Wednesday, July 26, 2017

108 years ago: SS Waratah Anniversary

108 years ago

Monday, 26th July 1909, 8.00 pm

SS Waratah – departing from ‘C’ Shed, Durban, South Africa
Destination - Cape Town
Route - London via Las Palmas and Plymouth 
Commander – J E Ilbery

On her departure from Durban Harbour on Monday, 26th July, at 8.00 pm, SS Waratah put to sea for the last time.  As she turned south past Durban Bluff, headed for Cape Town, the scene was now set, for one of the greatest, tragic sea mysteries of all time, to be played out.  Little did anyone imagine that she was destined to vanish within the next 24 hours!

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 is notorious and treacherous, taking merchant ships close to the very edge of the Continental Shelf, which generates gigantic swells, especially when very strong winds blowing from the south-west, oppose the 3 knot south-running coastal current.

The following morning of 27th July had the ship progressively heading into stronger winds. Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due east of Cape Hermes, near the town of Port St. Johns.  Down this coast, abnormal waves are at their worst. Facing this hazard, the question remains - had she tried to come about to return to Durban and broached, or had she continued further down the coast, to be lost with all hands?

During the passage from Adelaide, (Australia) to Durban, the Waratah had not been well-received by many passengers when moderate to rough seas had manifested in her top-heavy promenade deck being the cause of her insecure righting motion.  Would Captain Ilbery and his senior officers have felt apprehensive in anticipation of this wild storm ahead of them?  
Did that underlying unease amongst some of the crew and passengers start to increase now, as they recalled the recent Adelaide passage and the disagreeable way in which the Waratah had rolled, remaining on her sides for a long time before recovering?  Little did any of them imagine that they were sailing directly to their deaths!

Where and when, exactly, did Waratah meet her demise?  

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 enormous waves and possibly rolled over completely. Perhaps she was engulfed by an enormous rogue wave as she drove down into a trough.  We can only hope that their demise was quick, with perhaps no time to realise what was happening, before the thousands of tons of icy water poured over the ship to drag them helplessly into the depths of the Indian Ocean’s Continental Shelf.

Now, many years later, in looking back at all the possible outcomes and the human tragedy that occurred, speculation persists, questions continue to be asked with doubts raised and searches will continue.  We have been left to draw our own conclusions on what actually happened to the SS Waratah that night and where she, her Captain and the passengers and crew might rest in their ocean grave.

Psalm 107:23-31
 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders of the deep.

SS Waratah: by Seth Wade

This guest post was written by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson - thank you Sue for your passionate interest and on-going research into the Waratah!