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On April 10, 1912, the White Star liner RMS Titanic departed the Southampton Ocean Terminal on its maiden voyage to New York.  Eighty years later, almost to the day, on April 11, 1992, the Queen Elizabeth 2 left Southampton en route to New York.  With a little perseverance and some dumb luck, I’d arranged a passage on that voyage.  My friends might contend that ‘Dumb Luck’ is the only luck I qualify for.  Regardless, it’s better than no luck at all.


In the early 1990’s, I found myself traveling to the UK on a regular basis and the seed of an idea was planted.  At that point, I started to track the posted crossing schedule of the QE2, hoping for an opportunity to come home on a Trans-Atlantic sailing, rather than a business class seat on a 747.  QE2 was longer, heavier, and faster than Titanic, but for sure, the closest I could get to the experience.


The opportunity came in February of 1992 with a late March presentation.  I checked the sailing schedule and BANG there it was.  Still not certain, I booked the trip as 'standby’, meaning they could dump me or I could dump them up to the last minute.


When the meeting was cancelled, I was disappointed, but on a hunch that it could change back, held on to my ‘stand by’ reservation.  Two weeks later I got the call that we were on again, and I pretended to be mildly annoyed.  


It was only then that I stumbled on a small article connecting this trip to the 80th anniversary of Titanic’s departure.  I was surprised at the general lack of interest, but for me it was pouring gasoline on a fire that’d been burning since I read Walter Lord’s “A Night To Remember” at age twelve.  I have lived to see the story of the sinking evolve from the simple “struck an iceberg and sank” theory, to the discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard in 1985, and all of the information and artifacts that have surfaced since.


In this modern world obsessed with safety and control, where elements of chance and risk have slowly been weeded out, fate still finds a way to make an appearance.  Often major tragedies require the intersection of several lines of chance, the absence of any one of them would result in a non-event; Titanic, like it’s sister Olympic, would have had a long distinguished career, and then been anonymously scrapped.  It didn’t happen that way.  Too many lines of fate and chance intersected on the night of April 14-15, 1912; too many to avert the collision, and even more so to prevent the enormous loss of life.  So many errors, like crows come to roost, combined to overwhelm the best efforts of the best men.

Titanic Southampton 1912
Queen Elizabeth 2 Southampton 1992
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 New York harbor dawn
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 New York harbor dawn
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 New York harbor dawn
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 North Atlantic
Queen Elizabeth 2 Southampton 1992
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 North Atlantic bad weather
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 North Atlantic
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 North Atlantic
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 North Atlantic
Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 North Atlantic

It was a cold drizzly Thursday night on the eve of my departure, but still a good bit warmer than it had been eighty years earlier.  That season had been brutally cold, and pack ice was adrift in the North Atlantic sea-lanes.  Inside a timeless pub, nursing my (third) pint, it was easy to visualize the celebrations taking place the night before Titanic’s sailing - where many of the doomed passengers unknowingly bid a final farewell to life ashore.  


Thomas Andrews, Titanic's chief designer, had wanted 1.25 inch plate for his three new liners, but White Star’s managing director, Bruce Ismay, pointed to the standing regulations and insisted 1 inch was sufficient.  Andrews, who was the one best qualified to make the call, was overruled - weight costs money and uses more fuel.  The height of the compartment bulkheads was deemed insufficient, and again Andrews was overruled.  The industry had never built ships this big; everyone was in uncharted waters, but White Star wasn't playing it safe.  All of this is old news.


Andrews also knew he'd need to tackle the problem of expansion in the big hulls.  He designed a primitive expansion joint for the new ships, a simple “V” shaped split that had never been tried on anything like the scale anticipated for these ships.  All of this resulted in a design that was suspect.


After leaving the pub and walking back to my room, I phoned Cunard and got the news I’d been waiting to hear.  I was in.

