Of Fear and Fascination

It all seemed decidedly odd. How was it that the experienced Captain John Rees, on his first approach to Denham in the new Koombana, had mistaken a black buoy for a red one, missed the navigation channel altogether, and driven the ship under full power onto a mound of sand? The oddity did not end there; the ship had struck at high tide, a day or two after ‘springs’. All hope of early release had simply ebbed away.

Everywhere, the Shark Bay incident was discussed, but before anyone could explain the grand alignment, the newcomer was in trouble again. The word was about that Koombana, on her second trip north, had struck a rock off Gantheaume Point.

* * *

On the night of April 28th, 1909, Koombana left Broome for the terminus port of Derby. Captain Rees, as master of Bullarra, had taken this track many times, but this was his first attempt to steer Koombana around Gantheaume Point in darkness. Less than two hours into the journey, and within a mile of the Gantheaume Point lighthouse, he struck something. The ship rode up, slewed sideways and then slid free. Rees figured that he must have hit an uncharted pinnacle of rock or coral. And because the impact had only been felt amidships, and not at the stern where the ship’s draft was greatest, he thought it likely that the top of the pinnacle had been sheared off. After establishing that the ship was not taking water, he decided to continue to Derby rather than re-enter Broome on the next day’s tide.[1]

By a combination of design and circumstance it was impossible to assess the damage immediately. Koombana, like all steamers on the Nor’-West run, had a flat double bottom. Even a gash in the outer skin would not be obvious while the bottom ballast tanks were pressed up with seawater. At either Broome or Derby the hull could be examined while the ship lay hard aground at low tide, but even that uncommon opportunity had its limitation. Damage at the chine would be plainly visible but any injury nearer the keel would remain hidden.[2]

p56One thing was certain: news of this latest incident would not long be contained. In a sense, the Adelaide Steamship Company was the victim of its own success. Koombana’s navigational debut had been inglorious, but her social debut had been spectacular. At every Nor’-West jetty, townsfolk flocked to the ship to mingle with passengers in what was, without doubt, the classiest saloon in town. Mesmerised by iced drinks, electric light, polished walnut and purple plush, visitors drank and talked freely, accepting shipboard gossip as keenly as news from north or south. All details of the Shark Bay grounding were common knowledge from Fremantle to Derby; Rees had little doubt that this debacle would be enjoyed in the same way.

On May 4th, a private telegram received in Fremantle gave rise to a rumour that Koombana had struck a rock and was taking water. The story grew in stature by the hour; indeed, some early-afternoon incarnations declared the ship a total wreck. At that point, the Adelaide Steamship Company’s local manager William Moxon contacted the press. He wished to assure the public that the incident had been a minor one. Yes, he conceded, Koombana had touched something near Broome, but little or no damage had been sustained. When the ship returned to Fremantle, a diver would be sent down to inspect and report.[3]

Koombana’s second Nor’-West run was completed without further incident. At Fremantle on May 10th, fourth engineer Jim Low took advantage of a little free time to finish a long letter to his friend Peggy back home. Of Koombana and her recent ‘touches’ he wrote:

We have been very unfortunate these two trips, first in Shark’s Bay we ran on a sandbank at full speed and stuck there for over a fortnight, had to send down to Fremantle for a ship to help us off it was a long hard job. Then this last trip shortly after leaving Broome we struck a reef, at full speed again and bumped clear over it knocking at least one hole in the bottom, of course we are built with a double bottom which was the only thing that saved us from going right under. I was on watch at the time and the third time she struck it was right under the engine room nearly stopping the engines up dead then the stern lifted up and she raced off and lay over on her side, I thought it was all up with her but she righted up again. There has been a diver down today to find out the damage but we don’t know yet how serious it is. If he can’t fix it off we will have to go round to Melbourne or Sydney to dry dock.[4]

Next day, before posting his letter, Jim added a few lines:

The diver reports no serious damage to the bottom so we leave tomorrow for the run up again. The diver may be right. You’ll notice we don’t get much time in port.

p57On Wednesday, May 12th, 1909, Koombana commenced her third Nor’-West run. Before she returned to Fremantle she would have two more incidents to add to a fast-growing scrapbook. Both occurred at the port of Geraldton, and each was revealing in its own way.

Koombana was by far the biggest ship that would visit Geraldton regularly. The harbourmaster decided that whenever possible she would be directed to the more frequently used western berth, where the constant scour of propeller wash kept the water a little deeper than on the other side. But when Koombana arrived on May 13th, the steamer Largo Law was occupying the western berth. The plan was changed. No problem was anticipated, however; Koombana was drawing 19 feet and even on the shallow side the gauges indicated 21 feet. To Captain Rees’s annoyance, the gauges were wrong. After an hour of scraping the seabed, Koombana was still eight feet from the wharf and defying all attempts to bring her nearer. After further consultation it was decided to accept the situation. A slow, difficult unloading was completed across the gap.[5]

When Koombana southbound returned to Geraldton on June 2nd, she immediately ran into strife again. The western berth was free this time—the harbourmaster had made sure of it—but a hard easterly wind was blowing and Captain Rees found it impossible to keep the ship close and parallel while lines were thrown. A smaller vessel might have managed, but Koombana’s height above the waterline made her extremely susceptible to crosswind. After breaking two steel hawsers, Rees gave up. He accepted the shallow east-side berth as the lesser of two evils.[6]

* * *

On June 4th, 1909, when Perth’s Daily News received the Adelaide Steamship Company’s advertisements, the copy included a late change to the schedule. Koombana, it appeared, would depart for Sydney in a couple of days. In her absence, the Huddart-Parker liner Burrumbeet would take up the Nor’-West running. In its evening edition, the newspaper admitted that it had been unsuccessful in its efforts to ascertain the reason. Koombana’s officers had been reluctant to answer questions, and manager William Moxon was out of town and unavailable for comment.[7] The truth was that Koombana, on her third Nor’-West run, had been inspected again as she sat on the mud at Broome. Some strained rivets and a broken cement seal were visible, and a leaking ballast tank suggested other, hidden damage. It was decided that after returning south, she would go east for repair.

