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In Search of the Waratah

By David Willers
First published in 2006
300 pages plus covers
ISBN 0-620-33217-4
R164,00 (inclusive of VAT)

THE LUXURY ocean liner SS Waratah has been described as the Titanic of the South; however, while the wreck of the Titanic has been located and extensively surveyed, the fate of the Waratah is still as much of a mystery today as it was almost 100 years ago.

The dominant public perception, fuelled by the findings of an official Court of an Inquiry, which sat in London, is that she sank in a storm off South Africa’s notorious Wild Coast. However, what is far less well known is that several ships spent months searching for her in the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Why did this happen? Why was the contrary view that she had broken down and drifted south downplayed by the Inquiry, to such an extent that this still influences public opinion today?

These issues are explored in this new book on one of the most compelling mysteries of the sea. It begins with an account of the author’s growing preoccupation with the Waratah, leading to fresh discoveries about the liner and her cargo.

Following this, he explores what might have happened to the British-registered ship and her complement of 211 souls if, as many people believed at the time, she had not foundered on the eastern seaboard, but had broken down and drifted, incommunicado, into the wastes of the southern oceans.

As the story unfolds, boundaries between fact and fiction merge, and the author’s search for the Waratah, and clarity on the fate of her passengers and crew, becomes as much of a spiritual voyage as the Waratah’s was a physical one.

‘Fascinating… this book at once casts new light on the Waratah, and paints a vivid picture of what might have happened to her if, contrary to the dominant belief, she had drifted into the deep Southern Ocean.’ – Jill Kelway-Laude, editor

‘A must-read for anyone interested in the fate of this extraordinary ship.’ – Peter Cartwright, Waratah buff

Riveting; a page- turner that will haunt you for years.’ — Tim Conroy, broadcaster.

Endlessly gripping, and horribly plausible.’ – Robyn Karney, editor and journalist


New slant on Waratah mystery

July 2006

DID the 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 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.

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