Waratah

Expedition to find the mystery ship Waratah that vanished off the eastern coast of South Africa. September, 1987.

The Waratah was one of the most baffling mysteries of the sea. In July of 1909, the 500 foot steamer, on her return maiden voyage from Australia to Capetown, went missing with over 200 passengers and crew somewhere in the Indian ocean off the rugged eastern coast of South Africa.

For 79 years she rested lost, but not forgotten. Her loss was the subject of numerous books, articles and endless speculation as to he fate. Rather than write another redundant report, I’ve simply added newspaper accounts on her loss and testimony of a handful of witnesses.

My own involvement came in April of 1985 when my British publisher sent me to South Africa on tour to plug my then latest book, “Deep Six”. I had often read of the Waratah and was most interested in her tale, but brushed off any thought of an expedition to find her since flying a NUMA crew and our equipment 8000 miles to South Africa and back was simply too damned expensive. Then, add to the fact the search area was not easily accessible by air or car.

Fortunately, after a talk I gave in Capetown on shipwrecks, I was approached by Mr. Emlyn Brown, a native South African who had spent ten years researching the lost ship. We had a drink together and formed a partnership to find the Waratah. Brown would be search director, put together and lead the expedition, while I through NUMA would fund and consult.

In the end we contracted with a marine survey firm by the name of Sistema Ltd., near Capetown. I’d like to say that Emlyn Brown did a Herculean job of overcoming obstacles of local incompetence and uncaring interest. All credit for the discovery of the wreck must go to Emlyn. The results of the survey for the Waratah come behind the newspaper accounts of the liner’s loss.

The readings by the South Africans were hardly what we’ve come to expect during our own expeditions. Gary Kozak of Klein & Associates studied the sonar readings and found them too vague to draw solid conclusions.

There definitely is a shipwreck in the area the witnesses described, especially Joe Conquer, who watched the ship disappear on the correct date, and D. J. Roos, an airmail pilot, who spotted a large wreck on the bottom in the same position during a flight to Durban.

Records show no other iron steamer on the bottom within sixty miles, and those are accounted for.

Odds favor our find being the Waratah, but until we get an ROV down on her, we can only assume we’ve finally solved the enigma of her disappearance. Another expedition plus a documentary is in the making. So it should be only a question of a year or two before we actually see her up close.

UPDATE – January 17, 2001

CAPETOWN, SOUTH AFRICA-Emlyn Brown, head of the South Africa National Underwater & Marine Agency (NUMA), announced today that the remains he found in July, 1999, and identified as the WARATAH, were not actually the remains of the elusive vessel. “…Although the submarine dive to the wreck was flawless, the wreck we thought was the Waratah, is in fact not, repeat not the Waratah,” a distressed Dr. Brown e-mailed to Clive Cussler. “It is a cargo ship carrying military hardware, tanks, tires, trucks, etc. that we now know was sunk by a U-boat in 1942. I, and all involved are stunned beyond belief, and almost speechless at what was finally seen on the ocean floor.”

The search and exploration for the wreck of the legendary SS Waratah by author Clive Cussler and his intrepid NUMA (National Underwater & Marine Agency) crew led by Brown and Dr. Peter Ramsay of NUMA’s South African sister organization will resume later this year.

We have already searched for the WARATAH on nine separate expeditions since 1983,” Cussler reported. “I guess she is going to continue to be elusive a while longer but Emlyn and I refuse to give up.”

The WARATAH was lost in 1909 with all hands on board.

