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SS Waratah: The mystery of the 'Titanic of the South' lives on

In the pre-dawn hours of 27 July 1909, the brand-new triple deck passenger and cargo steamship, the SS Waratah, drew level with the SS Clan MacIntyre, off the Transkei Wild Coast.

Though clouded in darkness, the two ships communicated by lamp signal, exchanging customary information about the name and destination of their respective ships. They sailed within view of each other for a few hours, before the faster Waratah, on only her second voyage, gradually sped away.

The Waratah and her 211 passengers and crew members were never seen again in what would become one of the greatest maritime mysteries of the southern hemispphere.

Titanic of the South

SS Waratah was a passenger and cargo steamship built in 1908 for the Blue Anchor Line to operate between Europe and Australia. She left Durban at approximately 8.15pm on 26 July with 211 passengers and crew.

At around 4am on 27 July, she was spotted astern on the starboard side by the Clan Line steamer Clan MacIntyre, drawing level at around 6am.

The Waratah, going approximately 13 knots, then overtook Clan MacIntyre at a location abeam of the Bashee River and remained in sight, speeding gradually away from Clan MacIntyre until she disappeared over the horizon by about 9:30am.

This would be the final confirmed sighting of Waratah.

Later that day, the weather deteriorated quickly (as is common in that area), with increasing wind and rough seas.

On 28 July a hurricane sprang up in the area, so bad that the captain of the Clan MacIntyre said it was the worst weather he had experienced at sea in his 13 years as a seaman, with winds of exceptional strength causing tremendous seas.

Unconfirmed sightings

At around 5:30pm on the 27th, a ship called the Harlow saw the smoke of a steamer on the horizon. However, there was so much smoke that her captain wondered if the steamer was on fire.

When darkness fell, the crew of the Harlow could see the steamer's running lights approaching. While still about 16 to 19 km behind them, there were suddenly two bright flashes from the direction of the steamer and the lights vanished. The captain thought they were caused by explosions, but the mate of the Harlow who had also seen them, thought the flashes were brush fires on the shore (a common phenomenon in the area at that time of year).

The captain agreed and did not even enter the events in the log – only when he learnt of the disappearance of the Waratah did he think the events significant.

That same evening at around 9.30pm, the Union-Castle Liner Guelph, heading north to Durban from the Cape of Good Hope, passed a ship and exchanged signals by lamp. Due to the bad weather and poor visibility, however, she was able to identify only the last three letters of her name as "T-A-H."

Another possible sighting, which was not disclosed to the Inquiry at the time, was by Edward Joe Conquer, a Cape Mounted Rifleman who on 28 July 1909, was posted to carry out military exercises on the banks of the mouth of the Xora River along with Signaller H. Adshead.

He recorded in his diary that he and Adshead had observed through a telescope a steamship which matched the description of the Waratah, which appeared to be struggling slowly against heavy seas in a south-westerly direction.

Conquer observed the ship roll heavily to starboard, and then before it was able to right itself, a following wave rolled over the ship, which then disappeared from view, leading Conquer to believe it had gone under.

He reported his sightings to his base camp and to his Orderly Sergeant, who apparently did not take the matter seriously. He did not come forward with his story until 1929.

The Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909, but never reached its destination. No trace of the ship has ever been found.

Searching in vain

Initially, the non-appearance of the ship did not cause alarm as it was not uncommon for ships to arrive at port days, or occasionally even weeks overdue.

As Waratah was considered unsinkable, it was at first thought likely that she had been delayed by a breakdown or mechanical fault, and was still adrift. Fears started to grow for her safety, when ships which had left Durban after Waratah and had travelled on a similar course began arriving at Cape Town, and reported having seen no sign of her en route.

The first search effort was launched on 1 August, when the tugboat T.E. Fuller was sent out to look for any sign of the ship, but was forced to turn back after encountering dreadful weather. She later returned to search along the coast.

The Royal Navy deployed cruisers HMS Pandora and HMS Forte (and later HMS Hermes) to search for the Waratah. The Hermes, near the area of the last sighting of the Waratah, encountered waves so large and strong that she strained her hull and had to be placed in dry dock on her return to port.

On 10 August 1909, a cable from South Africa reached Australia, reading:

"Blue Anchor vessel sighted a considerable distance out. Slowly making for Durban. Could be the Waratah".

The Chair of the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament halted proceedings to read out the cable, saying: "Mr. Speaker has just informed me that he has news on reliable authority that the SS Waratah has been sighted making slowly towards Durban."

In Adelaide, the town bells were rung, but the ship in question was not the Waratah.

Numerous other ships in the area joined the search, including the Waratah's sister ship Geelong which deviated from its course from Cape Town to Adelaide, to search waters east of South Africa where the Waratah was thought to be possibly drifting.

The German steamship Goslar also kept special lookout for Waratah for 1262 miles of ocean while en route from Port Elizabeth to Melbourne.

On 13 August 1909 the steamship Insizwa reported sighting of several bodies off the mouth of Bashee (Mbashe) River, near the location of the last confirmed sighting of the Waratah. The Captain of the Tottenham also allegedly saw bodies in the water, more than two weeks after the Waratah disappeared.

In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Union Castle cargo ship Sabine to search for the Waratah. The Sabine was specially fitted out with search lights and other equipment. Its search covered 23,000 km and zig-zagged across the drift path of the aforementioned Waikato but yielded no result.

No confirmed wreckage or bodies from the Waratah have ever been found.

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Graeme Cree
Graeme Cree
May 22, 2023

There's almost no similarity between the Waratah and the Titanic except that both ships sank. The similarity is something invented by marketing people as click bait. The Waratah didn't have any precious cargo, no famous passengers. It was never considered unsinkable, despite later claims to the contrary, or seen as a symbol of human hubris. It was about half the size of Titanic. It had seven times fewer casualties. It had more than enough lifeboats. There were no indifferent strangers who might have saved it if they hadn't ignored distress signals. Nobody even knows any specific details about how the Waratah went down, while there's a wealth of detail about the loss of the Titanic. If you asked Leonardo…

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