A Titanic Learning Curve

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Dec 26, 2018 · 19 min read

Day: 154

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Today would be filled with one of the greatest and most tragic stories to come out of the beautiful old city of Belfast; the story of the Titanic. Knowing our visit to the Titanic Quarter would fill our entire day, we began early, and were soon on our way to the bus stop. After catching a bus into the city, we soon found out that somehow Google was directing us to take a new bus route which was not going to begin running for another two weeks; how it had that timetable is beyond me, but anyway. After learning this from the information centre nearby, we rushed off to try and catch an alternate bus only to miss it by about thirty seconds, leaving us with only one option, given the scarcity of weekend public transport; we were going to have to speed walk to make it there without cutting into our day. Thanks Google.

Eventually we made it to the waterside, at which point the haunting silhouette of the Titanic Exhibition building came into view. This four pointed goliath is a stunning work of architecture, with the points giving the impression of the points of the compass, the bow of a ship, and the shape of an iceberg all at once. The glass centre mirroring the depths of the ocean into which this great vessel fell. As we entered the building we were delivered into the towering foyer of this multi-storey masterpiece, and after collecting our audioguides it was time to begin this most solemn of educations.

Now, I’m sure you who have never visited this place would expect the exhibition to be entirely about the ill-fated end to the ship, but instead they have filled it, for the most part, with the interesting tale of its inception, its creation, the industries which were the foundation of the city at the turn of the century, and the countless Irish men and women who helped make the dream a reality. The first part of the audio tour does, however, begin by leading you outside, to the tall poles which mark out where the slipway had been which had delivered the ship into the water more than a century ago. Inlaid into the paving sits bronze panels showing the route of the ship from Ireland to New York, stopping abruptly in the middle of the Atlantic, with nothing but a set of co-ordinates to indicate its final resting place.

Heading back indoors, we we began our journey in the first exhibit, which begins with the explanation of the major industries of early 20th century Belfast. From a booming linen industry, fed by massive flax production, to ropemaking; from whisky to tobacco; and even carbonated drinks, this city was a bustling hub of the working class. As can be expected, it was not always the most romantic of places, with high numbers of child laborers, and struggling families.

Although the workers may not have been the recipients, the city found itself to be quite wealthy as a result of its industries. This wealth, coupled with Belfast’s safe and convenient harbour, meant that before long, canals were being built to accommodate larger and larger ships, and the ship building industry was growing exponentially. Trans-Atlantic travel was a highly profitable business, as Europeans wished to come and go from America, and with Ireland being the last bastion of the continent on the edge of this vast ocean, it seemed only natural that White Star Line chose the Belfast ship building company of Harland and Wolff as their partners in capturing the attention of those wishing to travel to the new world. It seems that with competition rising White Star was under pressure to outdo their biggest competitor Cunard, and thus its chairman J. Bruce Ismay, decided, along with some help, that they would build a fleet of three huge luxury liners which would deliver customers to and from New York in style; with an idea that even the third class accommodation would far exceed that found on other ships of the time. On top of this, thanks to the hard work, and brilliant minds of the engineering department, they were to build these ships in such a way that they were able to stay afloat, even if three of the watertight holds in the bottom of the ship were to become flooded. Safety and luxury was their sales pitch, and thus the three sister ships were born; Britannic, Olympic, and Titanic.

So where do you even begin with building some of the largest passenger ships of their time? Well first, you have to construct a dry dock and gantries big enough to build the damn thing. Titanic was actually the second of the ships to be built, after its sister Olympic. During the years that it took to build the three giants, is was possible to see the ship and its gantries from almost every point in the city. The next section of the exhibition has a replica of part of the gantries, to try and give you some visual scale of just how enormous this undertaking was, and all I can say is that they make you feel incredibly small. Taking the lift up three stories, we found ourselves looking back down to where we had just been. It was incredible to imagine the lives of the countless men who worked at these heights, and the thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears they gave to build Titanic. This was during a time without many of the mechanised systems we have now, a time when two thirds of the three million rivets that held the hull together was heated, placed, and hammered by hand by groups of three men, the other third being hammered hydraulically.

