SS Waratah — The Other Titanic

Three years before the tragic sinking of the Titanic, another ship went down with all hands lost. This time, however, there was no iceberg, and no explanation for its disappearance. The 500-foot liner was the pride of Scotland, named after the flower of New South Wales, Australia. Designed to carry passengers and cargo, there were 100 first class cabins, 8 staterooms, and luxurious lounges. In addition to its first class passengers, the Waratah also carried emigrants from Europe to Australia in steerage dormitory-like quarters, capable of housing 700 or more of these lower paying passengers. Although the ship could transport refrigerated cargo and had a large desalination plant onboard, it had no radio or telegraph communications, typical of the times.

After an uneventful journey that began on April 27 from London to Australia, the Waratah left Melbourne on the return trip to London on July 1, 1909. The ship reached Durban, Australia and departed on July 26,1909 for Cape Town, South Africa. One passenger, Claude Sawyer, debarked at Durban after wiring his wife that the ship was top heavy and he was suffering from nightmares. On July 27, the ship exchanged signals with the Clan McIntyre, the last verifiable sighting of its location. One day later, two more sightings of the Waratah were recounted, but thirty-foot waves and 50-knot winds had made visibility poor. The Guelph, a passing ship, received light signals, commonly used instead of radio communications, but could only identify the last 3 letters t — a — h.

That same evening, the Harlow detected a ship, possibly the Waratah, following behind her from about 10 to 12 miles away. Two lights flashed in the darkness, but the captain and the first mate of the Harlow assumed these were simply brush fires onshore, a usual occurrence, and paid no particular attention. This sighting was not recorded in the ship’s log, and it is doubtful that the Waratah had somehow reversed her course back to Durban. The exact location of the sinking SS Waratah is unknown, although a policeman on horseback patrolling the east coast of South Africa, the Transkei area, may have been an actual eyewitness. In any event, for whatever reason, the ship did not arrive at Cape Town as expected on July 29.

Turbulent weather off the Cape hampered the search efforts of three ships from the Royal Navy. A possible sighting of the Waratah was announced in the Australian Parliament and people in Adelaide were elated, but this news was short lived; it was not the Waratah. It is now September and the ship’s owners have charted the Sabine to resume the search, which covered over 14,000 miles. Still nothing! Relatives of passengers on the Waratah also chartered their own ship, the Wakefield, but its 3-month search found no evidence of the ship or the 211 passengers and crew.

Since there were no survivors, the Board of Trade had to rely on testimony from passengers, builders, and crew from the ship’s maiden voyage in November 1908. All agreed that it was well built and in excellent condition, further verified by Lloyds of London who gave it an A1 rating. One witness stated that the ship did seem to have a problem with maintaining equilibrium in heavy seas, but former crew members and passengers disagreed with this theory. There was some speculation that inspections were not thorough enough, and seemed to concentrate more upon the design and detail of the cabins and public rooms, rather than its overall seaworthiness. The formal inquiry did conclude that the supposed sightings by the Guelph and the Harlow were questionable. Based upon its location on July 27, these could not have occurred at the same time.

Many more sightings were rumored including one by a pilot from the South African Air Force in 1925, one in 1929 by a soldier onshore, and again, by a Cessna pilot flying over the area in 1962 who reported seeing a passenger ship lying beneath the surface of the ocean. But, whether any of these reports were fantasies or realities is not known.

In 1977, Emlyn Brown and his diving team discovered a wreck off the Xora River. At first it was thought to be the Waratah, but later determined that it was too far north of its approximate location. In all probability, it was a ship destroyed by German U-boats in WWII. More recent attempts to find the Waratah were made in 1991, 1995, and 1997. A discovery in 1999 turned out to be another transport ship sunk during the war.

Other theories arose about the extreme weather conditions and a possible rogue wave, which frequently occur (as recent as August of this year) in deep water off the coast of Africa. Resulting from high winds and strong currents, these waves are unpredictable and might well have been the cause of the disappearance of the Waratah. A few people have suggested that the ship was swept as far south as Antarctica, having lost its rudder in the turbulence, but no evidence exists to prove or disprove this theory.

The suggestion of a whirlpool has little substance, as it is doubtful that any whirlpool would have been powerful enough to completely submerge a ship of this size. Neither is the possibility of an explosion of coal dust a valid one. Again, there would have been some wreckage, and some indication of lifeboats being launched. Then too, there are the believers in the paranormal including the passenger Sawyer who claimed to have had visions of a man with a sword covered in blood on three occasions, and decided to leave the ship in Durban. It has been mentioned too that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed mystery writer, held a séance in hopes of locating the Waratah.