In the days before his departure for Sydney, Captain Rees was informed that he would make two appearances before the Court of Marine Inquiry. An inquiry into the Shark Bay grounding would be held immediately, and a similar inquiry into the Gantheaume Point incident would convene upon his return from Sydney, when the full extent of damage to the ship p58would be known. Thus it happened that just two days after the crosswind fiasco at Geraldton, John Rees came to the Fremantle Court to relive the fortnight spent on an isolated mound of sand in Shark Bay, and to defend his right to remain in command.

A case of negligence could easily have been prosecuted, but Rees was saved by the fact that although the loss to the company had been significant, there was no serious damage to the ship itself. Although he was criticised for insufficient caution in hazy conditions, he received no fine or suspension. “Considering the past good record of the master,” declared Chief Harbourmaster Charles Irvine, “and the fact that the vessel did not sustain any injury, I recommend that no further action be taken.”[8]

With one inquiry behind him, Rees took Koombana east to Sydney. The damage to the hull, as Jim Low and others had suspected, was much more than a few popped rivets. Dry-docking revealed a seventy-foot gouge in the bottom of the hull, with a split a few feet long at the keel. The repair took twenty days. Thirteen plates were removed and replaced, and a six-foot steel strap was used to reinforce the keelson.[9]

Koombana arrived back in Fremantle on August 5th. The next day, John Rees was back in court. Although the Gantheaume Point incident had resulted in a much smaller loss to the company than the Shark Bay grounding, Rees’s personal situation was more difficult. He needed to explain how an uncharted rock, which was less than a mile from the lighthouse and which must have been visible or at least awash on a low spring tide, was only discovered when Koombana ran into it. An alternative explanation, presented by Chief Harbourmaster Irvine, was that the rock was not new at all. Irvine hypothesised that Rees, due to laxity in navigation, had been a quarter-mile off his intended track and had struck a well-known danger.

Somehow, against the odds, John Rees emerged with his master’s ticket intact. If there had been injury or loss of life, or a loss incurred by another shipping line, the result must surely have been different. But in this case, as in the last, Rees’s error had been costly only to his employer. The court found misadventure rather than negligence.[10]

In the court of public opinion, Koombana did not fare so well. Since her Western Australian debut in March, she had been involved in four incidents, two major and two minor, and had been the subject of two formal inquiries. The superstitious declared her ill-fated; the pragmatic wondered if she was simply ill-suited to the work. Whichever the rationale, ‘unlucky Koombana’ was now a matter of newspaper fact.[11]

Although the judgment was harsh, there was a sense in which Koombana was certainly ill-fated. Her misfortune was to look very similar to a steamship whose disappearance would preoccupy the nation for almost two years.

* * *

p59On July 1st, 1909, the Blue Anchor liner Waratah, with 300 passengers and with Captain Joshua Ilbery in command, left Port Adelaide on her second voyage to the old country. At 6.30 a.m. on July 27th, after leaving Durban the previous evening, Waratah passed the steamer Clan McIntyre. Without the benefit of ‘wireless’, greetings were exchanged using signal lamps.

Clan McIntyre: “What ship are you?”

Waratah: “The Waratah, for London.”

Clan McIntyre: “I am the Clan McIntyre for London.

What weather had you from Australia?”

Waratah: “Strong south-west and southerly winds across.”

Clan McIntyre: “Thanks, good-bye, a pleasant voyage.”

Waratah: “Thanks, the same to you, good-bye.”[12]

This casual, cordial exchange, entirely without portent, was the last coherent message ever received from the Waratah. Across the day and into the evening, the weather deteriorated rapidly. Clan McIntyre encountered fifty-knot winds and thirty-foot waves; Captain Weir was probably too busy to wonder how Waratah was faring. At about 10 p.m., the Union-Castle liner Guelph, south of Cape Hermes, sighted a steamer and signalled. There was a reply, but the visibility was poor and most of the flashes were lost behind the crests of a rising sea. Only the last three letters of the vessel’s name were caught: “-t-a-h.” So began one of the great mysteries of the sea.[13]

Waratah and Koombana were Clydebank cousins. Waratah had been launched by Barclay Curle & Company on September 13th, 1908, as Koombana was nearing completion at Alexander Stephen & Sons, at Linthouse directly opposite.[14] Waratah, intended for transoceanic service, was a much larger ship: a twin-screw steamer of almost 10,000 tons. Although differently targeted, Koombana and Waratah were both designed for asymmetrical runs. Waratah was specially configured for the strong and growing emigrant trade, with cargo holds that could be converted to large-scale dormitory accommodation for outbound voyages, and then reorganised for the carriage of Australian produce on the trip home.[15] Koombana was built to carry people and machinery north, and to bring wool and cattle south. On the shoulders of the seasons she would carry many more passengers, southward when the heat became oppressive, and northward to the lands of profit at summer’s end.

In shape and design philosophy, Waratah and Koombana were very similar indeed. Each was ultra-modern, by the standards of its intended trade, and each reflected the new emphasis on passenger comfort and experience. Significantly, both ships were higher than their predecessors; they offered spacious saloon cabins or staterooms on upper decks. Indeed, Waratah’s owners advertised: “No first saloon cabins are situated p60lower than the bridge deck, so that passengers will be able at practically all times to leave their cabin ports open.”[16] Once newspapers had printed photographs of the missing Waratah, comparisons were inevitable.

Koombana (above) and Waratah (below); comparisons were inevitable.