The next part of the exhibit is the educational equivalent of a mine cart ride at an amusement park. Hopping aboard, we were soon being trundled off through a replica of the working shipyard, while the speakers treated us to many interesting snippets about the effort it took to construct the luxury liner. It took 3000 workers to piece together the structure. It was hot and dangerous work, with 250 people sustaining injuries, and 8 men losing their lives in the building and fitting process. It was at this point that I wondered how these men felt when they discovered that the fruit of their labour had sunk on its maiden journey. Had they suffered a deep sense of loss and grief, despite not losing their lives, or the lives of their families? As we alighted, I did so with a great amount of respect for the hardworking Irishmen who made this fantasy come to life.

Of course, once you’ve built the shell, you must fill the inside, and that’s exactly what the next section is all about. They wanted luxury, and that’s sure as hell what they set about doing. Firstly we went over to an immersive room which takes you on a virtual tour of what the interior of the finished ship would have looked like, with video being projected on three walls, it felt as though you were standing in the rooms themselves. As we left this room we made our way around the exhibit, which has replica cabins from all three classes on display, from the plush interior of the spacious first class suites, which look exactly like a five star hotel; to the more humble comfort of the second class berths, which still had access to running hot water; down to the rather more cramped rooms of the third class, with only cold running water. Despite their seemingly uncomfortable appearance, these lower class rooms were still leaps and bounds better that the general dormitory style steerage accommodation available on most other passenger ships of the age, and offered much more privacy.

We had seen how the ship was built, and what it had looked like on its completion, we had even been through the exhibition about the excitement of those who had managed to score tickets to see the ship launching ceremony, so now there was only one thing left to see; the exhibition about the tragic fate of this hard earned beauty. The next section holds a display of many of the stories of those who both survived and succumbed to the fate of the ship. Although this museum makes a point of not displaying any of the artifacts removed from the wreck since its discovery in 1985, as they believe it should remain untouched, as a sign of respect for those who lost their lives falling to the depths with it; this area instead holds some of the artifacts retained from its last contact with land. It includes the photos of Father Francis Browne, the priest who’s grave we had visited at Glasnevin cemetery, who only avoided losing his life on the ship because his superiors instructed him not to take the journey a rich family had offered to buy him a ticket for. These photos are the only remaining images we have of life aboard the ship, as he travelled on it in European waters as it made its way to pick up passengers in France and England before he disembarked at its final docking just off the coast of Cork. There are also letters from those aboard to their families, which were also delivered to Cork before the ship finally bid farewell to land for the final time.

As you walk into the next area, through the dark, deep blue painted room, reminiscent of the ocean floor, the air is filled with the sounds of the Morse code messages which were sent out in a desperate call for help after the collision. It was soul shattering to learn that when the collision occurred the crew could actually see the lights of another ship on the horizon, but despite their flares, the ship sailed away. This ship, the SS Californian, had indeed seen the flares, but they had shut down their radio for the night and did not hear the ships SOS signals, and despite the protests of his crew, the captain decided not to head towards the ship as he believed it wasn’t a passenger ship and assumed the flares were company signals of some kind. The inaction of this ship was the basis of a full scale investigation after the tragedy and resulted in a number of changes in maritime law, including the introduction of mandatory 24hr radio manning, and standardised distress flares. After sending out SOS signals to any nearby ships, it was the RMS Carpathia who responded. As I’m sure you all know though, they were too far away to arrive before the boat sunk, and it wasn’t until two hours after the ship sunk below the waves that the survivors left in the lifeboats were lifted aboard to safety. Reading the interactions between the ships brought tears to my eyes; its heartbreaking to know that this was the last contact these people had with the outside world before the majority of their lives were snatched away.

