What Happened to the SS Waratah and Has it Been Found?

On the evening of July 26, 1909, en route from Adelaide to London with 211 people on board, the SS Waratah left Durban in South Africa. Twenty-four hours later it had disappeared without trace, never to be seen or heard from again. This is the scarcely believable story of the lost ship Waratah, one of the most perplexing nautical mysteries of all time.

18 January 2024

The Waratah, often dubbed ‘Australia’s Titanic,’ represents one of the most enigmatic maritime mysteries of the twentieth century. Launched in 1908, this luxurious passenger liner owned by the Blue Anchor Line, was designed to ferry passengers and cargo between Europe and Australia.

The SS Waratah, like the Titanic, boasted state-of-the-art facilities and a promise of safety. However, its sudden disappearance, without any distress signals, survivors, or evidence of wreckage, has left historians and maritime experts baffled, shrouding the story in mystery.

What happened to the lost ship Waratah? How did a brand-new ship on just its second voyage disappear so suddenly? Why was there not a single piece of debris recovered? Did it disappear due to human error, freak weather conditions, or was there something more sinister afoot?

The Waratah disappearance is one that has left the world baffled for more than a hundred years. Let’s take a dive into maritime history as we attempt to shed light on one of the twentieth century’s most unfathomable mysteries.

What’s In A Name?

Red and magenta flower head of a native Australian proteales, The Waratah. (Credit: KarenHBlack via Getty Images)

The SS Waratah was named after the emblem flower of New South Wales, the waratah, a beautiful, bright red flower. However, in maritime terms, it may have been an unfortunate choice of name. Between 1848 and 1897, there were no less than four other vessels named the Waratah that met unfortunate ends, each contributing to the grim legacy associated with the name.

The History of the SS Waratah

The River Clyde, Glasgow (Credit: The Montifraulo Collection / Contributor via Getty Images)

Built for the Blue Anchor Line, Waratah was a steel-hulled, 142 metre-long steamship built on Glasgow’s River Clyde in 1908. The almost 9,500 tonne SS Waratah had a top speed of around 13.5 knots (16 mph or 25 km/h) and the hull was divided into eight watertight sections which, according to the company’s claims, rendered the ship ‘practically immune from any danger of sinking.

The ship had a capacity of approximately nine hundred passengers and crew, and her maiden voyage left London on November 5, 1908. She arrived in Adelaide, via Cape Town, around six weeks later on December 15. Before the return leg to London, the Waratah stopped in Melbourne and Sydney, to collect a cargo of food and around 1,350 tonnes of metal concentrates. The return journey left Australia on January 9, 1909, and arrived back in London on March 7.

Waratah: Lost at Sea

Rough seas, similar to the voyage experienced by SS Waratah. (Credit: piola666 via Getty Images)

The second, and final voyage of the SS Waratah set off from London on April 27, 1909, under the command of Captain Joshua Edward Ilbery. He was a career Blue Anchor Line sailor with three decades’ experience captaining ocean-going ships, including the Waratah’s sister ship, the Geelong.

The ship had 215 passengers and 119 crew and arrived in Adelaide on June 6 after what was believed to be a relatively uneventful journey. While docked in Adelaide, the ship loaded around 880 tonnes of lead ore. After a stop in Melbourne, the SS Waratah ended up in Sydney where she took on perishables, flour, wool, and 7,800 bars of bullion.

During the final section of the journey from Adelaide to Sydney, it was reported that the ship seemed to handle poorly in rough seas, raising concerns among some passengers and crew.

On June 26, the ship left Sydney, stopping at Melbourne and Adelaide where she took on even more cargo – including, it’s believed, some unusually heavy railway materials. On July 7, she set sail across the Indian Ocean bound for Durban on South Africa’s east coast.

The Strange Story of Claude G. Sawyer

Port of Durban, South Africa (Credit: michaeljung via Getty Images)

The SS Waratah arrived in Durban on July 25 and one passenger who was due to complete the journey to London, engineer Claude G. Sawyer, decided he’d had enough. In fact his role in the story is particularly noteworthy due to the actions he took before the ship’s disappearance.

Sawyer, after experiencing the voyage from Australia to South Africa, grew increasingly concerned about the Waratah’s seaworthiness. He noted the ship’s tendency to roll heavily in moderate seas, a trait he found alarming given the ship’s design and its heavy cargo. His concerns were amplified during the rough weather conditions encountered while the ship was en route to Durban.

When the ship arrived, it’s believed he sent a cable to his wife in London which read simply ‘Thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban.

Given his experience as a sea traveller and engineer, his concerns may have had genuine validity, but his story suddenly took on an altogether eerie turn.

He later claimed – although it must be noted that these claims were not verified – that he had dream-like visions during the Australia to South Africa leg of the voyage of a man ‘dressed in a very peculiar dress, which I had never seen before, with a long sword in his right hand, which he seemed to be holding between us. In the other hand he had a rag covered with blood.

The exact nature of the problems Sawyer identified remains a matter of speculation, however his decision to disembark and the subsequent fate of the lost ship Waratah have often been cited in discussions about the ship’s disappearance, underscoring the potential issues with its design and stability.

Sawyer’s alleged premonition about the Waratah – and the legend of the bloody swordsman – adds a mysterious element to the story. This incident underscores a recurring theme in history where ominous warnings or prophecies are reported to have foreshadowed disasters.

The Waratah Disappearance

A lifejacket similar to the unverified report of a lifejacket marked ‘Waratah’. (Credit: Maxvis via Getty Images)

Around 8pm on July 26, 1909, the SS Waratah, with 211 passengers and crew, left Durban. Approximately eight hours later, at around 4am on July 27, the Waratah was sighted by the master of the Clan MacIntyre, a passing steamer, and the ships, as was customary, exchanged signals by lamp including name and destination.