In the Wake of Titanic

Copyright 2016 Charles Schiereck (All rights reserved)

Up early and at the pier hours before departure, I wanted time for pictures, but also to get onboard as soon as possible in the hope of upgrading my cabin to one with a porthole.  It all went smoother than I'd hoped, and I had my outside cabin on the lowest deck, complete with a porthole that was underwater most of the trip.  The rooms on Titanic were very different from mine.  It was a different age.  Even the Queen Mary, now berthed in Long Beach, seemed to belong to a much earlier era.  The QE2 was due for a refit and looked a bit frumpy, but for all of that I was thrilled.  The sensations were all there: the excited passengers, the anticipation, the hustle and bustle of the deckhands and the dockworkers.  It was electric even now, and for Titanic’s Maiden Voyage the excitement must have been breathtaking.


The construction of the three Olympic Class liners put an enormous burden on the ship building industry of Belfast.  Harland and Wolf enlarged their shipyards and ways to accommodate the enormous ships.  Nevertheless, construction would tax to the limit the suppliers of materials and the construction crews.  Steel rivets would be used for most of the hull construction and this would add reliability and strength to the hull.  Steel riveting required a machine needing a large amount of space.  In places where the hull was too narrow, particularly in the slender bow sections, manually installed iron rivets were to be used.  The number of rivets required, overwhelmed the capacity of the existing suppliers.  New suppliers of rivets popped up and the quality of their product was suspect.



The term ‘unsinkable ship’ was the product of an imaginative press corps.  The builders and owners had very real concerns about the structural integrity of the three big liners.  The first sign of trouble for the design showed up in the Olympic’s speed trials when the hull began to visibly ‘pant’, flexing in and out as if breathing, and harking back to Andrews' recommendation for heavier steel.  All of the ships were reinforced to address the problem.  Later when Olympic collided with the Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Hawke, the damage was extensive, but the hull had seemed to stand up well enough.


The tale of the lifeboats is truly the cold-hearted story of stupidity and greed that we’ve all grown up hearing.  Un-planned contingencies were never considered – that would cost money.  The stated purpose of the boats was to ferry passengers in shifts to a rescuing vessel.  In the busy North Atlantic lanes it seemed inconceivable that a modern ship couldn’t stay afloat long enough for a rescue vessel to arrive.  They were right; another vessel was nearby.  That the SS Californian would stand by and just watch a tragedy unfold never occurred to anybody - it’s hard to believe even now.  That said, Titanic should have stayed afloat long enough for the arrival of hard charging Carpathia and Olympic, racing to the scene.  That Titanic sank so quickly was the result of another unexpected failure. 


Today we look down our noses at the fools of the early twentieth century, and yet in the 1990’s, the United States Congress blocked proposed legislation requiring Alaskan fishing boats to carry lifeboats or life rafts and a radio capable of reaching the Coast Guard.  Even with the staggering death toll in those most dangerous waters, it would take the death of a former congresswoman’s son to get the right buttons pushed and a watered down bill passed.  Stupidity and greed have gone nowhere.

By now I was well acclimated to the ship’s routine, and had explored every inch of what I was permitted to see.  The captain seemed to be avoiding me, so I left him alone.  The vast ship that I'd boarded was shrinking almost before my eyes.  For the guy that felt confined on Maui, I knew I only had a few days left before the screaming started.


That night at dinner, three members of our table recounted their experiences during the London Blitz.  They were children at the time, and all were shipped out to the country.  It was a sobering experience to hear their desperate family stories.  After dinner, I roamed the decks.  Eighty years ago the seas were calm, the air frigid.  Tonight there were few other takers outside and it was a rough ride.  The winter North Atlantic still had a few shots to take at us, and at thirty knots, the QE2 was driving into heavy seas.  No one was allowed forward, but from the back of the boat deck, I could see the huge ship pitch down, heavy spray flying the length of the exposed decks.  I loved it.  The few pictures I took faced to the stern so that the water would hit my back and not the camera.  I kept looking over the starboard rail to where I imagined the Titanic had sailed in the ice choked northern waters.  Somewhere up ahead, at about 11:20 pm, Titanic had entered the ice fields.  


At some point after 23:00, the SS Californian, dead in the water due to pack ice, flashed a warning to Titanic, whose lights were just becoming visible on the horizon.  Titanic’s on duty wireless operator, Jack Phillips, shot back a rude “shut up, shut up, I’m busy.”  The Californian wireless operator turned off his set and retired for the evening. 


