Friday, 13 February 2015

Waratah - faulty engines?

During the course of the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah, the following witness account was given:

'He gave similar evidence to the other witness about the boat rolling in the Bay of Biscay. The Waratah could not ride heavy seas, and the engines shook the vessel so much that the gear of the aftermast became loosened.' 

Apart from the references to the Waratah 'rolling' and not being able to 'ride heavy seas', the engines allegedly vibrated to an extent that the 'gear of the after mast became loosened'. This phenomenon could also explain why a bolt from one of the upper decks came loose hitting the cook in the galley below; gaps appeared in the superstructure and a steel ladder spanning three decks snapped in two during a calm spell at sea.

Previously I believed short-comings in the construction of the Waratah might have resulted in the above, but excessively vibrating twin engines might actually have been the cause. The Waratah was fitted with quadruple expansion steam engines. At the time this was thought to be an improvement on the successful predecessor, the triple expansion steam engine. As it turned out, the full potential of quadruple expansion engines could never be achieved due to inadequate steam pressure provided by boilers of the time. The enormous weights in quadruple expansion engines, reciprocating at high speed, imposed severe stresses on all parts, including the ship's hull. Under full steam the engine room was a very uncomfortable place to be due to the noise and heat generated by these monster engines. Overheated bearings required hosing down with water which together with oil, sprayed everywhere. The quadruple expansion engines were disbanded in favour of a new development in engines, the steam turbine engine. However, the triple expansion steam engine which had proved both reliable and efficient was continued in many vessels for years to come.

This revelation confirms that the above witness comment was probably true. It seems from the literature that the Waratah was fitted with problematic engines which could be considered a developmental failure. It is strange that none of the other numerous witness accounts at the Inquiry referred to unusual vibrations emanating from the engines. I would think under normal, economical operating conditions the engines' vibrations were not as noticeable on the upper decks. 

Irrespective, the literature claims that quadruple expansion engines caused hull strain, which clearly was one one of the main reasons why they were discontinued on steamers. The constant vibration would set up a similar vibration within the rivets potentially causing them to snap and brittle hull plates to crack. This is undoubtedly a recipe for disaster in a steamer already overloaded and with a history of grounding at Adelaide. Captain Ilbery probably took these factors into consideration when deciding to come about rather than subjecting the Waratah's hull to further, undue strain confronting the severe storm developing further to the south. Striking a reef or other object would have been the last straw for a stressed hull and the Waratah would have foundered within minutes.

A quadruple expansion steam engine.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Waratah - why weren't lifeboats launched?

Not a shred of physical evidence from the Waratah was discovered after she disappeared, 27 July, 1909. There are anecdotal reports of a cushion with the letter 'W' and a deckchair washed up onshore, but these were never confirmed as originating from the Waratah. There were certainly no reports of lifeboats from the Waratah discovered adrift. It has intrigued 'Waratah Watchers' over the decades how a 465 ft. steamer could possibly disappear without a trace. It is not difficult to understand why the theory of the Waratah being swamped by a rogue wave became so popular. If this had been the case, the Waratah could have 'flipped over' and gone down like the proverbial stone. Under such circumstances, there would have been no residual evidence.

I choose to believe the Waratah foundered off Port St Johns and being a heavy, overloaded steamer, if she had struck a reef she would have gone down within minutes. If there had been a fire on board (progressively out of control) the crew would have been occupied with this crisis below decks and the passengers advised to remain in cabins. By 8 p.m. 27 July (mid-winter) conditions off the Wild Coast were cold and gusty. Even in the absence of an overt storm, most movables would have been adequately secured or stored away. Under such circumstances the Waratah would have slipped beneath the waves without a trace.

The question is raised; 'why were no lifeboats launched after the Waratah struck a reef?'  The obvious answer is there was not enough time to mobilise passengers and crew. Compounding the situation, the Waratah probably listed significantly which would have prevented both passengers and crew moving safely to the lifeboats and the complex operation of launching the lifeboats, a nearly impossible feat. Lifeboats need a relatively horizontal plane from which to be successfully launched. To further complicate matters the following reports emerged in the press after the loss of the Waratah: 

"Another witness declared that the ship's boats
were rotten, and that no proper boat drill
was carried out."

"At Cape Town, when going alongside the wharf a boat on
the port side was taken on board, and it
took 14 men to do it, because the davits
were so stiff. The same thing occurred
when taking a starboard boat on board
alongside the wharf at Port Adelaide.
These were the only two boats moved
while he was on board."

Stiff davits could have prevented the successful launching of lifeboats under the best of circumstances and certainly prevented any of the lifeboats from coming adrift while the Waratah foundered. There were 16 lifeboats capable of accommodating 787 people; one further boat capable of carrying 29 people and three patent rafts which could support up to 105 souls. There can be no argument, as in the case of the Titanic, that there were insufficient lifeboats. But the sad reality is this; unless circumstances were ideal and enough time available, these boats were useless.

