Still missing after a century of searching

2009-08-27 00:00

A NEW book has been written about the search for the SS Waratah, a ship that disappeared. It will be on our shelves in November.

Just over a century ago my great-grandmother, Mary Jane Dawes, boarded the SS Waratah berthed at C Shed in Durban harbour with her cousin, Malcolm Donaldson. She had with her a little boy of two, affectionately known as Mannie, the grandson of Malcolm. She was taking the child to London, to give his mother, Eva Donaldson, a chance to recover from recent ill-health.

Eva was among the crowd of friends and relatives who stood in a cold, scudding rain that evening of July 26, 1909 to wave goodbye to the 38 people who had embarked in Durban. Most of them were bound for London on the second voyage of this flagship of Lund’s Blue Anchor Line. Then, as the gangway was about to be raised, Eva pushed through the crowd, ran on board and snatched little Mannie from Mrs Dawe’s arms. Crying “I can’t leave my little boy”, she ran sobbing into the crowd.

The tug Richard King nudged the big ship away from the wharf at 8 am. On the bridge the pilot, Captain George Lindsay, steered the ship out the harbour and into a sea whipped by an icy wind before taking leave of Captain Josiah Ilberry, commodore of the Blue Anchor fleet (who thanked the pilot with a gift of a tin of Springbok tobacco), and the Waratah ploughed into a choppy sea. The crowd of well-wishers dispersed into the night.

Besides little Mannie, there was another Waratah passenger, from Melbourne, who was bound for Cape Town but decided to leave the ship in Durban. Claude Sawyer was an engineer and seasoned traveller and he had been concerned at the ship’s behaviour at sea. His concern was all the greater after he had seen an apparition of a strangely dressed man at the foot of his bed waving a bloodied sword from side to side. He cabled his wife: “Thought Waratah top heavy, left Durban.”

The Waratah ploughed through heavy seas and at 6 am on the morning of July 27, passed the Clan McIntyre, the master of which reported that he sailed into a violent storm with nine-metre waves. The ships exchanged signals and slowly the Waratah overtook the slower ship until it disappeared over the horizon.

The Waratah was never seen again.

The ship was due in Cape Town on the morning of July 29. When it failed to arrive, it was assumed to have been delayed by the stormy seas, but when several days passed with no sign of it, tugs were sent to search for it. The T. E.Fuller from Table Bay was forced back by mountainous seas. A warship sent from Simonstown had to be dry-docked after huge seas strained her hull.

The families of the 92 passengers and 119 crew of the vanished ship continued to hope that the ship would be found. The steamer Waikato, bound for New Zealand, had been disabled off the Aghulas Bank in 1899 and had drifted 4 500 kilometres before being towed to Fremantle.

The SS Sabine, a coaler, was charted and with her own and five Royal Navy crew assigned to her, was sent to search the southern Indian Ocean on a voyage that zigzagged across the route charted by the Waikato.

On the Sabine’s return three months later, the SS Wakefield was sent on a similar mission. Each ship searched over 4 700 square kilometres on a voyage of 14 000 nautical miles, searching remote places like Amsterdam Island, St Paul, Marion Island, the Crozets, Kerguelan, all uninhabited or visited only occasionally by whalers.

Author Penny Smith became intrigued by the story of the search for the Waratah when she found the journal of her relative Walter Smith among her father’s papers.

Smith was a Naval rating who had been on both search vessels and his stirring account of lonely graves of shipwrecked mariners, uncharted reefs and dangerous seas, together with the journals of Lieutenant Seymour, Captain Owen and Captain Putt, form the backbone of a new book on the search for the Waratah.

Nothing was found.

Emlyn Brown’s search for the Waratah from 1983, used the latest technology, including a two-man submarine, and his account is included. In 2002, Brown announced that the sunken Waratah had been found, but was devastated when he realised that the wreck was in fact a cargo vessel, torpedoed in 1942.

The Waratah has still not been found.

• The Lost Ship SS Waratah – Searching for the Titanic of the South, by P. J. Smith. The History Press, Stroud, U.K. 2009.


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