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SAILING 105 YEARS AGO TODAY; STEAMSHIP TITANIC, DESTINATION NEW YORK…..

titanic-beken
The Titanic begins her stately progress down Southampton Water on April 10th, 1912, in this famous photo by Frank Beken. The incident with the New York was behind her, and the big liner was now Cherbourg bound

Soon after noon on Wednesday, April 10th 1912, the ropes that had shackled the awesome bulk of RMS Titanic to her Southampton berth for a week were shrugged off like so many sodden strands, her trio of giant propellers kicked up the mud and sand of the River Itchen and, under the careful husbandry of six local tugs, the biggest moving object on the face of the planet began to inch gingerly forward to the cheers of a large crowd, gathered on the quayside.

Not everyone was glad to see her go. A contingent of six firemen had signed on to the ship, only to linger ashore over a last pint at The Grapes, a famous local dockside pub. By the time that they showed up to report for duty, the Titanic was already clear of the quay and, with the gangways down, the duty officer on board wasn’t taking their lateness as an excuse. That sudden excess thirst almost certainly saved their lives, but no one knew that then.

Those men watched in sullen silence as 46,000 plus tons of ocean liner, eleven decks high and almost nine hundred feet long, began her stately procession downstream. A wan springtime sun glinted against her quartet of towering, black and buff smokestacks as schools of whooping, shrieking sea birds wheeled and dived in her churning wake. The great siren on board boomed out an exultant, triple chimed salute to her home port, and Titanic began to pick up speed, her escorting tugs resembling so many panting puppies trying to rein back an agitated dinosaur.

Though the departure was intended to be low key, it would be full of high drama. Standing downstream, the wake from the Titanic snapped mooring ropes on the nearby steamer New York like so many cotton strands. The old American liner came loose, her stern looming out into the river until it came within mere feet of the startled, briefly stalled Titanic. As the crowds on shore gasped and strained their necks to see what looked like an imminent collision, one of the tugs got a rope on the New York. She was dragged back to her berth like some reluctant steer. With a sigh of relief almost audible from across the water, the Titanic resumed her stately progress downstream.

On board, the passengers had viewed the incident with a mixture of everything from amusement to outright horror. The ensuing delay while the New York was corralled and returned to the quay had cost the Titanic almost a full hour. Even as his ship skirted the Isle of Wight and dropped down past Ryde, Captain Smith was well aware that he would be late arriving in Cherbourg to pick up his passengers embarking on the continent. It couldn’t be helped; they would simply have to cool their heels until the Titanic made her delayed grand entrance into Cherbourg’s historic harbour.

Those were some very well heeled feet waiting for him, too. Among them was a substantial batch of platinum chip American corporate royalty; Astors, Guggenheims, Strausses, plus a whole supporting cast of railroad owners, property magnates, movie stars and professional sportsmen. There were art collectors, newspaper editors, and the simply rich. It was quite an illustrious roster in all; many of them had been regular passengers on the Olympic since her debut the previous summer. That giant ship- the first of the three great sister ships-had proved to be a marvellous advertisement for the newer, even more opulent Titanic. Bookings for both ships were very healthy right throughout that 1912 season.

This must have been a source of pride to both Captain Smith and White Star Chairman, Bruce Ismay, as the Titanic romped steadily across the sunlit English Channel. The sun shone; smoke from the first three smokestacks (the fourth one was a dummy fitted for aesthetic harmony) trailed back behind the ship towards home. On the aft mast, the White Star Line’s pennant fluttered gamely in the afternoon breeze.

Already, passengers were beginning to explore and exult in the ship that they were travelling on. In first class, afternoon tea was being served in the Verandah Cafe. Passengers in deck chairs took soup and sandwiches on the long promenade decks, bundled up in warm steamer blankets wrapped round them by solicitous stewards. People began making dinner reservations for the extra tariff, a la carte restaurant.

In the indoor squash court, the steady ‘thwack’ of ball against wall assumed a tempo that would be silenced only by the sudden inrush of surging, icy seawater some five nights later. The first passengers plunged boldly into the waters of the indoor pool nearby. Even braver souls surrendered themselves to the ministrations of trained masseuses in the garish menagerie of the Turkish Baths.

Others, more cerebral, lost themselves in a brand new book from the library, or wrote last, hasty letters home that could be sent ashore from Cherbourg and, later, Queenstown in Southern Ireland.

Late that afternoon, the coast of France emerged from the haze; a shimmering, low lying sliver that seemed to have a mirage like quality. But before almost anyone knew it, the Titanic arched a graceful turn, and came looming into the slowly darkening bay of Cherbourg. The anchor rattled down with a deafening crash right forward, and the huge liner swung skittishly at rest.

It was a brief break; that hours’ delay had helped nobody, and Captain Smith was anxious to begin his triumphant procession to the west, and the gala fire boat reception that awaited his glittering new command in New York. Two tenders- the Nomadic and the Traffic- came chugging out of the harbour towards the Titanic, like a pair of nervous courtiers paying homage to a new queen.

Aboard Nomadic were the first class passengers, and the mountain of luggage that always accompanied such people. As the Nomadic bumbled out into the bay, her irate passengers gasped in amazement at their first glimpse of the grand, stately Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as the night took hold. They were ushered with apologies and assurances into the warm womb of the giant liner. A battalion of lift operators and bellboys stood ready at the adjacent trio of elevators to whisk these prized patrons off to their plush quarters, where the beds were freshly made and fresh flowers spilled out across almost every surface.

