New slant on Waratah mystery

July 2006

DID the SS Waratah really sink off the Wild Coast, as is commonly believed – or could she have been disabled, and spent months drifting around the southern Indian and Southern oceans? This intriguing question is explored in a new book on South Africa’s most famous shipping loss, launched in Cape Town recently.

Written by David Willers, a former South African diplomat and newspaper editor now living in London, In Search of the Waratah explores the notion that the vessel might not have been overwhelmed by a ‘monster’ wave off the Wild Coast, but could have broken down and drifted down the Agulhas Current into the southern Indian Ocean.

Arguably the world’s most famous shipwreck besides the Titanic, the Waratah, a luxury steam-driven ocean liner, disappeared in July 1909 while under way from Durban to Cape Town, carrying 211 passengers and crew. No trace of her has ever been found.

A British-registered vessel, built to carry passengers and cargo on the UK-Australia run, the Waratah had passengers and crew from all three countries aboard her when she disappeared. The mystery surrounding her fate continues to attract strong international interest.

Willers comments: ‘Despite a total lack of concrete evidence, an official court of inquiry, held in London in 1911, found that the Waratah must have foundered in a storm experienced off the Wild Coast a day after she had left Durban, and this has remained the dominant belief to this day.

‘However, what is far less well known is that many knowledgeable people, including maritime officials, were convinced at that time that she had somehow broken down and drifted into the southern Indian Ocean. In fact, several ships spent months searching for her in the waters between South Africa and Australia.

‘One must remember that the Waratah vanished in the period after ships had lost their sails, but before they were fitted with radio. In fact, it was quite common for steam-driven vessels to break down and drift for weeks or even months before they were found, and their crew and passengers rescued.’

The book starts with a fascinating account of the author’s growing preoccupation with the Waratah, leading to fresh discoveries about the liner and her cargo. He also presents evidence, based on technically advanced oceanographic research, that the ships searching for the Waratah almost certainly looked for her in the wrong places.

The author then explores, in fictional form, what might have happened to the vessel and her passengers and crew had she not foundered off the South African coast, but had drifted instead into the wastes of the southern oceans. Thus the bulk of the book is a poignant account of what might have befallen the 211 souls on the Waratah during such a scenario in the form of a fictional journal written by a young passenger, Edith Barclay.

The book contains rare photographs of the Waratah and her crew, including images of her sumptuous Edwardian interior, as well as reproductions of deck and hold plans which were unearthed by the author in a naval archive in Britain, and are being published for the first time.

Also reproduced are charts presenting evidence that the ships searching for the Waratah in the southern Indian Ocean might well have been directed to the wrong areas.