SS Waratah

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The SS Waratah, sometimes referred to as "Australia's Titanic", was a 500 feet (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. The disappearance of the ship remains one of the most baffling nautical mysteries of all time. To this day no trace of the ship has ever 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. The ship was supposed to serve as a passenger and cargo liner to Australia. 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 nearly 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 which could produce 5,500 gallons (25,000 litres) of fresh water a day. She did not carry a radio, but this was not unusual for the time.[1]

On 5 November 1908, the Waratah began her maiden voyage from London, England, with 689 passengers in third class accommodation and 67 first class passengers.[2] 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, it passed the Clan McIntyre. 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 passed a ship and exchanged signals by lamp, but due to the bad weather and poor visibility was only able to identify 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.[3] Reportably the "Harlow" was 180 miles from Durham [4]

The Waratah was possibly seen off the Transkei coast (East Coast of South Africa) making its way back to Durban when it sank. The eye-witness of the sinking was a police officer who patrolled the area on horseback. He apparently reported the incident in the occurrence book on his return to the station. He was uncle to the late Noel Staples Martin - to whom he passed on the information verbally.

The Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909. It never reached its destination, and no trace of the ship was ever found.

Search efforts

Initially, it was believed that the Waratah was still adrift. The Royal Navy deployed the cruisers HMS Pandora and HMS Forte (and later the 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.[5] 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." [6] In Adelaide, the town bells were rung. However, it turned out that the ship in question had not been the Waratah.

On August 13, 1909 the "Insiza" reported seeing bodies off the "Bashow" {Banshee{?} River [7]

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 gave testimony on that occasion.


Inquiry into sinking

The Board of Trade inquiry into the disappearance quickly came to focus on the supposed instability of the Waratah.[8] Evidence was greatly hampered by the lack of any survivors from the ship's final voyage (other than the small number, including Claude Sawyer, who had disembarked in Durban). Most evidence came from passengers and crew from Waratah's maiden voyage, her builders and those who had handled her in port.

The expert witnesses all agreed that the Waratah was designed and built properly and sailed in good condition.[9] She had passed numerous inspections, including those by her builders, her owners, the Board of Trade and two by Lloyds of London, who gave her the classification "+100 A1" - their top rating,[10] granted only to ships which Lloyds had inspected and assessed throughout the design, construction, fitting out and sea trials, on top of the two valuations and inspections Lloyds had made of the completed Waratah.

Many witnesses testified that the ship had a very long roll (a reluctance to right herself after leaning into a swell). One passenger on her maiden voyage said that when in the Southern Ocean she developed a list to starboard to such an extent that water would not run out of the baths, and she held this list for several hours before rolling upright. This passenger, Professor William Bragg, a member of The Royal Society, had a knowledge of the workings of stability, and concluded that the ship's metacentre was just below her centre of gravity. When slowly rolled over towards one side, she reached a point of equilibrium and would stay leaning over until a shift in the sea or wind pushed her upright.[11]

Other passengers and crew members commented on her lack of stability, and those responsible for handling the ship in port said she was so unstable when unladen that she could not be moved in harbour without ballast.[12]

However, for every witness of this opinion, another could be found who said the opposite. Both former passengers and crew members (ranking from stokers to a deck officer) said the Waratah was perfectly stable, with a comfortable, easy roll.[13] Many said they felt she was especially stable. The ship's builders produced calculations to prove that even with a load of coal on her deck (that several witnesses claim she was carrying when she left Durban) she was not top heavy.[9]

The inquiry was unable to make any conclusions from this mixed and contradictory evidence. It did not blame the Blue Anchor Line, but did make several negative comments in regard to the company's practices in determining the performance and seaworthiness of its new ships.[14] Correspondence between Captain Ilbery and the line's managers show he commented on numerous details about the ship's fixtures, fittings, cabins, public rooms, ventilation and other areas, but failed to make any mention at the basic level of the Waratah's seaworthiness and handling. Equally, the company never asked Captain Ilbery about these areas.[15] This led many to speculate that Ilbery had concerns about the Waratah and its stability, but deliberately kept such doubts quiet. However, it is also possible that neither he nor the Blue Anchor Line felt it necessary to cover such areas, because the Waratah was heavily based on a previous (and highly successful) Blue Anchor ship, the Geelong, and so the Waratah's handling was assumed to be the same.

The inquiry did deduce that the 3 ships that saw ships that could be the Waratah on the evening of the 26th of July could not all have seen her given the distance between them and the time of the sightings unless the Waratah had reached Bashee River and exchanged signals with the Clan MacIntyre, but then turned around and headed back to Durban, in order to be sighted by the Harlow.

It is certainly true that many passenger ships of the period were made slightly top-heavy. This produced a long, comfortable but unstable roll, which many passengers preferred to a short, jarring but stable roll. Many trans-Atlantic liners were designed this way, and after a few voyages those operating them learnt how to load, ballast and handle them correctly and the ships completed decades of trouble-free service. It may have been the Waratah's misfortune to encounter an unusually heavy storm or freak wave on only her second voyage, before she could be trimmed correctly. This slightly top-heavy design could also account for the strongly opposed opinions of witnesses about whether or not the ship felt stable. An inexperienced or uninformed person on the ship might conclude that the long, slow, soft roll of the ship felt comfortable and safe, whilst someone with more seagoing experience or a knowledge of ship design would have felt that the same motion was unstable. In regards to the witnesses claiming the Waratah's instability in port when unladen, this may have been true. However, virtually all ocean-going ships (which are, after all, designed to carry a large weight of cargo) need to be ballasted to some extent when moved unladen, so the Waratah was certainly not unique in this respect. It should be noted that the witnesses would have been well aware of this - the fact that they still came forward to attest that they regarded the Waratah as dangerously unstable in these conditions does suggest that the ship was exceptional in some respect.

The Waratah was also a mixed-use ship. Passenger liners, with a small cargo volume relative to their gross tonnage had fairly constant and predictable ballasting requirements. A ship like the Waratah would carry a wide range of cargoes, and even different cargoes on the same voyage, making the matter of ballasting both more complex and more crucial.[16] When she disappeared, the Waratah was carrying amongst her cargo a load of 1,000 tons of lead concentrate. This may have suddenly shifted, causing the ship to capsize.[17]

Other theories

[edit] 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.[18] 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 meters 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 [19] and the MV Derbyshire (a British bulk carrier sunk in the Pacific) have suddenly broken up and sunk within minutes in extreme weather.



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 to 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.[23]


[References suggest that most of the above derives from:

John Harris, "Without Trace - The Last Voyages of Eight Ships", 1989, Mandarin, ISBN 0-7493-0043-4