Waratah is a word used by the Eora Aboriginal people from what is now New South Wales. It translates to "beautiful" and a native flowering shrub bares the same name. The bright crimson flower is the emblem flower for New South Wales. According to legend, the first waratah shrub sprouted from the place where a young woman died of grief over the death of her warrior lover. While the tale itself is tragic, the fate of those vessels taking on its name seemed to follow the same course.
In 1848, a ship named Waratah sank off the coast of France. Two subsequent Waratah's were lost at sea near Sydney in 1887. Another went down in the Antartic Ocean in 1894. Still, the Blue Anchor Line built the SS Waratah in Glasgow in 1908 without thought to these other lost vessels. This mistake would prove to be their own demise.
The Waratah departed from London on April 27, 1909, on what would be her second uneventful voyage to the land down under. She left Melbourne on July 1 bound for South Africa on the return voyage. Upon reaching Durban, an engineer named Claude Sawyer left the ship and sent his wife a telegram:
THOUGHT WARATAH TOP HEAVY STOP LANDED DURBAN STOP
He couldn't tell his wife his true reasoning. On board the ship, he had experienced a premonition.
While arranging for another vessel, Sawyer reluctantly told the booking clerk of the strange visitor in his cabin. He described it as the corpse-like figure of death in strange clothing resembing a matador (perhaps a pirate ghost?), clutching a long sword. "He was holding the sword in his right hand and it was covered in blood." Three separate times, the apparition entered his cabin. On each occasion, the specter made but one command: "Leave her!" The visions so terrified Sawyer and though he had sailed many times and was not prone to superstitions, he obeyed and stayed in Durban.
He would live be the sole survivor of the 212 passengers and crew schedued to embark on the final leg of this voyage.
On July 26, one day after leaving South Africa, the ship exchanged cordial greetings with the Clan Macintyre, also bound for London. Weather deteriorated soon afterward and the Waratah may have been spotted twice that evening, though the heavy seas made identification difficult. The Harlow saw what may have been the Waratah following behind her in the crashing waves, billowing with smoke. Two bright flashes came from the direction of the ship and it vanished.
The July 29 arrival date came and went. Authorities assumed engine trouble and waited longer without questioning the delay. In September, the Blue Anchor Line finally chartered a ship to search for the vessel. Though it covered over 14,000 nautical miles, the Waratah was nowhere to be found. An official enquiry was held in London in December. Among the many giving testimony as to the possible fate of the ship was Claude Sawyer. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even held a seance in hope of determining the fate of the steam ship. Word of the disaster spread around the world. The Blue Anchor line never recovered from the tragedy and was forced to sell off their fleet to the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (or "P&O Line") in 1910.
Over the many years since the disappearance, many people have sought the wreckage of the SS Waratah. A few wrecks were discovered but were later identified as vessels which sank in the world wars. Emlyn Brown of NUMA and Clive Cussler, author of the book Raise the Titanic, were the last to search for the ship. Brown gave up his 22-year search in 2004, declaring "I've exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look."
Not one piece of wreckage or cargo was ever found from the Waratah. Its disappearance remains one of the great maritime mysteries. Yet perhaps, like the Flying Dutchman of legend, the spirits of the doomed ship still travel the southern Atlantic on the misty decks of the ethereal Waratah, waiting for their final chance to return to London.