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What Happened to the SS Waratah? The Story of the 'Australian Titanic'

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Mr Claude G Sawyer, an engineer and seasoned sea traveler, felt uneasy as the steamship SS Waratah docked at Durban, halfway through its return voyage from Adelaide to London. For three nights now, Sawyer had experienced terrible visions of a medieval knight in curious attire appearing before him, holding aloft a blood-soaked sword in its right hand. On top of this, the Waratah had something about it Sawyer disliked, some quality about the nature of the ship, which set Sawyer on edge. Acting on his hunch, the engineer ripped up his ticket, disembarked and sent a telegram to his wife: “thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban.” Later that day, July 26th 1909, Sawyer watched from Durban harbor as the Waratah put to sea for Cape Town, still feeling uneasy as the ship slipped from view, on its way to Cape Town on the 29th. But the ship did not arrive on that date, or any other; along with its 211 passengers and crew, the Waratah vanished off the face of the Earth.

So goes the usual telling of the cargo and passenger ship SS Waratah, whose tragic loss is often cast as one of the great mysteries of the sea. Launched amid the usual fanfare for a new passenger liner on September 12th 1908, the Waratah embarked on its maiden voyage on

Map of South Africa
November 5th of that year, returning to England from Australia via South Africa without incident. Named after the shrub endemic to south-east Australia, the newest ship in the fleet of the Blue Anchor Line, 465 feet in length with a gross tonnage of 9,339, the Waratah sailed at a top speed of thirteen and a half knots, with a crew of 154 and capacity of up to a thousand passengers. Many of those passengers were emigrates leaving Great Britain for a new life in Australia; those on the homeward bound trip would be mostly Australians making for Africa.

For her second voyage, Waratah left London on April 27th, 1909; arrived in Adelaide as normal, proceeding to Melbourne, leaving the city on July 1st. After Durban, what we ‘know’ of the ship's passage often comes from sensationalist reports in books of the paranormal, often focusing on Sawyer’s mysterious hallucinations, each author joining the dots between the scant physical evidence in their own idiosyncratic way.

Such accounts, much like those of the vessels and airplanes of the Bermuda Triangle, attribute the Waratah's disappearance to the fantastic: an unknown giant sea beast, alien abduction or some warp or vortex in the fabric of reality; more restrained authors put down the loss to a maelström, a surge of methane gas from the sea bed, or some violent diversion causing the ship to drift to parts unknown. One account I recall reading as a child mentions a séance (some sources report this as held by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous spiritualist) held to contact the missing, during which the medium experienced visions of a ship drifting out of control towards Antarctica, those on board pitifully huddling together, dying of cold as they attempted to keep fires ablaze in frozen cabins.

Concerns at such a harrowing plight prompted the British Royal Navy to despatch three ships, HMS Pandora, HMS Forte and HMS Hermes to the area in which the Waratah was last sighted, on the night of July 27th 1909 by a smaller steamship, Clan McIntyre. The ships found nothing; no bodies, no wreckage, not even a life jacket.

Countless searches since have proved equally fruitless at finding the Waratah. A South African, Prof. Emlyn Brown, spent twenty-four years between 1982 and 2004 conducting missions to find the wreck, only to give up, having run out of probable sites to search. In July 1999, Brown’s team, backed by the National Underwater and Marine Authority, a body founded by novelist Clive Cussler, believed they had located the Waratah around six miles off the Transkei coast, where reports of a wreck had persisted ever since a local man, Edward Conquer, claimed to have seen a ship turn turtle and sink in heavy seas on the fateful date of July 27th 1909. Two reported aerial sightings of a large ship underwater, in 1925 by a Royal South African air force pilot, and in 1962 by a private Cessna flown by engineer Bill Elston, appeared to confirm Brown and company as looking in the right area. In January 2001 however, came shattering news for Brown and NUMA when their divers, finally able to visit the sunken ship by submarine, found military equipment and supplies, including tanks, on board. They had not found the Waratah, but the SS Nailsea Meadow, sunk by the German U-196 in May 1943. Not for the first time, the Waratah was not where it should have been.   

Storm at Sea
For a long time, explanations of the disappearance focussed on the alleged instability of the Waratah. It is this which gave Claude Sawyer such concern; the vessel, he felt, was top-heavy and behaved in an alarming manner on the sea, even in moderate weather. (We should note that liners were often constructed top-heavy in those days; inexperienced passengers were easily alarmed by the short, jolting lists taken by vessels built otherwise, whereas top-heavy ships gave a slower, steadier list; this did not mean however, such ships were more stable than their more normally weighted counterparts).

Mr Sawyer told the official inquiry, whose progress The Times of London studiously reported, that the Waratah behaved unlike any ship he had traveled upon, with the ship very slow to right itself when listing, and at times plowing through waves and not riding out their crest. The Waratah did not 'pitch' upon the waves to Mr Sawyer’s satisfaction, and he reported other passengers disturbed by the ship's unpredictable motion, with several injured by falls as a result of its sudden jolts. In short, the Waratah’s mobility, even by top-heavy standards, gave those on board serious cause for concern. Later calculations proved a freak wave, perhaps reaching 65 feet in height, or one of the ferocious storms common to the Cape, could have overwhelmed such a ship with inbuilt stability problems.

As for the engineer’s infamous visions, this took place, according to his testimony, during the course of one night (not three successive nights, as commonly reported). The knight is present, but also holding a bloody cloth as well as a sword; each time Mr Sawyer fell asleep that night, the nightmare re-occurred. Of course, in our post-Freudian age, we are all psychoanalysts (or we like to think we are) and can interpret the dream as a troubled subconscious alerting the mind to its concerns about the danger in which it finds itself in. Mr Sawyer could not repress his concerns on the seaworthiness of the Waratah while asleep, but told the inquiry he did not dream as a rule and on leaving the ship, considered himself as suffering from ‘neuritis’, or as we would call it, badly shaken nerves.

In addition, Sawyer had intended to part company with the Waratah in South Africa all along, albeit at Cape Town, not Durban, making his exit less dramatic than if we mistakenly assumed Sawyer as heading for London. The writer Mike Dash accounts for all these details in his excellent 2008 study of the disaster for the Fortean Times magazine.

Despite all this rationality, one fact remains; the Waratah is still missing. So, where is it, if not in the area in which last reported?


A clue perhaps is the account of a ship called the Harlow, 180 miles from Durban on the 27th, who sighted a steamship making heavy weather of the stormy conditions, so much so the Harlow’s captain thought her in serious difficulty. Once the ship had passed ten miles distant, two flashes were seen in the ship’s general area; a coastal brush fire, thought the Harlow’s crew. This account has often been dismissed, as the location given by the Harlow meant if the mystery ship was the Waratah, then the passenger liner had turned around to head in the opposite direction from its course; strange, given the ship’s relative proximity to its destination. Considering this on the NUMA website in 2012, a Mr Patrick Robinson theorized the Waratah suffered explosions in two of its boilers, crippling the vessel, with storms causing the ship to drift towards the Comoros Islands, or sink somewhere along the way. As the Waratah is nowhere to be found along the eastern coast of South Africa, Mr Robinson could well be correct.

Given the touching messages on the NUMA site from descendants of those aboard the Waratah, let us hope one day the wreck is found, to put an end to outlandish theories about its ‘mysterious disappearance.’ We should remember the human victims of the tragedy, such as the Turner family, husband, wife and five children who were on board the Waratah when calamity overtook both them and the ship; they belong to history, not fantasy. 



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