The 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 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.
The Waratah was a luxury steamer, built by Barclay Curle & Co in Whiteinch, Glasgow (Scotland) and destined to be the flagship of the Blue Anchor Line. It was named Waratah after the emblem flower of New South Wales, Australia. The ship was supposed to serve as a passenger and cargo liner to Australia. It had 100 first class cabins, eight state rooms and a salon whose panels depicted its namesake flower.
On 5 November 1908, the Waratah set sail on her maiden voyage from London, England, with 689 passengers in third class accommodation and 67 first class passengers. Her captain was Joshua E. Ilbery, a sailor with 30 years nautical experience. The subsequent inquiry into her sinking raised some disputed reports of instability on this voyage. On the ship's return to England there was some discussion about stowage between the owners and the builders.
On 27 April 1909, the Waratah set out on her second trip to Australia. This was uneventful and on 1 July 1909 she set out from Melbourne on the return journey. She was bound for the South African ports of Durban and Cape Town and was then to return to London. The Waratah reached Durban, where one passenger, Claude Sawyer, an engineer and experienced sea traveler, got off the ship and sent the following cable to his wife in London:
"Thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban"
The Waratah left Durban on 26 July with 211 passengers and crew. On 27 July , it passed the Clan McIntyre. On the evening of the same day, the Union-Castle Liner Guelph passed a ship and exchanged signals by lamp, but was only able to identify the last three letters of her name as "T-A-H."
The Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909. It never reached its destination, and no trace of the ship was ever found.
Initially, it was believed that the Waratah was still adrift. The Royal Navy deployed the cruisers HMS Pandora and HMS Forte (and later the HMS Hermes) to search for the Waratah. 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. However, it turned out that the ship in question had not been the Waratah.
In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Union Castle ship Sabine to search for the Waratah. The search of the Sabine covered 14,000 miles, but yielded no result.
In 1910, relatives of the Waratah passengers chartered the Wakefield and conducted a search for three months, which again proved unsuccessful.
An official enquiry into the fate of the Waratah was held at London in December 1910. Among others, Claude Sawyer gave testimony on that occasion.
In 1925, Lt. D. J. Roos of the South African Air Force, reported that he had spotted a wreck while he was flying over the Transkei coast. It was his opinion that this was the wreck of the Waratah.
In 1977, a wreck was located off the Xora River Mouth. Several investigations into this wreck, in particular under the leadership of Emlyn Brown took place. It is however widely believed today that the wreck off the Xora River Mouth was that of one of many ships which had fallen victim to German U Boats during the Second World War. It has proven particularly difficult to explain why the Waratah should be found so far to the North of her estimated position. Further attempts to locate the Waratah took place in 1991, 1995 and 1997.
In 1999, reports reached the newspapers that the Waratah had been found 10 km off the Eastern coast of South Africa (Addley). A sonar scan conducted by Emlyn Brown's team had indeed located a wreck whose outline seemed to match that of the Waratah. In 2001 however, a closer inspection revealed differences between the Waratah and the wreck. It appears that the team had in fact found the Nailsea Meadow, a ship which had been sunk in the Second World War.
In 2004, Brown, who had by now spent 22 years looking for the Waratah declared that he was giving up the search: "I've exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look".
The most popular theory advanced to explain the disappearance of the Waratah appears to be that of a 'freak wave' in the ocean off the South African coast. This theory was given credibility through a paper by Professor Mallory of the University of Cape Town (1973) which suggested that waves of up to 20 meters in height did occur between Richards Bay and Cape Agulhas.
Some have also suggested that instead of sinking, the ship was incapacitated by a freak wave and, having lost her rudder and without any means of contacting land, was swept southwards towards Antarctica to either be lost in the open ocean or foundering on Antarctica itself. No evidence except the absence of the wreck supports this theory, however.
Several supernatural theories were also put forward to explain the disappearance of the Waratah. Claude Sawyer reported to the London inquiry that he had seen on three occasions the vision of a man "with a long sword in a peculiar dress. He was holding the sword in his right hand and it was covered in blood." This vision was one of the reasons why he decided not to continue the voyage on the Waratah. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle held a seance to establish how the Waratah could have vanished.
David Willers theorized that the Waratah was scuppered off the coast of Tierra Del Fuego as the crew tried to sail to safety in his book 'In Search Of The Waratah'.
The Waratah was seen off the Transkei coast (East Coast of South Africa) making its way back to Durban when it sank. The eye-witness of the sinking was a police officer who patrolled the area on horse back. He apparently reported the incident in the occurrence book on his return to the station. What is known of him is that he was related (Uncle) to the late Noel Staples Martin - to whom he passed on the information verbally.
The mystery of the disappearance of the S.S Waratah is yet still to be solved.