* * *

Accounts of storms were often many weeks in delivery. The steamer Marere had left London on June 30th, 1909; she reached Melbourne on August 13th. Interviewed on the day of his arrival, Captain Firth reported that this latest run from the Cape of Good Hope was one of the worst experiences of his seagoing life. He had rounded the Cape on July 22nd, four days before Waratah left Durban. Marere had then encountered south-westerly gales that persisted until the 28th, when the ship was hit p61by a terrible storm from the east-north-east. Mountainous seas swept the decks, breaking deck fittings and carrying away one of the lifeboats. There was nothing to be done, Firth said, but to ‘heave to’; for the next twelve hours, the ship drove into what he described as “hurricane squalls of snow and hail.”[17]

Captain Firth understood that the preoccupation of his interviewer, and the public at large, was not with Marere. Regarding Waratah, he was as much in the dark as others, but it was too early, he said, to dismiss the presumption that the missing ship had merely broken down. Not all commentators agreed. The misgivings of former Waratah passengers had already come to light. The ship had a very long roll, they said; she took a very long time to return upright. Moreover, on her first Indian Ocean crossing, she had carried a persistent list.

Beside the idle speculators were a few well qualified to voice concern. Professor William Bragg, who could claim both membership of the Royal Society and some knowledge of ship stability, had travelled with Waratah on her maiden voyage. He had concluded that the ship’s “metacentre” was just below her centre of gravity. When slowly rolled over towards one side, he argued, she would reach a point of equilibrium, and stay leaning over until sea or wind pushed her upright.[18] With less erudition but equal persuasiveness, other passengers confirmed that there had been times when the ship was over at such an angle that water would not drain from the bathtubs.

In the wake of any disaster, there will be those who recast hindsight as perceptiveness or premonition. Aboard Waratah for her second voyage was one who could not be accused of that particular self-deception. Experienced sea traveller Claude Sawyer had booked through to Plymouth, but as Waratah crossed the Indian Ocean he was so troubled by the ship’s behaviour that he disembarked at the first opportunity. To his wife in London, he sent a short telegram: “Thought Waratah Top Heavy. Landed Durban.”[19]

For a time, the metropolitan dailies did not canvass the awful possibility—indeed the likelihood—that Waratah had capsized. But the harmony of mistrust could not be ignored indefinitely. In its long report on August 10th, 1909, The Sydney Morning Herald quietly declared:

Our cablegrams yesterday tended, perhaps, to diminish hope, since it was reported that 300 tons of coal had been shipped at Durban and placed upon the bridge deck.[20]

Within days of Waratah’s disappearance, the Royal Navy cruisers Pandora and Forte were sent in search. A third, H.M.S. Hermes, would follow. For three weeks, in weather consistently foul, the navy vessels ranged south and east from Durban. Nothing was seen. The discovery of wreckage would have ended the suspense, but the ocean did not oblige.[21]

p62From barren ground came a single bloom of optimism. On Monday, August 9th, the agents of the Blue Anchor Line at Durban received the following telegram:

East London Signal Station. Monday. Blue Anchor vessel sighted a considerable distance out, slowly making for Durban, where she will probably arrive Tuesday.[22]

Waratah’s Durban agents enthusiastically conveyed the news to their Melbourne counterparts, John Sanderson & Company. Their cable read:

Blue Anchor vessel sighted a considerable distance out. Slowly making for Durban. Could be the Waratah.[23]

Sanderson’s were delighted. They released a statement:

Blue Anchor Line.—Agent East London reports Blue Anchor steamer making slow progress towards Durban. It is thought this can only be Waratah.[24]

That evening, in the Australian Federal Parliament, Chairman of Committees Charles McDonald rose to speak:

I think members will excuse me if I interrupt them to make an announcement which I am sure will give pleasure. I have been told, on good authority, that the Waratah has been sighted, steaming towards East London.[25]

Cheers and applause filled the parliament, but no Blue Anchor liner appeared at Durban.

Late in the afternoon on August 13th, another sensational despatch emanated from the port of East London. Captain Moore of the Hall-Russell liner Insizwa had reported that he and his officers had seen human bodies floating in the sea. In a flurry of press interest, Moore was asked why he had not stopped to retrieve them. He offered two reasons, one more satisfactory than the other. The sea, he said, was running so high that it would have been dangerous to turn across it. And out of respect for his lady passengers, he thought it better that the bodies be not brought aboard.[26]

Two boats were despatched to investigate the Insizwa sightings. A few days later, Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser, quoting telegraphic despatches from London, reported the results:



LONDON, August 14.

The rumor that human bodies have been found in the Great Fish p63River is officially denied. The tugs dispatched from East London in search for traces of the Waratah have returned. The voyage was fruitless excepting that those aboard saw floating objects most deceptive in appearance, resembling the bodies of women attired in dressing-gowns, and which investigation proved to be portions of a dead skate.[27]

During the navy search, Lund’s (the owners of the Blue Anchor Line) had argued that the awful conditions at the time of Waratah’s departure were reason for cautious optimism. They speculated that Waratah, pitching in heavy seas, had suffered damage to her running gear and was merely disabled. They pointed to the experience of Waikato, which in 1899 had drifted for 103 days after breaking her tailshaft south of Cape Agulhas. Waratah’s drift, they suggested, would parallel that of Waikato: east-south-east toward Australia, rather than south into sub-Antarctic waters.[28] Nevertheless, even the remote possibility that Waratah and her complement might languish in fields of ice was, to the relatives of the missing, a powerful argument for a further search. At the beginning of September, Lund’s agreed. They chartered the Union-Castle liner Sabine for a three-month search of the southern Indian Ocean: that great, unfrequented expanse from which a few cold islands rise.