These lifeboats pictured on the Titanic illustrate the complexity of launching - entangled ropes being a further hindrance.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Waratah - why has the wreck not been found?

The all important question 'why has the wreck of the Waratah not been discovered off Port St Johns?' needs to be addressed.

According to the Captain of the Harlow, the Waratah foundered about 7.8 nautical miles northeast of Cape Hermes, within the Port St Johns bay. He estimated that she lies in 20 fathoms of water (roughly 36 meters). It seems very strange that a 465 ft steamer would escape detection over the course of more than a century. 

The explanation is a simple one. The Umzimvubu River (previously St Johns River) deposits many tons of silt into the Port St Johns bay. This has two consequences: the silt would rapidly cover a wreck lying on the seabed; the silt creates an unstable seabed which acts like quicksand, swallowing large objects within a relatively short period of time. The latter was eloquently described by a mariner commenting on the loss of the Waratah (1909):

"A mariner of long experience
whom I met at Port Elizabeth made a
statement which has an important
bearing on the question. He said that
there were many indications that the
Agulhas bank, which extends for some
distance from the south-eastern and
southern coast of Cape Colony is a

"If this be the case it
would swallow up the remains of any
wreck that occurred in its immediate
vicinity, and no trace of the disaster
would remain to show what had

After more than 100 years it is not surprising that no trace of the Waratah wreck is visible in the Port St Johns bay. It would require sophisticated sonar detection (sub-bottom profiling) to locate her. If there is a possibility that she is there, why has this not been done? The answer is simple, the operation is very expensive and the sea off Port St Johns turbulent and currents swift. It would be a daunting challenge to scan a significant area of seabed in the bay and would certainly require a conviction on the part of the investigation team that the Waratah is there.

If she lies under layers of sediment in 36 meters of water, there is every chance she is well preserved.

A satellite view of Port St Johns, clearly demonstrating the extent of silt output. 

Waratah - reader poses important question.

An astute reader of my book 'Waratah Revisited' posed the crucial question; why did Captain Ilbery not make for the port at East London?

The Waratah overhauled the Clan MacIntyre at about 09h30, 27 July. At the time she was seen to be heading out to sea in a more southerly direction. One can surmise that the Waratah's course would have taken her outside the general shipping lane followed by the Clan MacIntyre and other vessels. Heading further out to sea could be explained by the following: the Waratah was overloaded and heavy for her size; the barometer was dropping rapidly signaling the approach of a significant gale from the south. Captain Ilbery would probably have elected to head further out to sea where the wave lengths are longer beyond the Continental Shelf margin, easing forces exerted on the Waratah and making her more manageable.

There is consensus between the Captain of the Harlow and an officer on a Navy cruiser that a steamer was reported to be on fire off Cape Hermes, late 27 July. If this were indeed the Waratah we have a plausible reason for Captain Ilbery deciding to come about and attempting to make for the port at Durban. Fires on steamships of the era could be contained with the aid of fire-fighting equipment and by securing and isolating burning holds. This status quo could be maintained for days (as was the case in 1908 when a fire burned for four days). The fire could be contained in this manner, but not necessarily extinguished. However, the line between control of a fire and an out-of-control crisis is a fine one and the transition can occur within minutes.

Conjecture places the Waratah roughly in the longitude of the Bashee River, about 116 nautical miles from the port at East London, when she departed the company of the Clan MacIntyre. Why did Captain Ilbery not simply continue on to East London? It would have taken the Waratah about nine hours, travelling at roughly 13 knots, to make the port at East London. I believe the approaching storm posed a significant threat to his vessel which was compromised by fire and very heavily loaded. Negotiating a storm would further have been compounded by the narrow channel entrance to the Buffalo River and harbour, a difficult operation at the best of times.

I believe Captain Ilbery made the decision to return to Durban, attempting to outrun the approaching storm and maintain control of the fire until reaching port. This way the crew would have only one major issue to deal with. In the case scenario of making the decision shortly after overhauling the Clan MacIntyre, the distance to cover would be in the region of 176 nautical miles, a thirteen and a half hour voyage at a steady 13 knots. Making for the port at East London (116 nautical miles), in reality, would only have saved four and a half hours! Captain Ilbery would in all likelihood have opted for this marginal increase in voyage time to avoid a storm and maintain optimum control of the fire under more ideal sea conditions.


The crew of the Harlow first sighted the Waratah roughly 26 nautical miles southwest of Cape Hermes. This suggests that the Waratah covered 32 nautical miles between the Bashee River and this position in eight hours. The Waratah should have covered this distance in two and a half hours. What happened to the missing five and a half hours? The Waratah should have covered at least an additional 71.5 nautical miles during this time.

I believe the answer to this riddle is two-fold. The Waratah was heading in a more southerly direction when she departed the Clan MacIntyre, taking her further out to sea from the coastline. The manoeuvre bringing the Waratah about would have to have been undertaken with care and the arc bringing her round into a position heading back to the coastline would have taken the best part of an hour. It is not inconceivable that the Waratah had to then cover an additional 26 nautical miles bringing her close into shore from the position far out at sea. This would account for the differential. This differential is further reduced by an increasing time factor between departing the Clan MacIntyre and making the decision to come about. In my book I estimate an hour, but in reality it could have been sooner.

