Claude Sawyer saw something in his bath that made him think his nightmare could come true. He’d had this bad dream that the ship he was on, the Waratah, the pride of the Blue Anchor Line fleet, had foundered and sunk in heavy seas. When the ship rolled, the bathwater slid to a steep 45 degree angle and stayed that way for an unnerving time before sliding back to horizontal. Sawyer didn’t like the way the Waratah pitched in high seas, either, sometimes ploughing through waves instead of riding over them. Sawyer had such strong misgivings, he thought it was time to leave the ship at the next port.
Claude Sawyer was the only one of the Waratah’s 212 passengers and crew who had a premonition that the ship was doomed. All but he were lost when the ship disappeared at sea. Nothing was ever found of them or the Waratah. Not a single piece of wreckage or flotsam was ever found. And not a single cause was ever satisfactorily advanced as to why she vanished.
She was the pride of the Blue Anchor Line, a passenger-cargo liner built by a renowned firm of shipwrights and launched at the famous Clyde shipyards in Scotland in 1909. The Waratah could cruise more than 300 knots a day, had seven watertight compartments and 16 lifeboats. Her appointments were luxurious, the most expensive and lavish ever built for a Blue Anchor Line ship. Her maiden voyage from London to Sydney and back was a triumph. On her second voyage she left Adelaide with 10,000 tons of cargo, a crew of 199 and 93 passengers, almost all of them Australians from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
Crossing the Indian Ocean, the Waratah ran into strong winds and the way she handled them caused Claude Sawyer to have his premonitory dream. On the 25th of July, Clan McIntyre when she reached South Africa, he disembarked at Durban and and sent Mrs Sawyer a telegram:
“LANDED AT DURBAN. THOUGHT WARATAH TOP HEAVY.”
The next day the Waratah headed for Cape Town, 790 nautical miles south. The following day, in heavy seas, she passed a tramp steamer, the Clan McIntyre, and they exchanged signals, identifying themselves. In the afternoon she made signal contact with the Union Castle steamer Guelph, and that was the last that was ever seen of the Waratah. Twelve days later, when she failed to arrive at Cape Town, there was no concern: heavy seas, in a day or two she’d be in. After a day or two they thought that perhaps her two sets of coal-burning engines had broken down, and three warships went in search of her. They came back reporting no sign of the ship.
In Australia the families of the passengers were praying when the news came through from South Africa. The vessel sighted a considerable distance out slowly making for Durban could be the Waratah. The news thrilled the nation. In Melbourne, the seat of the Federal parliament, the Speaker of the House was handed the cable, stopped debate and read it as members of the House sprang to their feet cheering. In theatres performances were stopped while the joyous news was announced. The sighting was wrong – the ship was not the Waratah.
In the next three years numerous reports of sightings of the Waratah, its remains, or the bodies of its passengers, were investigated and found false. Search vessels were charted, criss-crossing the ocean for any trace of the liner. All of them were fruitless. In December 1909 a court of inquiry began a 14-month investigation that looked into the possibilities that she had been powerless and had drifted to her doom in the Antarctic; that she had been wrecked on reefs; that she had been hit by a gigantic wave that swallowed her and sucked her down into the darkness of the ocean floor. No definitive conclusion was ever reached. Claude Swayer testified at the court of inquiry – the behaviour of the water in his bathtub may have been a major clue as to why the Waratah disappeared without a trace.
The source for this blog post was “The bathtub revelation of Claude Sawyer”, in Paul Taylor’s book “Australian Ripping Yarns II”, Five Mile Press Publishing, Rowville, Victoria, 2005: ISBN 1741248620