Sabine left Cape Town on Sunday, September 12th, 1909; she returned on December 7th, having steamed 14,000 miles and seen nothing. Interviewed on his return, Captain Owen admitted that fog had for many days hampered their efforts and prevented his planned landing on four small islands.[29] For some among the relatives of the missing, that shortfall was sufficient reason to continue the quest. At a public meeting held in Melbourne on December 22nd, a motion was passed to organise yet another search, more thorough and even more wide-ranging. The broad view among experts and underwriters was that further effort was futile, but by the close of the Melbourne meeting, the committee had already secured most of the money it needed. Among the pledges were £1,000 from Neil Black Junior, son of a Waratah passenger, £500 from the Government of South Africa, and £500 from the Government of Victoria.[30]

Within a week, tenders were called for a steamship willing to go in search. In the second week of January 1910, the steamer Wakefield was chosen from five contenders. Although the committee had shown surprising agility, a delay was now inevitable; Wakefield was not expected at Durban until the middle of February. While the committee waited, all details of the operation were worked out. Lieutenant Seymour of H.M.S. Hermes would be in command, and five Lund Line officers from the Sabine search would go to sea again.[31]

Wakefield departed from Durban on February 26th, 1910. A few days later, The Sydney Morning Herald reported:




Wellington (N.Z.), Feb. 25.

An extraordinary story bearing on the loss, or disappearance, of the big steamer Waratah was made the other day to the Press Association’s agent at Westport, New Zealand, by Mr. Day, late second officer of the steamer Tottenham, which called recently at Westport for bunker coal, and sailed for Ocean Island. He says the Tottenham left Durban about 10 days after the Waratah, and steamed over the same course, bound for Antwerp. While off East London at noon one day, an apprentice at the wheel reported to the third officer, who was in charge of the bridge, that he saw float past the ship the body of a little girl clothed in a red dressing-gown. The officer looked round but did not see the body. He, however, went down to the chart-room, where the captain and second officer were laying off the ship’s position, and reported that bodies had just floated past. The captain and second officer rushed on to the bridge, and the second officer said he saw something white floating on the water. The captain gave the order “Hard a-starboard,” and the vessel steamed round in the vicinity of floating objects. They did not catch sight of the body reported to have been seen fully dressed, but saw what appeared to be portions of human bodies. The weather being very heavy, the steamer was unable to make a thorough examination, so she proceeded on her voyage.[32]

Other members of Tottenham’s crew backed up Day’s story.[33] On that gruesome day, several among them had seen bodies floating, but not all had seen the same bodies. The chief officer confirmed that a little girl in a gown had floated past, and the second engineer had seen the body of a woman, in a nightdress, with an albatross sitting upon it. Others reported human body parts drifting just below the surface, and one of Tottenham’s Chinese firemen had later exclaimed: “Plenty people in sea!” To claim that the sightings were parts of a dead skate was simply untenable; one corpse was said to have passed so close to the ship’s side that water from the main discharge had fallen on it.[34]

Day was asked why he had kept his silence for so long. All aboard the Tottenham, he said, were under strict injunction from Captain Cox to “keep the thing quiet.” Now that he had left the ship, he felt free to say what needed to be said. What made his revelations more newsworthy, and far more disturbing, was the fact that Captain Cox had brought Tottenham to Melbourne on January 19th, when the preparations for the Wakefield search were very much in the news. He must have known that a new search, funded in large measure by the relatives of the missing, was about to begin. And yet he said nothing.[35]

p65For four months, Wakefield ranged the southern Indian Ocean. The ship visited Prince Edward Island, Marion Island and The Twelve Apostles. She continued to Hogg Island, Penguin Island, Possession Island, Kerguelen Island, Herd Island and the Crozet group. From Amsterdam and St Paul she zigzagged across open sea, making her way back to Australia. It was a search of epic proportions, and monstrous futility.

* * *

Waratah made her absence felt. The long uncertainty left many wondering if with this new breed of luxury steamship came a new breed of oceanic disaster. People looked at all ships differently. In Western Australia, Koombana was also accused of top-heaviness, and some questioned her suitability for service on a cyclone-prone coast. In Koombana’s defence, a curious fact should be recorded. Rumours of her instability flourished at three ports in particular. At Port Hedland, Koombana could only cross the bar at the harbour entrance on a high spring tide, and only by emptying some or all of her ballast tanks. Of necessity she was high in the water for every arrival, and often showed a slight list to starboard. For departure she was often higher still, because her heaviest cargo had been discharged. Invariably, ballast tanks were pressed up after leaving the port, but by then the visual impression had been taken.

Low tide at Broome: Koombana and Charon side-by-side at the jetty.

At Broome and Derby, rumours of top-heaviness had more to do with tide than trade. Twice daily, extreme tides left even the largest steamers sitting on mud. If Koombana looked a little high when afloat in light trim, p66she looked absurdly so when deprived of water altogether, and especially when she shared the jetty with a smaller or older vessel.

John Rees must have wondered how Koombana would fare in a storm like that which had apparently swallowed Waratah. On February 8th, 1910, he received a troubling indication. For four days, the Nor’-West coast had felt the influence of a monsoonal depression. As Koombana, northbound, passed Depuch Island, she was hit by a severe squall. According to passenger Doug Moore, the ship lay over to a frightening angle and took an uncomfortably long time to straighten up.

Koombana, like most of the steamers visiting Port Hedland that year, was carrying rails and sleepers for the Pilbara railway. Rees made a quick decision to unload the sleepers but not the rails; he would keep the rails as ballast until he returned to Port Hedland on his way south. By circumstance, he never needed to defend his decision. On arrival at Port Hedland he learned that because of an industrial dispute affecting wharf labour, it would not be possible to discharge all Port Hedland cargo. The strike provided the perfect alibi. The Northern Times reported that in the absence of the wharf workers, Koombana’s crew and even a few passengers had helped to unload railway sleepers, so that the ship could make the next day’s tide and continue north.

