was the wreck of the Waratah. Pieces of cork and timber, possibly from the Waratah, were washed up near East London, South Africa in 1939.
Later search attempts
In 1977 a wreck was located off the mouth of the Xora River. Several investigations into this wreck, in particular under the leadership of Emlyn Brown, took place. It has proven particularly difficult to explain why the Waratah should be found so far to the north of her estimated position. Further attempts to locate the Waratah took place in 1983, 1989, 1991, 1995 and 1997. In 1999 reports reached the newspapers that the Waratah had been found 10km off the eastern coast of South Africa. A sonar scan conducted by Emlyn Brown's team had indeed located a wreck whose outline seemed to match that of the Waratah. In 2001, however, a dive to the site revealed that the wreck was in fact that of the Nailsea Meadow, a merchant cargo ship that had fallen victim to a German U-boat during the Second World War. In 2004, Emlyn Brown, who had by then spent 22 years looking for the Waratah, declared that he was giving up the search, “I've exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look”, he said.
No confirmed wreckage or bodies from the Waratah have ever been found.
The story of the Waratah has often been compared to that of the RMS Titanic which sank three years later. As such the Waratah has been referred to variously as the ‘Titanic of the southern seas’ or the ‘Titanic of the south’ or alternatively ‘Australia's Titanic’.
Source: Buffalo City Tourism, Wikipedia