Titanic had been plowing through cold still waters, almost certainly traveling too fast considering the iceberg warnings that were coming in.  Captain Smith acknowledged the warnings and alerted the lookouts, but did little else.  In this coldest of cold winters, with pack ice moving so far south, and lookouts not having glasses, this ambivalence smacks of insanity.  At this late stage, slowing down was the only thing that could have spared the collision; lookouts weren’t going to be of any use to anybody.  Today people still believe that Titanic was blazing through the still water, but by QE2 standards, they were waddling along at 21 to 24 knots.  If the lookouts had been properly equipped, the speed would not have been a problem, and today, you'd need to dig pretty deep to find any mention of Titanic's first crossing.


 At 23:40, Titanic struck the iceberg; those topside watched as it screeched along the starboard side, popping crappy rivets and separating plates below the waterline.  One by one, compartments filled then overflowed the low bulkheads.  Passengers and crew would now pay the price for White Star's poor design decisions and low quality materials.


The chain of events leading to the lookouts not having binoculars goes back to a decision to place Henry Wilde as Titanic’s Chief Officer, replacing William Murdoch.  Wilde was Olympic’s Chief Officer and was deemed to have more experience.  This knocked both Murdoch and Charles Lightoller down a notch, and David Blair, Titanic’s second officer was bumped from the voyage.  He left the ship at once, presumably in a huff, taking with him the key to the ship's locker that held the binoculars.  At the Congressional hearing, surviving lookout Frederick Fleet testified that he’d have seen the iceberg "a bit sooner".  When asked "How much sooner?", he responded: "Well enough to get out of the way."  In the same hearings, Second Officer Lightoller stonewalled the investigation with terse replies to the hard questions.  He did elaborate on the speed, almost as though it were a prepared statement, saying that speeding was against company policy for maiden voyages, as the new engines needed to be 'worked in', and that seemed logical enough.  While some steamship companies never hesitated to unleash their greyhounds in quest of the ‘Blue Riband’, Titanic was built for luxury, not speed.  Lightoller’s testimony was allowed to stand unchallenged.


That night, as I slept in the bed alongside the hull, the loud sound of water rushing by was a constant reminder of how close disaster could be.  Dreams of dark water and restless sleep were the best I could manage.  The next day, we passed just to the north of the sinking site.  For most of the trip I'd assumed they had steamed off the starboard bow, but instead it was the QE2 that had steered the more northerly route.  There was no announcement, and I calculated the passing to be between 7 am – 10 am, quietly tossing a flower from the breakfast buffet.  Had the QE2 been racing to the rescue, we'd have been 3 - 5 hours too late.

Although passengers were unaware, within twenty minutes of striking the iceberg, Thomas Andrews knew the ship was going down.  Now the question was: 'could Titanic survive until help arrived?'  Clearly visible, within fifteen miles of each other, Titanic and SS Californian glared at each other as Titanic fired off rockets in vain.  (I’m not going to venture into the SS Californian/Captain Lord quagmire.  There’s plenty to read online, but much of it is skewed around pet theories.  Wikipedia is a good benign source.  Draw your own conclusions, but mine is that Captain Stanley Lord's moment came and he fell short.)  Titanic would need to hold out for RMS Carpathia, almost sixty miles to the south.


While Californian's captain went back to sleep, on RMS Carpathia, a different kind of man, Captain Arthur Rostron came to life.  He diverted all available steam into the engines, depriving passengers of heat and hot water, pushing the ship more than three and a half knots faster than it’s rated top speed.  As Walter Lord wrote, "Nobody ever dreamed Carpathia could drive so hard".  Faster than it would ever travel again; another best effort wasn’t going to be good enough.  Carpathia arrived two hours after Titanic's sinking. For his efforts, Rostron would be knighted by King George V.  Titanic should have been able to hang on, but something happened that wouldn't be publicly understood until after Robert Ballard found the wreck in 1985.  What the world didn’t know until then, White Star Lines almost certainly knew shortly after the sinking.