Koombana’s susceptibility to the wind had worried Captain Rees, just as it had worried Doug Moore. He was glad to have 150 tons of iron at the bottom of the hold. Not only did he carry the rails to Wyndham and back; he held onto them for the entire voyage and only delivered them on his next trip north.[36]

If Nor’-Westers stared at Koombana and wondered about her safety, it did not stop them buying tickets. By the middle of 1910, she typically left Fremantle fully booked and heavily laden.[37] As her popularity rose, there emerged something that might be called “Koombana anxiety.” It began with the observation that Koombana was a little too large and luxurious for the trade; it grew into a fear that the ship would be stolen away for service on the more populous eastern seaboard. Every incident, every missed stop, and every departure for annual overhaul led to the same, nervous questioning: “Will Koombana be coming back?” “Will Koombana remain on the run?” The Adelaide Steamship Company’s reassurance was always the same: Koombana had been designed specifically for Nor’-West service and no other thoughts were entertained.[38]

* * *

Without doubt, the mystery of Waratah sharpened a morbid fascination with disaster at sea. Speculation filled newspaper columns. The dispassionate saw things one way; the relatives of Waratah passengers quite another. And while the ship and her complement remained in a strange existential limbo, a rash of message-in-a-bottle hoaxes broke out p67on Australian beaches. From Western Australia to Queensland, hasty scribbles on scraps of paper pleaded for salvation. A bottle picked up at Streaky Bay, South Australia in May 1910 was typical:

August 18th, ’09. Waratah sinking rapidly, west coast of Africa. Steamer on fire.

(Signed) W. Scott, l8. Elizabeth street, Sydney.

Another found near Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria in October 1910 was a little more creative:

At sea. latitude 40 south. Steamer Waratah broke down on August 23, 1909; drifting south.

All well, but anxious. Engineers busy.

J. G. Jones, passenger.

Doubt if this will be picked up.

If so, write to Mrs. J. J. Jones, 28, George street, Sydney.[39]

In November 1910, a message found in a returned bottle at the Castlemaine Brewery in South Fremantle was delivered to the local police. In blue pencil on a tiny scrap of paper was scrawled:


May God have Mercy on us. We are now in a terrible Storm.

1st Officer Waratah[40]

And so it went on, bottle by bottle. After half a dozen cases, the metropolitan dailies ceased printing the stories, although there was a little resurgence of interest in March 1913 when a bottle bearing the stamp of a Melbourne soft-drinks manufacturer was picked up near Tanna, New Hebrides. The message, by Waratah standards, was conventional: “We are lost. There is no hope. G. W. E., Waratah.” What distinguished this hoax was the confidence with which the ship’s agent in Sydney dismissed it. Mr P. Fawcett Storey declared that the bottle could not have come from the missing ship. Waratah served only Schweppes waters, he insisted.[41]

One final case should perhaps be cited, if only to demonstrate that the phenomenon was not uniquely Australian. In January 1914 a bottle was found at Bird Island, near Cape Town. The message read:

Ship in great danger. Rolling badly. Will probably roll right over. Captain is going to heave her to.

Later. If anything happens, will whoever finds this communicate with my wife, 4 Redcliffe-street, South Kensington, London.

(Signed) John N. Hughes.[42]

Needless to add, no John N. Hughes appeared on Waratah’s passenger list, and no grieving wife was found on Redcliffe-street.

* * *

p68At 1 a.m. Thursday, October 20th, 1910, dense smoke was seen issuing from the ventilators above Koombana’s Hold No. 1. The ship was at the time southbound from Broome to Port Hedland.[43] When the hatch was opened, it was discovered fire had broken out among bales of wool loaded at Shark Bay on the run north. The smoke was too thick and the heat too intense for the men to reach the seat of the fire, so Captain Rees ordered them out. The hold was sealed and Clayton’s Patent Fire Extinguishing and Fumigating System was activated. When passengers woke on Friday morning to the smell of smoke in their cabins, they sought and received an almost full explanation. Rees told them what he firmly believed: that the fire might still be burning when they arrived in Port Hedland, but would be extinguished before they left.

The Clayton’s system consisted mainly of a combustion chamber and a large fan. In the combustion chamber, rolled sheets of sulphur, placed on trays, were ignited to produce a large volume of sulphur dioxide gas which was then forced into the sealed hold to starve the fire of oxygen. For most fires the method was extremely effective. If time were allowed for the hold to cool before fresh air was admitted, total extinguishment was the usual result. But spontaneous combustion in wool or fodder was notoriously difficult to extinguish, because the seat of the fire was hidden somewhere within a steaming, smoking mass. The problem for the Clayton’s apparatus, or for any system that relied upon a retardant gas, was that the gas did not always penetrate to where it was most needed. Naked flames on the outside of a wool bale would be quickly suppressed, while the glowing source remained hidden and insulated, like the buried ashes of a camp fire.

After ordering the system activated, Rees allowed it to run continuously for thirty hours before opening the hold to check the results. As fresh air flowed in, the fire quickly re-established itself. He ordered the hold resealed and the process begun again. Koombana was not the first vessel on the coast to deal with a fire that had begun in wet wool, but being the largest ship visiting these ports she was the most susceptible. Having a larger draft, her arrivals and departures were more tightly bound to the tides. Wet or dry, bales were loaded when Koombana had water enough to present herself.

After two openings and two flare-ups, Rees decided that he could not extinguish the fire. He could, however, contain it—all the way to Fremantle if necessary. Because the bulkheads adjoining Hold No. 1 were now dangerously hot, he ordered some cargo from Hold No. 2 moved to cooler space. He then told his passengers that the fire was under control and that Koombana would leave Port Hedland at midnight. The Clayton’s apparatus was then run continuously for five days until Koombana reached Fremantle.

At Victoria Quay on Thursday, October 27th, with the local fire brigade p69standing by, the No. 1 hold was opened. After a few minutes of optimism, smoke again began to issue. In exasperation, Rees ordered the hold flooded. Fire be damned! The insurers could take it from there.