If our hearts weren’t already heavy enough from reading the hopeful last words to families left behind, and hearing the calls for aid, we were about to be crushed as we moved through the exhibit about the sinking itself. Here we learnt of the series of errors and circumstances which culminated in the sinking, from the fact that one of the seamen, David Blair, was removed from the crew just days before the launch of the ship, and in his haste to leave he accidentally took the keys to the crows nest locker with him, meaning that the lookout crew were without binoculars, thus making their jobs significantly harder (although you have to ask yourself why they didn’t just break open the lock); to the fact that the ships Captain, apparently influenced by Mr Ismay, who was aboard, ignored the iceberg warnings by other ships, including the SS Californian, and ran the ship at full speed in order to surprise everyone in New York and arrive earlier, meaning that the ship was travelling too fast to stop or turn enough to avoid the collision; to the water being extremely calm that night, meaning that no water was breaking at the foot of the iceberg which may have allowed it to have been spotted more easily from a distance; and finally to the fact that although they had enough lifeboats to meet the legal requirements of the time, it was not enough to allow everyone on the ship a place, and, although having room for enough boats, it was decided not to carry them as it was thought to have made the deck look crowded. In hindsight it is easy to point out things which could have been done differently, but in a time of panic and crisis it is never that easy. For example, we now know that if they had simply steered hard to port instead of putting the ship into reverse to try and slow it, that collision damage would likely have been small enough to have prevented sinking by the use of the watertight holds being closed; but when considered, it is easy to see why you would choose to try and stop when you are heading right for something. Myth also has it that the first few life boats weren’t full because the richer passengers wanted more space, but it is actually due to the fact that when the first boats were being filled, the majority of people were in denial that the boat would sink, and thus they refused to board, meaning they were lowered at half capacity. By the time the sinking was excepted enough to fill boats, it was too late to bring them back.

The following section looks at the people who both survived and lost their lives. There stands a wall filled with the names of all of the passengers, with those who survived highlighted. Its eats at your soul to see just how very few men were part of the lucky few, as women and children were given priority in boarding the lifeboats. It was, however, heartening to read stories of people like ‘the unsinkable’ Molly Brown; a first class passenger who was in one of the first underfilled lifeboats, and urged her fellow passengers to row the boats back to pull people from the water after the ship had sunk. This was of course not done until too late, as it was feared that the desperate passengers in the water may overturn the boats in their attempt to board. By the time they finally went back, only a handful were still alive and were rescued. She also helped many of the survivors once they were aboard the Carpathia, and later started a charity fund for the survivors.

Alongside stories of heroism there are plenty of more questionable stories, like the fact the Mr Ismay hopped into a lifeboat, despite it generally being thought that he should have gone down with his ship. Its hard to blame the man, as I’m sure, like everyone else, he was only thinking of his survival in his panicked state, but by the same token, his apparent pressure to speed the boat up played a factor in the collision, so its easy to feel outraged enough to think that he should have sunk alongside Captain Smith. There are also stories of great love ending in loss of life, like the story of Isa and Isidor Straus, an elderly couple who died together in the tragedy. Despite Ida being offered a place on a boat, she decided to stay behind as she did not wish to leave her husbands side; an eternal love if ever there has been one. There is also the story of the men of the ships string quartet who dressed in their finest and played soothing music to help calm the passengers, and sacrificed their lives, going down with the ship. Another heartbreaking story is that of the Allison family, of which the father, mother, and two year old daughter all died, despite many opportunities to board a lifeboat, as it is believed they were looking for their infant son who was, unbeknownst to them, already on a boat with one of the maids who had rescued him. This most tragic of stories, fuelled by pure love, along with so many like it, is the reason this horrific event lives on to this day.

The final part of the main exhibition covered the enquiry into the sinking. There is audio of witness statements given by survivors, including Ismay, which give us but a snippet of the true panic which ensued. There is also information on the fact that Ismay, much to the shock and appal of the survivors and families, waited several days before confirming the sinking and the death toll. On the wall hangs a massive blueprint of the ship which was used to show where the damage to the ship had occurred. Small red marks point out the mere 12 square feet of punctures along the hull which brought down this massive ship. The issue wasn’t the size of the holes, but instead the fact that it had been punctured along almost the entire length of the hull, meaning four of the watertight compartments had been compromised; an eventuality that meant that the unsinkable ship became very much sinkable. After this is displayed the story of about the horrible job also carried out by the Carpathia who retrieved many of the frozen lifeless bodies to bring them home, and the other ships who journeyed to the spot in the following weeks to collect any others which resurfaced. Some were delivered to the families back home, but others, sometimes controversially, were buried at sea, mainly due to a lack of coffins, lack of money, and lack of space aboard the ship. The only comfort that this section offered was the fact that many naval rules were altered in direct response to the sinking, from the mandate of enough space in life boats for every single person aboard a ship, to stricter rules about the speeds allowed in waters where icebergs have been sighted.