Ah, but I hear some of you asking 'what happened to the missing 7.8 nautical miles'? Captain Bruce of the Harlow estimated that the Waratah foundered 7.8 nautical miles northeast of Cape Hermes :)

A period map of the South African coast showing Port St Johns, the Bashee River and East London.

The port at East London, turn of the century.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Waratah - Winston Churchill and wireless telegraphy

HC Deb 24 February 1909 vol 1 c847

'Mr. Field: asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will take into consideration the advisability of introducing a Bill to have wireless telegraphy provided on all passenger vessels, and as far as possible on all classes of ships?

Mr. Churchill: yes, Sir. The question whether legislation is necessary on this subject will be considered'.

It is the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death. Very few are aware that he was president of the Board of Trade at the time the Waratah was lost. The date of this short exchange is prior to the Waratah foundering off the Wild Coast. The Waratah was not equipped with Marconi's wireless and it remains in the realm of conjecture whether such a communication device would have assisted Captain Ilbery. 

But perhaps more importantly, vital information could have been relayed from the doomed liner which would have solved the mystery and not only alleviated the stress of relatives and families of those on board, but also avoided a lengthy Inquiry which in effect came up empty-handed after considerable time and expense. Such information could have been revealing in the context of what caused the problem and what could be done to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again.

After the loss of the Waratah Churchill and parliament continued to debate the necessity of such legislation despite the case of the SS Republic which demonstrated that wireless communication played a significant role in successful rescue operations.

Many Commonwealth countries and the United States adopted legislation requiring that wireless be fitted to passenger vessels after the loss of the Waratah. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Waratah - Colonel Percival John Browne.

A brass inscription in a north aisle of the St. Mary and the Holy Trinity at Buckland Filleigh, Devonshire pays respect to Colonel Percival John Browne, C.B. of Fifehead Magdalen, Dorset, with the words 'lost in the S.S. Waratah'. A similar tribute to Colonel Browne appears in the nave of the Abbey Church of St. Mary the virgin at Sherborne, Dorset. The memorial was erected by fellow officers and troopers of the Dorset Queen's Own Yeomanry which Colonel Browne commanded 1902 - 1908.

Colonel Browne was born in South Australia 1863. Accompanied by his niece Gracia Katherine Lees, the couple departed the Browne family's sheep farm at Mount Gambier and boarded the Waratah bound for London, from where Colonel Browne intended to return to his father's estate at Buckland House, Buckland Filleigh, Devon.

The following link on Moles Genealogy Blog kindly shares images of plaque and chapel:

                                                  Buckland House


Saturday, 20 December 2014

Waratah - Officer Phillips (Clan MacIntyre) and the 'Flying Dutchman'.

Officer Phillips of the Clan MacIntyre gave a detailed account of the Waratah sighting at the Inquiry. He described the Waratah pulling ahead of the Clan MacIntyre, crossing her bow from starboard to port, heading out to sea in a more southerly direction, the Waratah apparently upright and steaming well at the time. What Phillips omitted from his account related to the time period shortly after the Waratah disappeared into the mist and vast tract of ocean. He claimed that he saw, in broad daylight, a sailing vessel with high bow and stern illogically sailing against the growing southwesterly wind. Phillips was convinced this was the Flying Dutchman, an ominous portent of disaster to follow. He resorted to a number of cups of strong cocoa to steady his nerves.

In 'A voyage to Botany Bay' (1795) George Barrington wrote:

 I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions and doom, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.[1]

It appears that Phillips was the only man on board the Clan MacIntyre to witness this 'vision', and one wonders if he was swept up in Waratah hysteria of the time, making his contribution to the mood of mysterious disaster. It does raise an important question relating to Phillip's credibility as a reliable witness. After all, S.P. Lamont of the Clan MacIntyre, gave a very different description of the Waratah as she pulled ahead 'listing and pitching like a yacht'.

Although the 'Waratah Storm' approaching from the south had not yet struck, there are two possibilities explaining why Captain Ilbery passed the Clan MacIntyre, heading further out to sea. One could have related to a bunker fire which was progressive and forced Ilbery to consider coming about in a wide arc further out at sea. Or he could have, through many years of experience at sea and a falling barometer, anticipated a storm of significant ferocity. In light of this he would have made a sensible decision to distance his ship from the turbulent margin of the Continental Shelf heading out to sea where the wave lengths are longer, placing less strain in the hull of the Waratah.

But as you the reader know by now, I am of the firm belief that Captain Ilbery headed out to sea, ultimately coming about and heading back to Durban, effectively killing two birds with one stone; avoiding the approaching storm and making for the nearest port to sort out the bunker fire/s.


                                              The Flying Dutchman