* * *

A Board of Trade inquiry into the disappearance of Waratah was finally convened in London in December 1910, sixteen months after the ship had disappeared.[44] Although several expert witnesses testified that Waratah was well designed and well built, diverse misgivings outnumbered votes of confidence. One former passenger declared that on Waratah’s first return to England, the ship’s persistent list had been a topic of breakfast conversation. Why was it happening? Could the captain not do something about it? The witness recalled that spirits had risen when the ship unexpectedly straightened up, only to slump as she settled down to a similar list on the opposite side.[45]

Among Australian affidavits received by the court was one by Walter Merry, of Adelaide, who stated that he had been warned by members of the crew not to sail in her again, as the ship had nearly ‘turned turtle’ at the wharf in Sydney. Merry’s statement would probably have carried little weight, had it not been corroborated by Sydney Harbour pilots who stated that Waratah without cargo or ballast was so unstable that she could not be moved, even from wharf to wharf.[46]

The court also heard from the officers of Insizwa and Tottenham. That bodies had been seen floating was quickly placed beyond doubt. Insizwa’s third officer testified that his commander had enjoined silence, declaring that the owners would have a poor opinion of him if he took time out to collect bodies when dedicated search vessels were already at sea.[47]

* * *

For almost two years, the directors of the Adelaide Steamship Company had dealt with Koombana as parents might deal with a gifted but troubled child. In popularity and profitability the ship had exceeded expectations, but rarely had a month passed without some report of mischief in the West. For his part, Western Australian manager William Moxon had become adept at delivering bad tidings to Adelaide by telegram, briefly and without adornment.[48] It should be noted, however, that his was a hard-won composure. After Koombana had remained hard aground at Shark Bay for ten days on her maiden Nor’-West run, the social columnist of The Sunday Times had quipped:

The savagest man in this savage State is Adelaide Steamship Co. manager Moxon. The fizz wasted on the send-off of the Koombana boils like a geyser in the memory of all concerned. Don’t say Shark’s Bay to Moxon if you don’t desire to see fur fly.[49]

On Christmas Eve, 1910, the editor of The Northern Times, with a twinkle in his eye, hinted that history had very nearly repeated itself.


Possibly the headline is wrong, but it supplies the most satisfactory solution. The Koombana left Carnarvon jetty on Tuesday night, with the idea of making Denham anchorage soon after daylight on Wednesday. She arrived at 7 a.m. on Thursday instead. The local agents suggest that a dense fog overhung the bay for 24 hours, and the captain deemed it prudent to anchor; otherwise they are unapproachable on the subject. A large number of telegrams were despatched from Carnarvon yesterday, congratulating several of our residents, who are tripping South, on a pleasant day spent fishing for sharks from the Koombana’s deck.[50]

December 30th, 1910 was the second anniversary of Koombana’s departure from Glasgow. After two tumultuous years, John Rees needed a holiday. The company approved his request for leave and announced that when Koombana next returned to Fremantle, her popular master would take a well-earned break.

John Rees brought Koombana to Victoria Quay at lunchtime on Thursday, January 19th, 1911. Perhaps his wilful mistress resented the prospect of abandonment, even for a month. At eleven o’clock on Saturday night, while Rees was still officially in command, smoke began pouring from the ventilators above Hold No. 2. Five tons of fodder had caught alight, and spontaneous combustion was again blamed. There was no recourse to sulphur dioxide this time. With the prompt attendance of the Fremantle Fire Brigade, passions were cooled in the old-fashioned way.[51]

Captain P. Hurrell took the helm on January 24th, 1911. His temporary captaincy began well, but on Koombana’s arrival at Derby he received disturbing news. At Legendre Island, which Koombana had passed a few days earlier, the Russian barque Glenbank had been destroyed in a cyclone. The ship had been at the Depuch Island anchorage for a month, loading copper ore from the Whim Well mine. When the wind rose on February 6th, Glenbank’s anchors held for a time, but by late afternoon she was drifting toward a rocky shore. Captain Morberg had decided to make a dash for the open sea. It was a dangerous undertaking, because the copper ore was not properly secured. Four hours out, the load shifted; control was lost and the ship capsized.[52]

More harrowing still was the fact that news of the disaster had come to hand from a single survivor, Antle Katola. Through an interpreter, the Russian-speaking Finn explained that he had been aloft when the ship rolled. He did not see any of his shipmates again. It was about nine in the evening when he hit the water, and daylight when he reached the shore of the island. For two days he foraged for food; on the third, he sighted a boat. Even then, his ordeal was not quite over. Only by swimming 400 yards to a reef, to make himself visible, did he succeed in attracting the attention of Cossack pearler William Banger.[53]

p71From Derby, Captain Hurrell guided Koombana north and east through the intricate filigree of the Kimberley coast. Paradoxically, it was only after the ship was ‘all fast’ at Wyndham jetty that his skills and composure were severely tested. A short, sharp summer storm swept in across open water and struck the town. For fifteen minutes heavy hail accompanied a swirling wind so strong that all but one of Koombana’s five hawsers parted. With only a single bow line remaining, the crew managed to keep the ship’s stern in the stream until the wind dissipated. Within an hour, Koombana was resting quietly again. Only to the hawsers—and perhaps to Captain Hurrell’s confidence—was any damage done.[54]

When John Rees returned to work on February 22nd, 1911, maritime disaster was very much in the news. Captain Hurrell had brought the Glenbank survivor to Fremantle, to recuperate at Fremantle Sailors’ Rest before being repatriated to Europe. On the day that Antle Katola’s remarkable tale of survival appeared in the local papers, the Board of Trade in London released its verdict regarding Waratah.[55] The finding was surprisingly candid. Because the Blue Anchor Line had already been declared bankrupt, the company’s survival was not an issue that the court needed to consider. It found that Waratah had, on balance of probability, “capsized in the first great storm she encountered.”[56]

Captain Rees must have been glad that the saga was finally over. Perhaps now, after two years of guilt by association, Koombana might succeed in distancing herself from disaster. A month later, however, that hope was dashed when Koombana’s east-coast counterpart went missing in a severe late-summer cyclone.[57] The S.S. Yongala was on a voyage from Melbourne to Cairns via ports. On Thursday, March 23rd, 1911, she left Mackay in threatening conditions, and without the benefit of cyclone warning that arrived a little too late. She was last seen by the lighthouse keeper at Dent Island.