This story has fascinated the world for more than 100 years, and the final room shows posters and snippets from the many films, books, and songs, made and written about the event, from ‘Saved from the Titanic’, a film made just one month after the sinking and starring one of the ships survivors, up to the James Cameron version, aptly named ‘Titanic’, which is beloved the world over.

Emotionally drained, we handed back in our audioguides; our tour had come to an end. Our Titanic day was not at an end however, and thus we made our way outside, and along the waterside until we came to an important slice of the ships history; the Thompson Pump-house and Dry Dock in which the ship was constructed. As we walked into the century old pump house, which was used to remove the water from the dry dock once the caisson (door) had been closed in order to make a floodable dry space for ship building, it was hard to fathom how these three meagre pumps had the power to drain the massive dry dock we were about to go and see in under 100 minutes. I think small but mighty sums them up better than any other phrase.

Making our way outside, it was finally time to lay our eyes on the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest maritime tragedies. As I stepped towards the edge of the dry dock, its the first time I really came to terms with just how big the Titanic was. People can tell you measurements until they’re blue in the face, but its not until you see it with your own eyes that you can truly appreciate the massive scale of the undertaking of Harland and Wolff in the construction of this behemoth. After wandering around the perimeter and reading the fascinating information panels we found ourselves at the stairwell just beside the caisson. As we descended into the dry dock itself, there was an overwhelming feeling of being in touch with history; the same hands which hammered the rivets of the ill-fated ship, hammered the rivets which still sit in the slowly degrading caisson. To touch it is to connect with a story known the world over.

There were many undesirable jobs when it came to ship building, but looking at the tiny hatch in the caisson, it was hard not to think that those who had to climb into this door to place the weights inside, in order to hold back the huge pressure of the water on the other side, may have had one of the worst jobs. Tight, dark, wet spaces, and heavy lifting somehow sounds worse than hammering in three million red hot rivets, but then I guess it depends what you hate more. Down the centre of incredibly long space sits the iron keel blocks upon which the keel of the ship was laid. It seems unfathomable that these wedges of steel, and the wood that sits upon them, coupled with the supports which would have propped it up, could have borne the weight of such a massive vessel, but then isn’t there always something impressive about strong foundations. If the men in the door had an unenviable occupation, then we must also take a moment to appreciate the efforts of the men who’s job was to knock out these keel blocks at the completion of the ship, as water flooded in at a breathtakingly fast speed. If not timed perfectly their actions could result in the toppling over of the ship, or their own death by drowning. These kind of risks would never be allowed in this day and age of workplace safety, and I think this only heightens the respect we must show the men who risked their lives to create the great building feats of the pre-mechanised age.

The day was waning, and we made our way back along the waterside, around the Titanic exhibition, and past the last White Star Line ship still in existence; the SS Nomadic. This comparatively tiny ship, painted in the same colours as the Titanic and her sister ships, was built to transfer mail and passengers to the larger vessels in ports where they were too large to dock and were forced to moor offshore. This mini-me really helps to imagine the immense beauty and breathtaking appearance its big sisters must have made when they were presented gleaming to the public all those years ago.

Our visit had finally come to an end and we made our way sombrely home for a quick home-cooked meal, and a little life admin before bed. As I reflected on the our titanic learning experience, my mind drifted back to the SS Californian. Its hard to explain how much anger I felt for the captain of that ship, a singular man who could have been the saviour of the 1503 people who lost their life that day. No part of me understands his decision, and the unforgiving side of me is bitterly pleased that his choice haunted him for the rest of his days. The part of the story which enrages me the most is the idea that the captain thought it wasn’t a passenger ship. This is so incredibly irrelevant to decision making in this scenario, whether its a ship holding 2000 passengers, or a dinghy with one wayward fisherman on it, if someone calls for help, you go and help them. A life is still worthy of rescue whether it is singular or multiple. Its just as infuriating as the idea that women and children were given priority over men during the filling of the lifeboats; whether you are 9 months or 90 years old, whether you are male or female, you life holds value; your existence bears weight and potential. As you go forward with your life, as I will with mine, I beseech you to value all life equally, man or woman, young or old, and everyone in between; and to do everything in your power to help those brave enough to ask for it. It is not our mere existence and our circumstances which determine our worth, but the actions we perform selflessly in service of others. Whether you have a million dollars, or not a single cent to your name, your humanity is the true measure of your wealth; and it is this which will form your true legacy.

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On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.

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