The mysterious disappearance of the SS Waratah has attracted divers and expeditions for over 95 years. Perhaps, the most notable of these is millionaire Clive Cussler, well-known author of Raise The Titanic, and other adventure novels. As a marine archaeologist and founder of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), Cussler, Brown, and Dr Peter Ramsey, a geoscientist, have led at least nine diving expeditions to find the Waratah since 1983. Paid for once again by Cussler, a group of 16 led by Brown planned an expedition in 2004 to explore the Xora and Bashee rivers off the Transkei coast. (Note: This writer could find no further information on the results of this venture.)

Was the ship overloaded on its return trip with a diverse 6500 tons of cargo including food supplies and an additional 1,000 tons of lead concentrate? Did it capsize in stormy weather as a result of instability? Were the ballast requirements accurately determined to take into consideration this added weight? These are all credible answers to the mystery, but until evidence is found that the SS Waratah lies somewhere on the bottom of the ocean, then we are left to draw our own conclusions to the mystery of the other Titanic.

(Note: The ship’s owners, the Blue Anchor Line, was forced into liquidation in 1910 after ticket sales dropped, and the lack of adequate insurance did not compensate for the huge financial losses.)

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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  1. Thomas lewis says:

    Make a ship called tinaco and do the same instructions from the waratah and a few adjustments and keep it in the english channel, the black sea. Put in 10 indoor swimming pools, 999 metres long and high made to the ship,Crows nest,3 propellers, light blue dark blue and red colours,Put in 10 indoor swimming pools, 999 metres long and high,Crows nest,3 propellers, light blue dark blue and red colours,Best to best steel rivits,

  2. Al Lindner says:

    It now seems as if the search for the WARATAH is now pretty much at a dead end. I have always inclined toward Alan Villier’s view that the ship capsized in the rough weather of 7-28-1909, and that her stability was the major contributing factor. A hundred years is a long time, and judging peoples’ actions at a distance is always risky, but it has always amazed me that the masters of the TOTTENHAM and the INSIZWA did not stop and verify whether the floating matter sighted from their ships was actually human remains or not. Perhaps I’m being naive and that their main concern was a commercial one of keeping a schedule and just not wanting to be bothered with possible human remains and associated difficulties. They lived in a pretty “rough around the edges” era of capitalism, and perhaps this would be very low in their priorities.

  3. Foster says:

    Who wrote this?The ship sailed from Melbourne and arrived in Durban,Australia?Since when?Durban is in Natal,South Africa.It is possible,though unlikely,that the Captain and Mate decided,for to speed up cargo handling on arrival in Cape Town,not to batten the cargo hatches down,after all,she was making merely a coastwise passage and if this be the case,then shipping a huge sea over the forecastle could have been fatal for the vessel.But,it still leaves unanswered the riddle of absolutely no wreckage.With wood featuring so largely in the construction of ships at that time it seems unlikely that there was “absolutely no wreckage”.The currents down there are strong and any flotsam would soon have been carried far from the site of her foundering.For those interested I recommend Kenneth Barnaby’s book,”Some ship disasters and their causes”.Published in the 1980’s.Barnaby was one of Britain’s leading Naval Architects and gives an expert opinion on such maritime matters.

  4. April. 15, 2012

    Editorial,

    “by Writer Mr. Alexander Simon”

    replies: alexsim@telus.net

    THE TITAN ICED!

    Ms Ilona Kauremszky of Her Queen Majesty Internal Agency first posted “Remembering Titanic;” this last Monday, March 26, 2012; noted with the Toronto Sun News-line The Royal Majesty Service filed photograph featured is not the Titanic Prince Philip Edward in Harbor on Maiden voyage is clearly shown The Halifax, Royal Commission ‘may;’ prove me conclusive The third ‘largest;’ ocean liner including military at the time in December 1920; was one third the ‘berth;’ of the second version of the nefarious Titan. The term ‘Titanic’ was conjecture; to fuel the appetite of avid readers in sea mystery. The British White Star Line was insured for near double the monetary value of the same nefarious ‘unseen;’ huge ocean liner. With; double near the “purse;” and an active World War One sizing pay-for-booty; another; ‘lesser;’ liner may have been torpedoed! If, a ‘war;’ torn country; and struggling poor; ‘torpedoed;’ a $95,000,000.00 grand vessel; why not implore Doppler Sonar available commencing September 1901?

    -5-

  5. anton says:

    Correct Foster….Citing Durban, Australia, is a common occurence in many Waratha articles,and at precisely the same place in an article, suggesting many of these articles are basically copied. Also appearing in many at approximately the same place, ( although not in this one ) is the typo “London to Austria”, and, in common with this commonly ( slightly ) re-phrased version, the error that the ship was homeward bound Melbourne to England, when in fact the ship terminated in Sydney, and began its return voyage from there. Perhaps what would have been more informing, was that Sawyer embarked here, and continued past two Aussie ports without disembarking, was Cape Town and not London bound, making his descision to sacrifice his onward ticket costs far less impressive, and was seeking medical advice, suspected of suffering from Neurosis, or possibly psychosis.
    anton, london.

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