This would be no mystery of months or years. On March 28th, all hope was extinguished in the space of a few hours. At Cape Bowling Green, the lighthouse keeper reported that pumpkins and bags of bran and pollard were coming ashore. The company’s agents confirmed that these were part of the ship’s cargo, and that all had been stowed in the No. 3 lower hold. The tug Alert, sent out by the Queensland Government, found artefacts similarly ominous. A basket of parcels from Brisbane must surely have come from Yongala’s mail room on a lower deck, and cases of kerosene could only have escaped from a ship catastrophically damaged. A distinctive panel from Yongala’s music-room door, and pillows emblazoned with the company’s insignia, completed Alert’s grim harvest.

At Townsville, Yongala’s destination, residents did not wait long or travel far for confirmation of their worst fears. On the same day, wreckage was found floating in Cleveland Bay near the city baths.

* * *

p72For reasons not entirely clear, John Rees’s relationship with Koombana came to an end in August 1911.

In conversations with the press, the Adelaide Steamship Company’s manager William Moxon confirmed that Koombana, in Sydney for annual overhaul, would return to Fremantle under new command. The change was not part of a broad reshuffle, or forced by any retirement; rather, two of the company’s most experienced shipmasters had agreed to an exchange of ships.

For Tom Allen, master of Winfield, the exchange was an opportunity for advancement. Koombana was considered by many to be the finest ship in Australian service, and the Nor’-West run was broadly acknowledged as the most demanding. For John Rees, the exchange had different merit and meaning. After two years of firefighting—literal and metaphorical—he had seen enough of the Nor’-West and its narrow seas. He sought cooler air, wider shipping lanes, and harbours that remained open for business on any tide.

* * *

At Mort’s Dock in Sydney Harbour, work went on above and below for 25 days. Koombana’s engine and boiler were serviced, hull damage inflicted by the S.S. Pilbarra was repaired,[58] and Marconi wireless telegraphy apparatus was installed in a custom-built cabin on the boat deck. Inside, deck by deck, a hundred minor matters were attended to.[59]

For Rees it had been a long journey. He had seen Koombana launched. He had witnessed her sea trials and brought her out from Glasgow. He had completed sixteen round trips to Derby, eleven to Wyndham, and three to Sydney for repair and overhaul. He had driven the ship onto a mound of sand, and had ‘discovered’ an uncharted rock. He had battled a wool fire that refused to be extinguished. He had been neaped at Broome and locked out of Port Hedland. He had scraped paint, destroyed wicker fenders and broken steel hawsers. He had almost lost count of the occasions on which he and Koombana had found the bottom.

At 3 a.m. on August 16th, 1911, the overhaul was completed.[60] With a final entry in the ship’s log, John Rees closed a remarkable diary of misadventure—and left Koombana’s new master to write his own.