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January 17, 2001

13 Responses to Waratah

  1. Patrick Waterson says:

    Waratah hunters may be looking in the wrong place. Consider the report of the Harlow:

    “The same evening, a ship called the Harlow saw a large steamer coming up astern of her, working hard in the heavy seas and making a great deal of smoke, enough to make her captain wonder if the steamer was on fire. When darkness fell, the crew of the Harlow could see the steamer’s running lights approaching, but still 10–12 miles behind them, when there were suddenly two bright flashes from the vicinity of the steamer and the lights vanished. The mate of the Harlow thought the flashes were brush fires on the shore (a common phenomenon in the area at that time of year). The captain agreed and did not even enter the events in the log – only when he learnt of the disappearance of the Waratah did he think the events significant. Reportedly the Harlow was 180 miles from Durban.” (source: Wikipedia)

    Hypothesis: a double boiler explosion (the Waratah had two engines and five boilers) which disabled propulsion may have caused the ship to be blown by the gale in a north-easterly direction (up the Mozambique channel) before sinking.

    Implication: the findspot may be near the Comoros Islands, or at least significantly north of what might be expected.

  2. Philip A.D. Secretan says:

    I am most interested in the search for the Waratah. The Christening Mug of my father, Rev. P.B. Secretan, is in the Captain’s safe.

    The Captain was a friend of my grandmother and her family. In the late 19th Centuary, she had visited Tasmania where she had relatives. She subsequently returned to Great Britain where she married my grandfather, the Rev. D.L Secretan, and my father was born. Her relatives in Tasmania sent the Christening Mug via the good offices and safe custody of the Waratah’s Captain. Both my grandmother and my father told me (they are both dead now) that a letter had been received from the Captain at the end of the outgoing voyage to Australia, stating that he thought the vessel was “top heavy”. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who thought that.

    If any new expedition is mounted, I would be really interested to know about it and follow its progress.

    Paddy Secretan

  3. dennis godsey says:

    i have seen reports that the waratah has been discovered by you south african partner. can you confirm this for me? thanks for any info.

  4. Cheryl Elmes says:

    I would also be very interested in knowing if a new search is mounted for the Waratah as my Great Grandfather was a member of the Crew and appears on the crew-list.

  5. David Buck says:

    Just a couple of Questions on the Nailsea Meadow.
    When she was found was she lying in a Northeast direction?
    Looking at your Map in The Sea Hunters 2 you have put the Nailsea Meadow slightly South of the Xora River, is this correct to its position?
    Yours D.Buck.

  6. John Ross says:

    I would also be very interested in knowing if a new search is mounted for the Waratah as my Great Grandfather was also a member of the Crew and appears on the crew-list.

  7. Goeffrey Jenkins correctly surmises that unusual topographical features offshore coupled with two opposing forces ie the wind running against the current and ocean swell combined to form a almost ,perfect storm, albeit in a very localised area.The effects would have been quick and devastating to a top-heavy liner.I feel that due to the catastrophic nature of her demise she will continue to hold her secrets.
    God Bless her and all who sailed in her.

  8. Barbara Good says:

    I have a postcard sent by my great great grandfather to his daughter in England, upon his arrival in Melbourne aboard the Waratah. Dated Dec 19 1908, he says the voyage was long & “not very pleasant as we had 1000 passengers on board & only accommadation for 300″…

  9. Emlyn Brown says:

    anyone wishing to contact me directly regarding the SS Waratah can do so at emlynbrown@gmail.com

  10. Bruce Stanford says:

    My great Uncle was the chief Engineer aboard the SS Waratah his name was George William Hodder. My mother his niece has always said that before she died she would like the ship to be found and only the other day she turned 90. I guess that won’t happen in her lifetime but may in my life time. Bruce Stanford

  11. Maureen Roberts says:

    I would also like to hear of any progress in the search as my Great Grand father was a crew member and although my grandmother has now passed on, we still would like to know how he died and what happened to the Waratah.
    Worthing, West Sussex. UK

  12. Bronwyn Steck says:

    I can remember my Std. 5 teacher, Miss James, telling us (in 1974) that a little herd boy had seen a large object floating off the Transkei coast at the time of the Waratah’s disappearance. People then came to the conclusion that it was the hull of the ship that must have turned turtle. Was this indeed the Waratah or was it another ship that disappeared in the same area? Or was there perhaps no truth in this rumour?

  13. Bronwyn Steck says:

    Of course, I meant “was this supposed to have been the Waratah?”

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