The SS Waratah, sometimes referred to as Australia's Titanic, was a 500-foot (150 m) long steamship that operated between Europe and Australia in the early 1900s. In July 1909, the ship, en route from Durban to Cape Town, disappeared with 211 passengers and crew aboard. To this day, no trace of the ship has been found.
The Waratah was a steamer, built by Barclay Curle & Co in Whiteinch, Glasgow (Scotland) and destined to be the flagship of the Blue Anchor Line. It was named Waratah after the emblem flower of New South Wales, Australia, which appears to have been an unlucky name: one ship of that name had been lost off the island of Ushant in the English Channel in 1848, one in 1887 on a voyage to Sydney, another south of Sydney, and one in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1897.
Features The ship was designed to serve as a passenger and cargo liner to Australia, and was launched on 12 September 1908 by Mrs J. W. Taverner, wife of the Agent-General of Victoria. It had 100 first class cabins, 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. As well as these luxurious quarters, Waratah was intended to serve the strong emigrant trade from Europe to Australia. On the outward journey her cargo holds would be converted into large dormitories capable of holding almost 700 steerage passengers. On the return journey she would be laden with goods, mainly foodstuffs. She was fitted out for carrying refrigerated cargo, could carry food and stores for a year at sea, and had an on-board desalination plant that could produce 5,500 gallons (25,000 litres) of fresh water a day. She did not carry a radio, which was not unusual for the time.
CareerOn 5 November 1908, the Waratah began her maiden voyage from London, England, with 689 passengers in third-class accommodation and 67 first-class passengers. Her captain was Joshua E. Ilbery, a master with 30 years nautical experience. The subsequent inquiry into her sinking raised some disputed reports of instability on this voyage. On the ship's return to England there had been some discussion about stowage between the owners and the builders. On 27 April 1909, the Waratah set out on her second trip to Australia. This was uneventful, and on 1 July 1909 she set out from Melbourne on the return journey. She was bound for the South African ports of Durban and Cape Town and was then to return to London. The Waratah reached Durban, where one passenger, Claude Sawyer, an engineer and experienced sea traveller, left the ship and sent the following cable to his wife in London: "Thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban". The Waratah left Durban on 26 July with 211 passengers and crew. On 27 July she passed the steamer Clan McIntyre. That ship's crew said that all seemed well and that the Waratah was making easy going of the rising seas and winds and quickly pulled ahead of their ship before disappearing over the horizon to the southwest. Later that day, the weather deteriorated quickly (as is common in that area) A wind gusting to 50 knots (90 km/h) combined against the tide and ocean swell to build waves up to 30 feet (9 m). That evening the Union-Castle Liner Guelph, heading north to Durban from the Cape of Good Hope, passed a ship and exchanged signals by lamp, but because of the bad weather and poor visibility was able to identify only the last three letters of her name as "T-A-H." The same evening, a ship called the Harlow saw a large steamer coming up astern of her, working hard in the heavy seas and making a great deal of smoke, enough to make her captain wonder if the steamer was on fire. When darkness fell, the crew of the Harlow could see the steamer's running lights approaching, but still 10–12 miles behind them, when there were suddenly two bright flashes from the vicinity of the steamer and the lights vanished. The mate of the Harlow 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.Reportedly the Harlow was 180 miles from Durban. The Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909, but never reached its destination. No trace of the ship has been found.
Initially, it was believed that the Waratah was still adrift. The Royal Navy deployed cruisers HMS Pandora and 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. On 13 August 1909 the steamship "Insizwa" reported seeing bodies off the "Bashow" (Mbashe) River In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Union Castle ship Sabine to search for the Waratah. The search of the Sabine covered 14,000 miles, but yielded no result. 1910: relatives of the Waratah passengers chartered the Wakefield and conducted a search for three months, which again proved unsuccessful. The official enquiry into the fate of the Waratah was held at London in December 1910. Among others, Claude Sawyer, the engineer who had thought the ship top-heavy and thus landed at Durban, gave testimony on that occasion. 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. 1977: a wreck was located off the Xora River Mouth. Several investigations into this wreck, in particular under the leadership of Emlyn Brown took place. It is however widely believed today that the wreck off the Xora River Mouth was that of one of many ships which had fallen victim to German U Boats during the Second World War. 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 1991, 1995 and 1997. 1999: reports reached the newspapers that the Waratah had been found 10 km off the eastern coast of South Africa (Addley). 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 closer inspection revealed differences between the Waratah and the wreck. It appears that the team had in fact found the Nailsea Meadow, a ship that had been sunk in the Second World War. 2004: Emlyn Brown, who had by now 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".