1a. "The Koombana Mishap", The West Australian, Saturday 07 August 1909, page 12
1b. "Grounding of the Koombana", Daily News (Perth, WA), Saturday 07 August 1909, page 7
2. General Arrangement, s.s. "Koombana", Ship plans on linen, Alexander Stephen & Son, 1907. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
3a. "The New Steamer Koombana", Daily News (Perth, WA), Tuesday 04 May 1909, page 9
3b. "Shipping", The West Australian, Wednesday 05 May 1909, page 6
4. Low, James Galloway, Letters, 1904-91, Battye Library, ACC 2612A (listing: MN 681), Letter from Jim to his friend Peggy, 09 May 1909
5a. "The Geraldton Harbour", The West Australian, Saturday 15 May 1909, page 12
5b. Minutes of Adelaide Steamship Company directors' meeting, Wednesday 19 May 1909, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 0186/Z535 Box 12
6. "Local News", Geraldton Guardian (WA), Thursday 03 June 1909, page 2
7. "The Nor'-West Mail Service", Daily News (Perth, WA), Friday 04 June 1909, page 5
8. "S.S. Koombana", The Northern Times (Carnarvon, WA), Saturday 12 June 1909, page 2
9a. "Damaged Koombana in Dock", The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 15 June 1909, page 8
9b. "Grounding of the Koombana", Daily News (Perth, WA), Saturday 07 August 1909, page 7
9c. Nutley, David, The Koombana (unpublished), undated, Department of Maritime Archeology, WA Museum
10a. "The Koombana Mishap", The West Australian, Saturday 07 August 1909, page 12
10b. Minutes of Adelaide Steamship Company directors' meeting, Wednesday 23 June 1909, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 0186/Z535 Box 12
11a. "An Unlucky Steamer", Kalgoorlie Miner (WA), Saturday 05 June 1909, page 11
11b. "Local News", Geraldton Guardian (WA), Tuesday 08 June 1909, page 2
12. "The Waratah", The West Australian, Thursday 09 December 1909, page 7
13. "The Waratah", The West Australian, Thursday 09 December 1909, page 7
14. http://www.clydesite.co.uk/articles/upperriver.asp
15a. "The New Steamer Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Tuesday 29 September 1908, page 10
15b. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Waratah
16. "The New Steamer Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Tuesday 29 September 1908, page 10
17. "The Waratah", The West Australian, Saturday 14 August 1909, page 11
18a. "Professor Bragg And The Waratah", The Register (Adelaide, SA), Tuesday 17 August 1909, page 5
18b. "The Waratah Enquiry", The Register (Adelaide, SA), Friday 20 January 1911, page 5
19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Waratah
20. "Wireless and the Waratah", The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 10 August 1909, page 6
21a. "The Overdue Waratah", The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 04 August 1909, page 9
21b. "Missing Vessels", The Argus (Melbourne), Thursday 05 August 1909, page 7
21c. "The Missing Waratah", The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Saturday 14 August 1909, page 5
22. "The Waratah", The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 11 August 1909, page 9
23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Waratah
24. "Is it the Waratah?", The Argus (Melbourne), Wednesday 11 August 1909, page 7
25. "Is it the Waratah?", The Argus (Melbourne), Wednesday 11 August 1909, page 7
26. "The Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Monday 16 August 1909, page 7
27. "The Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Monday 16 August 1909, page 7
28a. "Missing Vessels", The Argus (Melbourne), Thursday 05 August 1909, page 7
28b. "The Missing Waratah", The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Saturday 14 August 1909, page 5
29a. "The Waratah", The West Australian, Thursday 09 December 1909, page 7
29b. "The Missing Waratah", The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Monday 13 December 1909, page 5
30. "The Missing Waratah", The Argus (Melbourne), Thursday 23 December 1909, page 7
31a. "Tenders Called For", The Argus (Melbourne), Wednesday 29 December 1909, page 6
31b. "The Waratah", The Argus (Melbourne), Friday 31 December 1909, page 5
31c. "Five Tenders Received", The Argus (Melbourne), Saturday 08 January 1910, page 19
32. "The Lost Waratah", The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 04 March 1910, page 7
33. "The Waratah", The Register (Adelaide, SA), Friday 11 March 1910, page 9
34. "The Waratah", The Register (Adelaide, SA), Friday 11 March 1910, page 9
35. "The Lost Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Friday 11 March 1910, page 9
36a. "Southern News", The Northern Times (Carnarvon, WA), Saturday 12 February 1910, page 3
36b. "Koombana Inquiry", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 26 May 1912, page 5
36c. Moore, Doug, Papers, Extracts from his account of his life in the Kimberley, 1904-1914., Battye Library, ACC 3829A (listing MN 1237)
37a. "Busy Port", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 18 December 1909, page 6
37b. "S.S. KOOMBANA", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 18 December 1909, page 6
37c. "The Koombana", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 14 May 1910, page 6
38a. "General News", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 26 June 1909, page 3
38b. "The Koombana", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 19 February 1910, page 4
39. "The Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 08 October 1910, page 14
40. A message from missing steamer "Waratah", Report by Constable Lyon, Fremantle, Police Department, Western Australia, 08 November 1910. State Records Office of Western Australia, AN16/5 Item 1909/821
41. "The Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Monday 31 March 1913, page 16
42a. "The Waratah", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Monday 16 February 1914, page 7
42b. "Mystery of the Waratah", The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Tuesday 26 May 1914, page 3
43a. "Fire on the s.s. Koombana", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 22 October 1910
43b. "The Lost Waratah", The Argus (Melbourne), Monday 19 December 1910, page 7
43c. Official Log Book s.s. "Koombana", 13/8/1910 - 13/01/1911, State Records Office of Western Australia. ACC 1056 AN 16/4 Item 116
44. "The Lost Waratah", The Argus (Melbourne), Saturday 03 December 1910, page 19
45. "The Waratah Enquiry", The Register (Adelaide, SA), Friday 20 January 1911, page 5
46a. "The Waratah", The Register (Adelaide, SA), Thursday 12 January 1911, page 5
46b. "The Waratah", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 21 January 1911
47. "The Waratah", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 21 January 1911
48a. Minutes of Adelaide Steamship Company directors' meeting, Wednesday 05 May 1909, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 0186/Z535 Box 12
48b. Minutes of Adelaide Steamship Company directors' meeting, Wednesday 19 May 1909, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 0186/Z535 Box 12
48c. Minutes of Adelaide Steamship Company directors' meeting, Monday 09 August 1909, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 0186/Z535 Box 12
48d. Minutes of Adelaide Steamship Company directors' meeting, Wednesday 01 February 1911, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 0186/Z535 Box 12
49. "Peeps at People", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 28 March 1909, page 1S
50. "Koombana Aground Again", The Northern Times (Carnarvon, WA), Saturday 24 December 1910, page 5
51a. "News and Notes", The West Australian, Monday 23 January 1911, page 6
51b. "Telegrams", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 28 January 1911, page 4
52a. "Wreck of a Barque", The Northern Times (Carnarvon, WA), Saturday 11 February 1911, page 2
52b. "Wreck of the Glenbank", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 12 February 1911, page 7
53. "Wreck of the Glenbank", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 12 February 1911, page 7
54. "News & Notes", The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (Darwin, NT), Friday 17 February 1911, page 3
55. "News and Notes", The West Australian, Wednesday 22 February 1911, page 6
56a. "The Loss of the Waratah", The West Australian, Saturday 25 February 1911, page 11
56b. "Cablegrams", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 04 March 1911
57a. "The Yongala", Queanbeyan Age (NSW), Friday 31 March 1911, page 2
57b. "Yongala Wrecked", The Northern Times (Carnarvon, WA), Saturday 01 April 1911, page 2
57c. "The Missing Yongala", The Hedland Advocate (Port Hedland, WA), Saturday 08 April 1911
58. Collision between "Pilbarra" and "Koombana" at Victoria Quay, Harbour and Lights Department, Western Australia, 1911. State Records Office of Western Australia, Consignment 1066, Item 1911/333, Letter from Captain A. W. Newbery, master of s.s Pilbara, to Captain Winzar, Fremantle, 20 April 1911
59. Trip books, April 1909 - May 1913, Adelaide Steamship Company. Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University, 0186/N46/808
60. Official Log Book s.s. "Koombana", 28/8/1911 - 21/01/1912, State Records Office of Western Australia. ACC 1056 AN 16/4 Item 117