The second and third class passengers aboard the more plebian Traffic did not receive this kind of effusive, low key welcome. Instead, they and their much less substantial belongings were ushered through the steel shell doors of the hull, and into the belly of the brute. None the less, the same sense of barely disguised haste dominated the proceedings for all those embarking that evening.

As the two empty tenders backed away, the anchor was hauled up from the darkened briny. There was the clang and slamming of the shell doors along the liner’s hull. Once more, the great triple propellers- a full hundred tons of bronze in all- began to thresh up the waters around them.

The tender crews watched in awed silence as the floodlit Titanic swung through a graceful quarter circle, her quartet of great funnels standing like ramparts against the starlit sky. The deep, warm boom of the liner’s whistle echoed across the empty water like peals of slow, rolling thunder. And then, almost before they knew it, she had swept past them and disappeared beyond the horizon.

Disappeared, standing out for a noon arrival in Queenstown the following day, there to embark her last passengers. From there, it would be a stately romp across an agreeable, implausibly calm ocean for five days, before that first, glorious American landfall. Manhattan, and the promise of a freshly minted New York spring.

Several thousand miles to the west, a squat, glacial, salt water assassin waited patiently. Shrouded in darkness and black against the dark, still water, this potential killer- one of the truly deadly ‘great whites’ of the ocean- awaited it’s curtain call……

THE HOMERIC- TOO LITTLE, AND TOO LATE?

RMS HOMERIC
The Homeric had a staunch, graceful appearance

By 1922, the White Star Line had intended to operate a crack, three ship express service on the Atlantic with three almost identical, giant sister ships- the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic.

Fate took out the second of these ships in the most resounding maritime tragedy in the years leading up to the Great War. The bullets that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Empress Sophie in Sarajevo in June, 1914 found an echo in the mine explosion that sent the incomplete Britannic- serving as a makeshift hospital ship- to the bottom of the Aegean in 1916. By the time that peace returned to a shattered, exhausted Europe in 1918, only the Olympic remained of that once grand, unrealised dream.

Olympic at the time was described as ‘our one Ewe lamb’ by Harold Sanderson, managing director of White Star. But even as he spoke, Sanderson had already acquired a couple of surrendered German replacements for the two lost White Star juggernauts. The three ship service remained the ultimate dream for White Star and Cunard alike.

The reasons for a three ship service lay in simple scheduling and economics. White Star’s plans were for one ship to leave Southampton each Wednesday, bound for New York. A second ship would leave New York on Saturday, bound for Europe. The third ship would always be in mid Atlantic, heading in one direction or another.

In this way, the company could guarantee a weekly service, offering six day crossings on a year round basis. Cunard would also offer a similar service post war, but with different sailing dates.

The Olympic was soon joined on the service by the Majestic, the third of Albert Ballin’s intended trio of world beaters for the Hamburg America Line. She was the largest ship in the world and, crucially for White Star, her speed was roughly compatible to that of the Olympic. Her new owners called her ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’ when she first set sail for them in May of 1922.

For their third vessel, White Star acquired a 35,000 ton liner, originally intended to be called Columbus. She remained incomplete in Germany during the war. Under White Star’s stewardship, the unfinished hulk was completed as Homeric She came round to Southampton in early 1922 to join the Olympic and Majestic on the platinum chip run to New York.

By far the smallest and slowest of the three, the Homeric would have seemed an odd choice at any normal time. But those post war years were not normal times. New tonnage was in pitifully short supply, and many shipyards needed to be reconfigured from war duties back to peacetime production. Like every other shipping line in those first, lean years, White Star had to make do with what it could get.

Her maiden voyage actually took place in February of 1922, from Southampton to New York. In terms of service, style and accommodation, the Homeric was every bit as plush, elegant and prestigious as her two larger siblings. Once settled down into regular passenger service, she proved popular enough for sure. With a passenger capacity of 2,145 across first (750), second (545) and third (850) plus a crew of 780, the Homeric provided twenties travellers with a safe, highly styled crossing of the Atlantic.

But she was a flawed, limping greyhound, capable of only an average speed of eighteen knots, against the routine twenty three knot crossings of her siblings. As a result of this imbalance, the White Star express schedule began slowly losing ground to Cunard. Fine ship that she was, the Homeric was simply not up to the rigours of the year round express service between Europe and New York. By 1927, she was already being sent on cheaper, off season cruises to the Mediterranean.

By 1929, the advent of the Great Depression had combined with the arrival of speedy, stylish new French and German liners to put the White Star Line on life support. By 1932, the ageing Homeric had been relegated to full time cruise duties, a role terminated by the shotgun wedding of Cunard and White Star in May of 1934.

With the Queen Mary already looming large in the rear view mirror, the new Cunard White Star Line began shedding surplus tonnage like some Stalinist purge. The end for the Homeric was officially announced in August of 1935. By 1938, she had been completely scrapped.

The Homeric never really had much of a chance. Slower than her fleet mates, she was soon outpaced in both the style and glamour stakes by newer, flashier foreign rivals. Even within the White Star ranks, she was something of a ‘poor sister’ when compared to the more prestigious Olympic and Majestic.

Still, there is something truly sad, almost indecent, about the way in which she seems to have almost vanished from the pages of history. Of itself, this small article is an attempt to redress part of that balance.