Mystery Ship Waratah

“Unsinkable” Waratah Disappeared On First Voyage


By James Donahue


The world remembers the Titanic because of its great size and the fact that her builders boasted the ship was unsinkable. Yet the vessel sank with great loss of life on its maiden voyage across the North Atlantic.


Nearly forgotten in naval history is the story of another “unsinkable” ship, the British liner Waratah, that also sank on its voyage from England to Australia and then back again.


This ship, billed as the fine new flagship of the Blue Anchor Line, disappeared in 1909, three years before the Titanic disaster, with 211 souls and 6,500 tons of cargo during a return trip from Australia. Many believe it sank somewhere near the southern tip of Africa.


The Waratah was not a giant like the Titanic. She measured just 465 feet in length and weighed just over 9,300 tons. But it was classified as a luxury liner. Unfortunately, it was not equipped with a radio.


The vessel, under the command of seasoned master Joshua Ilberry, made its last call at Durban, on South Africa’s east coast. She departed there on July 26 with 92 passengers, bound for Cape Town, on its way around the coast toward England after having reached Australia.


The Waratah was last seen when she passed and signaled the steamship Clan Macintyre. There was some bad weather brewing that day. The ship sailed into a storm and never arrived at Cape Town. No wreckage was ever found.


One passenger, Claude Sawyer, survived because he had a premonition. He said he dreamed of the Waratah in large waves. “One went over her bow and pressed her down. She rolled over on her starboard side and disappeared.” The dream was so vivid, it moved Sawyer to disembark at Durban.


A three-month-long search of the waters by the British Navy failed to find any trace of the missing liner. Then in 1962 Bill Elston, a Cessna pilot said he was flying over the Transkei coast on an unusually calm, clear day when he spotted a passenger ship lying in the water directly below.


He said the ship was “of intermediate size, comprising the hull and superstructure – but as I recollect, without funnel or masts.” He said the wreck was tilted to starboard, although not completely on its side.


After just a brief glimpse, Elston said a breeze rippled the water and the image disappeared. He never saw it again.


Dr. Peter Ramsay, a South African geoscientist, and Emlyn Brown, led an expedition to search a wreck they thought was the Waratah in 1999. After two years of work they learned that the wreck was a transport ship sunk by a German U-boat in World War II.


Clive Cussler, author of the book Raise the Titanic, has joined Brown in yet another search for the mystery wreck. The search is going on along the Transkei coast, off the mouths of the Xora and Bashee Rivers.


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