100 years since SS Waratah disappeared off the Wild Coast

The Waratah 1908 - 29 July 1909

The Waratah 1908 - 29 July 1909Source: Daily Dispatch

The SS Waratah, sometimes referred to as "Australia's Titanic", was a 500 foot steamer. In July 1909, the ship, en route from Durban to Cape Town, disappeared with 211 passengers and crew aboard. The disappearance of the ship remains one of the most baffling nautical mysteries of all time. To this day no trace of the ship has ever been found.

According to Dispatch archives, the 10 000 ton ship passed along the Transkei coast on July 28, 1909 after stopping off in Durban the previous day.

It was heading to London and would have stopped over in Cape Town before setting sail on the high seas. A Dispatch report from July 1971 said: “Two people had disembarked in Durban – one to find a job and the other after he dreamt that the ship would sink – and after being spotted by two other ships along the Transkei coast, the Waratah disappeared in what was to become ‘one of the most baffling nautical mysteries of all time’.”

;As it sailed past the Transkei coast, between the mouths of the Bashee and Xora rivers, the ship is said to have encountered bad weather and battled to sail against high winds, a combination of tide and turbulent ocean swell.

Carrying provisions on board to last a year, the Waratah is said to have fallen victim to a freak wave, capsized and been sucked to the ocean floor with all aboard. In the 100 years since it disappeared various theories have tried to explain its demise.

Numerous attempts to salvage it and a few sightings have been reported, with none proving to be true. A world genealogy website reports initial theories suggested it remained adrift for a while and was carried away from the southern African shoreline and drifted into the Antarctic Circle where passengers and crew died of cold and starvation, the ship itself eventually being crushed to pieces in the southern ice.

“Another possibility was that the ship blew up because of an explosion due to heating of her bunker coal, bringing a quick and painful death to all on board,” the website reports.

Agreeing with the theory that the ship went down in a storm, Smit said debris wasn’t found because everything was secured tightly when the storm hit.

He said the ship was either deliberately steered away from the coast to avoid it bashing onto rocks, or it was driven away from the shore by the current, and swept past the southern African tip away from the coastline. “Since they found the Titanic, why can’t they find the Waratah,” Smit asked. - By NTANDO MAKHUBU

More info: Wikipedia


Do you think the Waratah hit a bad storm or had engine trouble and tried to return to Durban and lost its way?

I think it unlikely that she would have tried to return to Durban. According to one of the passengers who disembarked at Durban, the ship had been very unstable and had been rolling heavily. This was probably caused by moving ballast. A watcher on the Transkei coast saw the ship hit a huge wave and then disappear. I think it likely that it capsized.

I believe the vessel broached when struck by a massive wave.On capsizing the volume of air within the hull afforded a measure of negative boyancy(similar to a submarine)and the Mocambique currents exceptional speed of plus minus 6 knots pushing against a hull of 500 feet moved the ship a further 16 to 20 miles further South before it finally settled on the seabed.In the vicinity of the Kieskamma River mouth.Hows that for a theory?

What I am about to write now is'nt for publication.Shortly after my original letter to you,I experienced a weird dream re the wreck site.I also at the onset wish to correct a spelling error.Instead of noting the theoretical spot as the Kei river mouth,I incorrectly wrote the Keiskama mouth. At 84 I sometimes get things muddled up.Here's the dream. My mother,who lost her mother(my grandmother)in 1905 at the age of 2,and who was buried in the Brixton cemetery,Johannesburg appeared to me in a vivid dream.She was standing at her grave site and posturing with her outstretched arm in a southerly direction said "She lies due South",George.Right from early childhood I was fascinated about the ""Waratah",saga and I suppose this played on my mind.To cut a long story short,I drew a line from Johannesburg vertically down to the coast into the sea,and this point is slightly East of East London.Cheers,G.

I have a book written by Lawrence Green called "Eight Bells at Salamander". In it he writes and I quote: "I knew the man who saw the Waratah sink. He was the famous Joe Conquer of the South African Air Force. a sergeant-major when I first met him, later a commissioned officer. Conquer was a signaller in the Cape Mounted Riflemen of July 29, 1909, stationed at the Xora River mouth in the Transkei for live shell practice. That day Conquer watched through his telescope while a ship exactly like the Waratah crawled down the coast in a gale. Another signaller named Adshead was with him. 'I saw her roll very heavily,' Conquer told me. 'She seemed to be overtaken by a following sea, and then when I looked for her again she had gone. I am convinced that I saw the end of the Waratah. Three days later newspapers reached our camp reporting that the Waratah was overdue.' Conquer marked on a map the spot where he had seen the ship disappear. A bearing of 240 degrees from the knoll at the Xora River mouth gives the direction, and he estimated that the ship was four miles offshore. He reported what he had seen to C.M.R. headquarters, first by semaphore and later in writing. Wreckage was found in the neighbourhood soon afterwards. Deck-chairs, cushions and an oar drifted ashore, but there was nothing bearing the name of the Waratah. Years aterwards a military pilot pin-pointed a sunken wreck he had observed while flying along the coast. He compared his map with the map Conquer had kept. The positions almost coincided. So the Waratah no longer dominates the missing ships as far as I am concerned." Don't know if this would be of any help to you. Lawrence Green was a journalist who later became an author writing stories of various people and events he had covered.

A war ship was found on the wild coast while filming the sardeen run this year.what ships have sunken there ?

I believe the Waratah was overwhelmed in a storm and turned over. I believe that she floated long enough for the currents to carry her away from her original track before going under. Remember that a vessel reported having sighting bodies in the water later, but it was never followed up on. It is my sincere hope that her remains can be located someday before it is too late. It the Titanic can be located, so, too, can the Waratah. My money is on Emlyn Brown finding her. If anybody can find her, he can.

It's sad to say, but Mr. Brown has apparently given up the search for the Waratah. In 2004 he reportedly stated he'd no longer be seaching because he'd 'run out of places to look.' This is unfortunate, because the Waratah is truly one of the last great mysteries of the sea. With Clive Cussler's backing through his N.U.M.A. organization they've looked in every logical place imaginable. While I like some of the theories presented here, I tend to believe that it sank in a place off of the continental shelf and into the deep abyss beyond. While it could still be found there, the efforts would have to take on a much grander scale and the area searched would take far longer and be far more expensive than would be feasible. I hope one day we find out what happened to the great ship, but I sincerely doubt that after the all of the efforts made to find her already, any new efforts would prove any more successful.

Why can't we use the same technology that traced the remains of AirFrance Flight 447 to locate the wreckage of S.S.Waratah ?

Hello Scott, Emlyn and I correspond frequently through Facebook. He is currently writing a book about his adventures in looking for the Waratah. He hasn't entirely given up on it. It lives with him everyday. If he could come up with the right plans and funding, he'd go back out again. We've spoken about it before. He is very passionate about the Waratah. I'd give anything to see her found before I leave this earth. I'm sure Emlyn feels the same way. He believes that she overturned, and that she floated for a day, maybe a two, and that the currents carried her to a place where she eventually went under. I've read what I can find on her disappearance, and what gets me, is a ship travelling through the region she disappeared in actually came in contact with floating bodies. But they didn't stop to pick them up and bring them in for identification. That's astonishing to me. You're conjecture that she sank in very deep water makes alot of sense. Emlyn is of the opinion that by this time, she's probably an unrecognizable junkyard wherever she's resting.

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