Saturday, July 28, 2012

July 28, 1909

The Waratah wasn't a fancy ship compared to the giants that crossed the North Atlantic. She was built for mixed-use (both freight and passengers) but still had fashionable features to keep her travelers comfortable. She worked the long (6-8 week) voyage between England and Australia, serving stops in South Africa along the way.

And 103 years ago today she disappeared. Without a trace.

211 people vanished with her. She'd stopped in Durban, South Africa, where one passenger disembarked as he felt she was top-heavy and unsafe. She left port later that day, never to return.

Cruising along the South African coast on July 27, 1909 she was passed by (possibly) 3 other ships, though identification was difficult. The Waratah, like many other ships of the era, didn't carry the newly invented telegraph equipment.

The area is known for monstrous freak waves, which can overwhelm and badly damage ships. One steamer reported seeing a ship coming up quickly, possibly on fire (though it could also have been a brush fire on land, which were common). A police officer patrolling the Transkei coast thought he saw a large ship offshore being battered in huge waves, finally rolling over and sinking.

She was expected to reach Cape Town on July 29, but never made it.

The Royal Navy quickly launched a search with 3 cruisers, without success. One of them (HMS Hermes) was so badly damaged by huge waves that she required extensive drydock repairs upon return.

Further patrols were sent out, both private and government sponsored. All together they covered 14,000 square miles of water of South Africa. Without any evidence of the Waratah.

Not a single verifiable trace has ever been found. A few sightings of what may have been bodies floating off the coast afterwards, or a non-identifiable chair cushion bobbing on the waves. All seen from passing ships, but no one stopped to get a better look. For all we know they were seaweed or aquatic objects.

Leads have come in sporadically over the years. In 1925 the pilot of a plane reported seeing a large vessel on the bottom, but searches of the area have since been unsuccessful. Similar searches of the offshore area where the officer reported seeing a ship sink have also found nothing.

Twice it was thought her wreck had been found, but on investigation they turned out to be other lost ships. One was a freighter sunk during World War II.

What could have happened?

The answer remains a mystery. She was considered a safe, well-built ship, and had received top ratings from government inspectors and insurance companies.

A great deal of investigation time was spent on descriptions of her stability, but in the end a board of inquiry was unable to find any clear evidence of her being unseaworthy.

103 years later and we're no closer to finding her, or learning the fate of 211 voyagers, than we were in 1909. Like U.S.S. Cyclops, this is a mystery I'd love to see solved.

But I'm not optimistic.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Arguably more interesting than the Titanic - certainly more mysterious.

RehabRN said...

Wow! Where do you find all these stories Grumpy?

lynda thomas shell said...

Great story Dr.G

Moose said...

I find the whole science of rogue waves and tsunamis (yes, two very different things) absolutely amazing. It's kind of scary that we live on a planet that is mostly water and yet we have so little idea how our water systems work and what lives within them. And the funding for that is getting slashed now as with NASA, and it's just a fraction of our tax dollars. So very, very sad.

Ms. Donna said...

I suspect Grumpy minored in History at BigState U.

Or he just loves the stories of mysteries @ sea.

Either way, good on him!

Carrie said...

I know you like "unique" articles/ people behaviors, check out goat man

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another interesting story Dr. Grumpy. I always enjoy reading your regular posts, but I enjoy your naval history just as much.

Anonymous said...

A Mongolian yak herder whose heart is at sea...

Thanks for reminding us of a time when the water was a major route of transportation between continents. The father of one of my friends died on a ship in Lake Superior, and I've been reading recently about the Erie Canal system, and how major highways were built right along the canal paths when they closed because of the convenience of not having to negotiate for individual rights-of-ways.

Packer said...

The Roaring 40's ???

@anon 8:13 re: canals, a couple of us aging buddies are bike riding the C&O Tow Path in Oct, from Cumberland MD to Washington DC--185 miles. William Douglas, Supreme Court Justice was instrumental in preserving it , as they did want to build a highway on its right of way.

Amy said...

Cool post. Never heard of that ship before and I love the history of them like the Titanic.

Anonymous said...




Sujeeth Narra said...

The crazy thing is mystery shipping losses like this happen extremely frequently. Read a book that spoke about the giant waves that we don't see or hear about but are everywhere and unexplained. It was a great read: "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean."

Anonymous said...

they got sucked up by aliens to be used in human experiments.

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