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Jim’s Australiana Spot – 2UE - March 10, 2013

The Mystery of The S S Waratah

S S Waratah
 


Blue Anchor Line’s newest luxury passenger and cargo steamship S.S. Waratah, sailed on its maiden voyage from London to Australia on 5 November 1908 under the command of Captain Joshua Ilbery, a 69-year-old master of the sea with 30 years nautical experience.

At 150 metres long and weighing 9,339 tons, the Waratah boasted eight state rooms, 100 first class cabins, saloon and a luxurious music lounge. With its role in bringing emigrants to Australia from the Mother Country, the cargo holds could be converted into large dormitories capable of housing 700 steerage passengers. She had lifeboats for 921.

When not carrying the expectations of those looking for a new life down under, the Waratah could carry 15,000 tons of cargo and coal in her separate watertight compartments … similar to those built into the unsinkable Titanic.

there were misgivings about the way she handled in rolling seas...and Captain Ilbery took on more ballast to attempt to counter a list the ship developed in heavy weather.

The Waratah curse

In 1848, a sailing ship named Waratah bound for Sydney sank off Ushant, 13 lives were lost. Then, in 1887 not one but two ships, each named Waratah, sank off Sydney within months of each other. Following a cyclone in 1889, the newly-built Waratah from the port of Freemantle, sank off Cape Preston in the Pilbara, with the loss of all crew. And just five years later, yet another trading vessel named Waratah was lost on the coast of northern Australia.

A prophetic dream

One passenger, however, Claude Sawyer, a seasoned ocean traveller, had some reservations about the seaworthiness of the Waratah which seemed to behave oddly on big seas and list to starboard. One night at sea, he dreamt of standing on the ship’s boat deck staring into the sea. Suddenly, a knight on a horse rose out of the waves swinging a medieval sword. A bloodstained sheet was fluttering behind him. The apparition screamed out ‘Waratah! Waratah!’ then faded. Sawyer woke up screaming in his berth.

The following day, he related the nightmare to other passengers and Captain Ilbery, however, the captain saw no merit in them or this strange dream. The master went so far as to file a report with the port customs office declaring that ‘my steamship Waratah has sustained no damage from any cause whatever since leaving her last port’.”

Waratah vanishes without trace

After leaving Durban, the Waratah headed south along the Transkei coast for Cape Town. With the sky clear and the headwinds increasing, Ilbery anticipated reaching Cape Town in four days. “The next morning, Waratah was spotted by the freighter Clan McIntyre, which had departed Durban the previous day … After learning through [morse] signals that the liner was the Waratah, the Clan McIntyre asked about the weather they encountered from Australia,” reported the Daily Observer. “Strong southwesterly and southerly winds across,” responded the Waratah. “Thanks, goodbye. Pleasant voyage,” was the concluding message from Clan McIntyre. “Thanks. Same to you. Goodbye,” signed off the Waratah.

The Clan McIntyre kept sight of the Waratah for several hours after passing. The seas were now rolling, producing whitecaps but visibility was improving. The Waratah pulled about 10 miles ahead of the Clan McIntyre, which recorded in her logs that the Waratah “appeared to be perfectly upright and to be in no difficulty, steaming rapidly”.

At 9.20am, the Waratah altered course, crossing from Clan McIntyre’s starboard to port. The Waratah then picked up speed and disappeared from sight into the mist. What happened after that remains a mystery to this day. the Waratah disappeared completely.

The Flying Dutchman, a ghostly omen

The distinguished and respected captain of the Clan McIntyre, C.G. Phillips, would later recount to a board of inquiry into the loss of the Waratah of seeing a ghostly omen after losing sight of the missing steamer.

“Some hours after I had sent the signal to the liner, I was standing on the bridge when I sighted another ship, a sailing vessel. There was something strangely old-fashioned about her rig. I’m not a superstitious man but I know my seafaring lore. The rig of the vessel immediately brought to mind the legend of the Flying Dutchman … the phantom ship held me spellbound. It disappeared in the direction taken by the Waratah, and I had a feeling it was a sign of disaster for the liner.”

Despite a thorough search at the time, and subsequent expeditions over the years, the disappearance of the S.S. Waratah without a trace remains unexplained today. Nothing was ever found.

Lucky Jim

Mr James Hardy missed his berth on the doomed ship not once but twice. In London’s Daily Mail he wrote: “On the morning of June 26, 1909, I took a cab to the docks at Sydney, Australia, to catch the S.S. Waratah, due to sail on her maiden voyage to England. Bounding a corner a wheel came off and my vehicle collapsed. I missed the ship, which sailed with my heavy baggage, but I decided to catch her at Melbourne. The day before the Waratah left Melbourne I received an urgent telegram from a friend informing me he was leaving Sydney that night and he must see me before I sailed. When he arrived next morning his business proved so vital that once again I missed the Waratah.”

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