The captain of the Clan MacIntyre later said that the weather that day was the worst he’d ever seen in thirteen years at sea. This sighting, which occurred near the mouth of the Mbashe River off the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was the last confirmed sighting of the lost ship Waratah.

Other Unconfirmed Sightings

On the same day – July 27 – there were at least three more unconfirmed sightings of the SS Waratah.

Around 5:30pm, the captain of the Harlow observed smoke and running lights from a steamship comparable in size to the Waratah around 12 to 14 miles behind them. The amount of smoke appeared unusually excessive, leading him to speculate that the ship might be on fire. This observation was soon followed by two extremely bright flashes, which resembled explosions. Right after these potential explosions, both the smoke and the lights vanished abruptly, suggesting a sudden and catastrophic event.

Later, around 9.30pm, the Guelph, a British passenger liner en route from the Cape of Good Hope to Durban, encountered and exchanged lamp signals with another ship. Due to the inclement weather and poor visibility, the Guelph could only identify the final three letters ‘T-A-H’ in the ship’s name. Was it the SS Waratah? Were those flashes of light its death throes?

The final possible sighting was by two South African soldiers, Edward Joe Conquer, and H. Adshead, in roughly the same area as the confirmed sighting by the Clan MacIntyre.

Conquer wrote in his diary that the two men, through a telescope on shore, spotted a steamship resembling the Blue Anchor Line Waratah, seemingly labouring slowly in very rough waters. Conquer saw the ship make a heavy roll to starboard (right) and, before it could recover, a wave engulfed it, after which it vanished from sight. This led Conquer to surmise that the ship had sunk. He relayed his observations to his Orderly Sergeant, who seemingly dismissed the report. For reasons unknown, Edward Joe Conquer didn’t tell his story publicly until 1929.

The ship was due to reach Cape Town on July 29, 1909 but didn’t arrive.

Initially, there was no cause for concern. It wasn’t uncommon for ships, for any number of reasons, to arrive days, even weeks, later than originally scheduled. However when ships began arriving in Cape Town that had charted the same route as the Waratah – and who reported no sightings of the lost ship – searches began. Two of the biggest search efforts covering 14,000 nautical miles and 15,000 nautical miles lasted months.

Despite several unconfirmed sightings of bodies in the water, floating objects, and a strange and unverified report of a lifejacket marked ‘Waratah’ washing up on a New Zealand shore more than three years later, no trace of the lost ship Waratah has ever been found.

What Happened to the SS Waratah?

Stormy weather at sea. (Credit: RichardALock via Getty Images)

The Waratah disappearance in 1909 has spawned a range of theories, varying from the plausible to the more speculative and outlandish.

Structural Failure or Design Flaw

Given the concerns raised by passengers like Claude Sawyer about the ship’s stability, it’s possible the Waratah had a design flaw or structural weakness that made it vulnerable in heavy seas.

Overloading & Cargo Shift

The SS Waratah may have been overloaded, and a shift in its heavy cargo, like the railway materials it was carrying, could have caused it to capsize or sink rapidly.

Severe Weather

The ship might have encountered a rogue wave or extreme weather conditions, common in the Indian Ocean, that overwhelmed its capabilities. This is the most commonly accepted theory.

Boiler Explosion

A catastrophic mechanical failure, such as a boiler explosion, could have caused the ship to sink quickly without time for a distress signal. This may explain the bright flashes noted by the captain of the Harlow.


Though unlikely in the ship’s reported location, a collision with an unseen object like an iceberg or a submerged reef could have led to its sinking.

As with all mysteries of this nature, such as the unexplained disappearance of Flight 19 in the Bermuda Triangle, theories range from the plausible to the outlandish and the Waratah disappearance is no different.

Some theorists venture into the realm of the supernatural, suggesting paranormal forces or a Bermuda Triangle-like phenomena may be behind the mystery, despite the ship being nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle. In the realm of science fiction, there are suggestions of alien abductions, time warps, or dimensional shifts which, while amusing and capture the imagination, lack any evidence.

While the more speculative and outlandish theories are eye-catching, the most plausible explanations for the Waratah’s disappearance lie in the realms of mechanical failure, design flaw, or natural oceanic hazards. The true fate of the SS Waratah remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the sea.

Vanished Without Trace

A diver explores the deep sea. (Credit: Rodrigo Friscione via Getty Images)

Despite extensive searches – including some as recently as the late 1990s – and numerous theories ranging from structural failures to natural disasters, the fate of this once great vessel and its 211 passengers continues to elude historians and maritime experts.

Indeed, Emlyn Brown, a notable marine explorer, dedicated over two decades to the quest of locating the SS Waratah. His extensive efforts included several expeditions to uncover the elusive wreck. In 1999, Brown’s team identified a potential wreck off the eastern coast of South Africa through sonar scans. Initially, the discovery was thought to be the Waratah, but a subsequent dive in 2001 revealed it was, in fact, the Nailsea Meadow, a cargo ship sunk during World War II. Brown ultimately declared in 2004 that he was ending his search, admitting he had exhausted all possible leads and had no further ideas on where to continue looking.

The Legend of the SS Waratah

The seabed of the Indian Ocean (Credit: Abstract Aerial Art via Getty Images)

The mystery of the lost ship Waratah remains one of the maritime world’s most enduring enigmas. The Waratah’s story, often overshadowed by other maritime tragedies like the Titanic, nonetheless stands as a haunting reminder of the sea’s unpredictable power and the limitations of early twentieth-century ship engineering.

As each year passes, the legacy of the SS Waratah drifts further into the realms of legend and lore, leaving behind a trail of unanswered questions whose answers may lie in the depths of the Indian Ocean.


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