Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Waratah Storm 27 July 1909

Disaster Strikes

On the 27th July 1909, at 7.30 pm, the SS Harlow was steaming north-east for Durban under the command of Captain John Bryce, when he saw a large steamer coming up astern of his ship at about 10 miles away when off Cape Hermes. At that time, flashes of light were seen astern and suddenly the steamer’s lights were no longer visible.  Might this have been the Waratah on her way back to Durban, having come about due to the bad weather? Had she broached in the large swells and the flashes caused by the ship rolling and the boiler fires exploding out of the funnel? However, if this was not the case, the Waratah might still have been heading for Cape Town.
The Waratah was lost at sea with all hands!
All over the world, debate and argument, theories and a search for proof has persisted for the past 104 years to understand and locate the SS Waratah, but no substantiation of what really happened that fateful night has emerged.
On her final port departure from Durban Harbour on Monday 26th July at 8.00 pm, she turned south past the Durban Bluff, headed for Cape Town. Captain Ilbery and his crew knew a heavy southerly storm was blowing up from the Cape and they would soon be confronted by enormous seas. This stretch of the South African coastline was notorious and treacherous, because it took ships close to the Continental Shelf, which generated gigantic swells, especially with strong winds opposing the south-running coastal current.
The Waratah had not been well-received by many passengers on the earlier Adelaide to Durban run, when moderate seas manifested her top-heavy promenade deck design being the cause of her insecure righting motion and large cracks opening up between the structural joints on the superstructure. Would Captain Ilbery and his more senior officers have felt apprehensive in anticipation of this wild storm ahead of them?
As they progressively headed into stronger winds, at around 6.30am on 27th July the following morning, Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due East of Cape Hermes near Port St. Johns, where abnormal waves are at their worst. Had she later tried to come about and broached, or had she continued a further 100 kilometers down the coast to a position due east of the Mbhashe (Bashee) River mouth (near the Xhora River mouth) where it is widely speculated that the Waratah disappeared?
As with many sea tragedies, there is a twist in the tale. One of Lund’s Masters, Captain Pidgeon had joined W. Lund’s service as a boy of just 15 years of age on the Catalina. He was given his first command before he was 30 and had remained in Lund’s service for 21 years. As fate would have it, before the Waratah left London for the last time, Captain Pidgeon almost had the misfortune to be in command of her on that fateful voyage.  Captain Ilbery had been ill and the company looked for another Master to relieve him for the voyage. Captain Pidgeon, who had been Captain Ilbery’s Chief Officer on the Narrung and Wakool when they were new ships, was the only Master available and held himself ready to take command. However, Captain Ilbery recovered and took command of his ship before she sailed.
Fifty years after the loss of the Waratah, in 1959, Captain S.A. Pidgeon, RNR, penned his account of what may have led to the loss of the Waratah, which provided an insight that centered on the ship in Durban

   ‘The Waratah had taken on a certain amount of frozen mutton to be discharged in Durban and whenever we had a cargo for Durban, it was the custom in Lund’s ships to stow it in the square of No. 1 hold, sometimes right from deck level, to the bottom of the hold. Any cargo for London was stowed in the wings and at both ends. After the Durban cargo left the ship, the remaining slippery cargo of frozen carcasses had to be well shored-up, to prevent them from sliding everywhere. We usually lowered big skids into the empty space and at both ends. These were kept in place by heavy beams, 6 x 6, which were placed across the empty space left by the Durban cargo and were jammed by wedges, which were placed and hammered home by carpenter and crew.
    If this operation was faithfully performed, the remaining cargo was quite secure and could not move into the empty space in the centre, no matter how great the pitching and rolling of the ship. Captain Ilbery trusted his executive officers implicitly and left daily inspection at sea to the Chief Officer, Surgeon and Purser, who did the rounds together.
     The Chief Officer of the Waratah had been my Chief in Warrigal and was a very fine seaman.  The Chief Officers in Lund’s ships were always entirely responsible for placing the skids in No. 1 hold and seeing that they were securely in position.  If they were forgotten, or if they were not made completely fast, the result in a tender ship like the Waratah would be disastrous.
     It seems quite possible that the skids were forgotten on this occasion, or that the work was not adequately supervised.  The weather was not good as the Waratah sailed, and on those coasts, there are seas and cross-seas which are a menace to a labouring ship.
     It would all have happened in a matter of seconds. The Waratah, caught in a heavy roll, would pause at the end of it.  If a cross-sea dumped a huge wave on her forehatch, smashing it in, thousands of tons of water would rush down into the lower hold and find its level in the side of the ship, held in the roll. With the cargo insecurely held back, thousands of carcasses would break loose from the wings and join the mass of water, adding to the enormous weight.  Another huge sea, breaking aboard, would finish the ship and she would roll right over, never having had a chance to right herself.’

We can only imagine what thoughts might have swirled around in Captain Pidgeon’s head when he was informed of the loss of the Waratah and the close circumstances that nearly led to his command.  Might he have acted differently in the face of the weather and the condition of the ship?  Might he have done something different that was possibly overlooked on that fateful voyage?

Speculation will persist. Questions will continue to be asked. Doubts will always be raised, but one of the most evocative questions remains: why did a number of Senior Officers, Engineers and the Chief Steward, hastily take out life insurance policies before the Waratah left Australian waters? Was it premonition, or were they genuinely concerned about the Waratah’s sea worthiness during their outbound voyage?

Most haunting of all, is how the passengers and crew would have faced their terrifying imminent doom. They would have been hurled about the ship as she hit the wave and rolled and we can only hope that their demise was quick, with perhaps no time to realise what was happening, before the thousands of tons of water poured in to drag them helplessly into the depths of the Continental Shelf

May those unfortunate souls forever rest in peace.

Guest post by
Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson

Waratah Flower

Down on the vale of Death, with dismal cries,
The fated victims shuddering roll their eyes
In wild despair; while yet another stroke
With deep convulsion, rends the solid oak:
Till like the mine, in whose infernal cell
The lurking demons of destruction dwell,
At length asunder torn, her frame divides;
And crashing spreads in ruin o'er the tides. 

William Falconer

1 comment:


Thank you Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson for a riveting guest post, and to you Mole for forwarding it to me. It is now 2014 and we are no closer to discovering the truth surrounding the loss of the Waratah in 1909. It does seem probable that the Waratah had come about and was last seen by the crew of the Harlow and a policeman onshore. But if she had descended beyond the Continental shelf, chances of the discovering her remains after so long, seems improbable. But if she had gone down close to shore (within 10 miles) as has been suggested, there is still that glimmer of hope for all those with a vested interest in her fate. Captain Pidgeon's account is most illuminating and could very well describe one of the contributing factors leading to the Waratah foundering. I agree it must have been terrifying for all those on board and I echo your hope that it all happened quickly and they did not suffer. As you say, may they forever rest in peace and may the descendants of those lost also find peace despite the enduring unanswered questions. Andrew