By David Willers
THE DISAPPEARANCE without trace of the luxury ocean liner SS Waratah in July 1909 while under way from Durban to Cape Town is one of the most compelling mysteries of the sea.
While acknowledging a ‘total absence of direct evidence’, the British Court of Inquiry into the vessel’s loss found nevertheless that she must have foundered in a storm experienced off South Africa’s notorious Wild Coast on 28 July, and this remains the dominant belief today.
I had no reason to believe otherwise until, in 1994, I chanced upon evidence that many people believed at the time that the ship had not foundered off the Wild Coast, but had broken down and drifted into the south Indian Ocean. Various search vessels expensively equipped to look for her scoured the ocean between Australia and South Africa for more than a year.
My interest aroused, I soon joined a community of people around the world who remain fascinated by this enigmatic vessel and her eventual fate. The notes I kept of intermittent research and conjecture have culminated in this book, which can only be published now that a series of attempts to find the wreck of the Waratah off the Wild Coast has been abandoned.
The intensive, and widely publicised, underwater searches were conducted by the South African undersea explorer and filmmaker Emlyn Brown, who became interested in the Waratah at an early age, while serving in the South African Navy. In part one, I outline numerous attempts by Brown to find the Waratah, culminating in a major expedition in January 2001, utilising a Delta mini-submarine, to dive on a wreck first located with side-scan sonar in July 1999.
Brown was convinced the wreck was that of the Waratah, leading to prominent press reports in Britain and elsewhere that the liner had in fact been found. The expedition took place amid considerable international interest. To Brown’s and others’ huge disappointment, however, the wreck turned out to be that of the Nailsea Meadow, a cargo ship sunk during World War 2.
But Brown – founder and director of the National Underwater & Marine Agency South Africa (NUMA SA) – would not give up that easily. In January 2003 he launched yet another attempt to locate the Waratah – effectively his seventh. This time, there was no advance newspaper coverage, and I only learnt about the attempt from the NUMA SA website after it had taken place.
The survey team located and investigated a wreck which they believed could be the ill-fated liner. It was found to be a steamship with four boilers – but the Waratah had had five. Moreover, divers only saw a single screw, while the Waratah had been a twin screw vessel.
A deep pessimism now appeared to have gripped this normally buoyant explorer. As his website dolefully recorded: ‘Emlyn concludes that the search for the Waratah should now be terminated, as research as to its whereabouts appears to be exhausted … at this point in time, he is unsure if the lost ship will ever be located.’
However, in April 2004 the indefatigable Brown annnounced yet another attempt to find the Waratah. He had fresh information, having stumbled across Bill Elston, a Durban pilot who flew over the Transkei coast in a Cessna on an unusually clear day in 1962, and claimed to have spotted a complete passenger ship laying in shallow water.
On 9 April 2004, The Guardian quoted Elson as saying: ‘Of intermediate size, comprising the hull and superstructure – but, as I recollect, without funnel or masts – the vessel appeared to be listing considerably to starboard, though not completely on its side. Through the outer covered decks, cabin portholes and doorway apertures were clearly visible.’ A light breeze rippled the ocean and dissolved the image, and Elston never saw it again.
Brown searched for four days with a ship equipped with side-scan sonar along the co-ordinates Elston had provided, but once again drew a blank. On May 3rd, 2004, the Daily News reported that he was definitely giving up his mission. ‘I can’t afford to spend more time on this project,’ he declared; ‘I have no idea where the ship is, and we’ve exhausted all the possibilities now. It’s been a good innings, a great experience, but I’m over this now.’
On 4 May 2004, an update on the NUMA website confirmed that this attempt to find the Waratah had also been unsuccessful, and had also been Brown’s last. While many of those with an interest in the Waratah have keenly felt his disappointment, the outcome of his lengthy quest has opened the way towards considering other possibilities, which I do in this volume.