When Ballard discovered the wreck, it was clear that the ship had broken in two while still on the surface.  The primitive expansion joint that Andrews designed had failed.  Thomas Andrews, running around below decks assessing the damage, would not survive the sinking, but somehow he got the word out.  It’s possible that he briefed Bruce Ismay, White Star’s managing director before the ship sank.  Ismay, who survived in disgrace, would ensure that the expansion joint was quietly redesigned.  By the time the world began to suspect, sister ships Olympic had been scrapped, and Britannic had been sunk by a mine.  It would be difficult to prove, but in 2006, an expedition including John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, of ‘Shadow Divers’ fame, explored the wreck of Britannic. Chatterton's video revealed that the expansion joints had been redesigned and reinforced. 


All of the many vectors of human error, design flaws, construction shortcomings, cold company policy, and horrible bad luck intersected on the night of April 14th at 11:40 pm, prematurely ending Titanic's first voyage.


As with many of Titanic's passengers, I was awakened by the absence of sound as we stopped to take on the harbor pilot.  After living with the relentless pounding of big engines, the quiet was startling, uncomfortable.  It was two days past the site of the sinking when we made an emotional dawn entry into New York harbor.  At the time, my head was filled with compassion for Titanic’s victims who would never live to see this.  The images of death, quickly replaced with visions of my ancestors from Germany and Ireland passing the Statue of Liberty with their hearts filled with thoughts of a new life.  Forgotten was my own need to get beyond the confinement of shipboard life.  It was one of those rare moments when I knew I'd squeezed out every drop, had come as close to the experience of the sinking as few ever would.  For this I am immeasurably grateful.


This story is dedicated to nurse Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic sinking, and evidently developed a taste for it, as she also survived the sinking of sister ship Brittannic in 1916.  Had SS Olympic ever foundered,  I’m confident that fate would have contrived to put her on board. 



‘A Night to remember’ by Walter Lord 1955

'Titanic: An Illustrated History' by Donald Lynch and Ken Marschall1997

‘Titanic’s Last Secrets’ Brad Matsen 2009

'Discovery of The Titanic' by Robert D Ballard 1988


Wikipedia: RMS Titanic, SS Californian, SS Carpathia, RMS Olympic, RMS Bittanic, Violet Jesop, Captain Arthur Rostron, Captain Stanley Lord, David Blair

We departed with little fanfare, aside from a cheerless bagpipe marching band; this was a far cry from what must have been provided for Titanic’s passengers.  We were bound for New York City non-stop, a full day (plus eighty years) behind Titanic’s departure.  Titanic would make pickups at Cherbourg France, and Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland.  This was a ‘Trans-Atlantic Passage’ not a cruise.  The difference can be described in a word – speed.  Comfort of the passengers was an important concern, but it came in well behind 'maintaining the schedule'.  A dark sky threatened rain as we worked our way out of the harbor into the Solent and then down the Channel.  We passed the fortifications of Hurst castle off to starboard, and 'The Needles' to port. After passing Bishop Rock Lighthouse, the nine big Man B&W Diesels started to make their presence felt.  I could sense the big ship working up to its cruising speed of thirty knots. Originally steam turbine powered, in 1987 QE2 received a refit making it the most powerful diesel electric unit afloat, capable of 34 knots.


Take away the eighty years, and Titanic was now about eight to twelve hours ahead of us; in hot pursuit, the QE2 began to take on the long North Atlantic swells.  I let myself believe we were closing on the slower ship, but QE2 wouldn’t ‘catch up’ until we passed the site of the sinking. 

Queen Elizabeth 2 QE2 1992 Solent channel Ferry

Titanic departs April 10, 1912 (Wikimedia Commons)

QE2 shoving off April 11, 1992

Departing QE2 Terminal, Southampton

Up to the bridge

Leaving the Solent with a Channel Ferry inbound.

Wild North Atlantic weather

QE2 Boat Deck

In hot pursuit!

Late afternoon sun off to port.

Evening on the night of the sinking

Heavy seas and rain

Pre dawn NY Harbor 1992

Entering New York Harbor

Sunrise tugboat

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