Freak wave The most popular theory advanced to explain the disappearance of the Waratah is an encounter with a freak wave, also known as a rogue wave, in the ocean off the South African coast. Such waves are known to be common in that area of the ocean. It is most likely that the Waratah, with what seems to be marginal stability and already ploughing through a severe storm, was hit by a giant wave. This either rolled the ship over outright or stove-in her cargo hatches, filling the holds with water and pulling the ship down almost instantly. If the ship capsized or rolled over completely, any buoyant debris would be trapped under the wreck, explaining the lack of any bodies or wreckage in the area. This theory was given credibility through a paper by Professor Mallory of the University of Cape Town (1973) which suggested that waves of up to 20 metres in height did occur between Richards Bay and Cape Agulhas. This theory also stands up if the Waratah is assumed to have been stable and seaworthy – several ships around the Cape of Good Hope have been severely damaged and nearly sunk by freak waves flooding their holds. Throughout the world ships such as the Melanie Schulte (a German ship lost in the Atlantic) and the MV Derbyshire (a British bulk carrier sunk in the Pacific) have suddenly broken up and sunk within minutes in extreme weather. Some have also suggested that instead of sinking, the ship was incapacitated by a freak wave and, having lost her rudder and without any means of contacting land, was swept southwards towards Antarctica to either be lost in the open ocean or foundering on Antarctica itself. No evidence except the absence of the wreck supports this theory, however. Whirlpool Both at the time of the disappearance and since, several people have suggested that the Waratah was caught in a whirlpool created by a combination of winds, currents and a deep ocean trench, several of which are known to be off the southeast coast of Africa. This would explain the lack of wreckage, but there is no firm evidence that a whirlpool of sufficient strength to almost instantly suck down a 450-foot-long (140 m) ocean liner could be created as suggested. Explosion Given the evidence from the officers of the Harlow (see above), it has been speculated that the Waratah was destroyed by a sudden explosion in one of her coal bunkers. Coal dust can certainly self-combust and in the right proportions of air be explosive. However, no single bunker explosion would cause a ship the size of the Waratah to sink instantly, without anyone being able to launch a lifeboat or raft, and without leaving any wreckage. Paranormal Several supernatural theories were also put forward to explain the disappearance of the Waratah. Claude Sawyer reported to the London inquiry that he had seen on three occasions the vision of a man "with a long sword in a peculiar dress. He was holding the sword in his right hand and it was covered in blood." This vision was one of the reasons why he decided not to continue the voyage on the Waratah. Methane upswelling In recent years, incidents involving seabed methane upwellings have shown that it is quite possible for structures fully capable of floating on water, to readily sink in water whose density has been reduced by volumes of methane gas in bubble form. Methane is a product of the decomposition of dead living matter; on the seabed, at low temperatures and high pressures, the methane becomes a hydrated form, with a waxy layer which prevents the methane escaping, allowing it to accumulate. Undersea geological events can break the waxy layer, allowing huge volumes of the gas to escape, bubbling up to the surface. A Soviet oil rig was found to have finished up sixty feet below the seabed after one of these episodes. Aftermath The Waratah's disappearance, the inquiry and the criticism of the Blue Anchor Line generated much negative publicity. The line's ticket sales dropped severely, and coupled with the huge financial loss taken in the construction of the Waratah (which like many ships of the time, was under-insured), forced the company to sell its other ships to its main competitor P&O and declare voluntary liquidation in 1910.
Memorials A memorial to Thomas Newman, a victim of the sinking, in Higher Cemetery, Exeter There is a plaque in the Parish Church at Buckland Filleigh, Devon, England, commemorating Col. Percival John Browne. He was returning to England on the Waratah, from his sheep farm in Mount Gambier, South Australia. His family home was Buckland House. In the main church in Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales, is a plate "in happy memory of John Purton Morgan, 3rd Officer SS Waratah lost at sea 1909". In the Parish Church of St. Wilfrid, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, England, is a plaque: "The church gates were given in memory of Harris Archibald Gibbs who was drowned at sea in the SS Waratah". A centenary plaque was unveiled at the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum, Victoria, Australia, on 27 July 2009. A memorial in Higher Cemetery, Exeter, Devon, commemorates Thomas Newman "drowned in SS Waratah 27th July 1909".