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WAS CAPTAIN SMITH CONCERNED ABOUT TITANIC?

CAPTAIN SMITH OF TITANIC
Captain Edward Smith in tropical white uniform, possibly on the bridge of the Olympic

Over the years, the much maligned and romanticised Captain Smith of the Titanic has posthumously come across as something of a casual, urbane chancer; a man whose breezy manner of doing things was the ultimate catalyst for the worst maritime disaster of the time. But was he really so blase about commanding the largest moving object on the face of the planet?

Smith was the senior captain of the White Star Line. As commodore, his £1200 a year salary was more than double that of his nearest rival. And no wonder; the socially adept and much admired Smith was considered the most popular skipper on the Atlantic, both by passengers and crew alike. He seems to have been one of those genuinely unique men that could forge bonds with people from across the world.

He was also famously in thrall to modern, twentieth century technology. In the summer of 1907, when he brought the then brand new, 24,000 ton Adriatic into Southampton to begin her maiden voyage, he said this to the assembled press;

I cannot conceive of any vital accident that would cause this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that….”

But did subsequent events shake that complacent view? There is no record of how Smith reacted to the sinking of another White Star liner- the Republic- just two years after he made that fatuous pronouncement in Southampton. But it cannot have failed to have impacted on him.

It certainly impacted on the management at White Star, but not in a positive way; all of the passengers and crew of the slowly sinking Republic had been safely evacuated to other, nearby ships by the liner’s own lifeboats. And this fact prompted a seismic shift of perspective that would impact the Titanic and her captain just as fatally as the iceberg itself.

Post Republic, the management chose to look on lifeboats in general as ferry boats that would simply convey passengers from a sinking ship to rescue vessels, summoned by the miraculous new wireless telegraphy. They completely disavowed the notion that those same lifeboats might have to serve as survival craft in themselves for everybody on board. This complacent, delusional self satisfaction was at least partly responsible for the fatal dearth of lifeboats on the Titanic on that fateful night in April, 1912.

As for Smith, his triumphant ascent to command of the stunning new Olympic in June of 1911 seemed inevitable. Now he stood on the bridge of a ship twice as large as the Adriatic; in fact, a ship that was bigger than anything else ever seen. And trouble was not long in following.

As the Olympic attempted to dock at her New York pier for the first time, the surge created by her propellers sucked in a harbour tug like a bobbing cork, before the whirling blades neatly severed it at the stern. All told, it took eighteen tugs a full hour to dock the new ‘marvel’ at the end of an otherwise triumphant maiden crossing. Did this incident send any alarm bells ringing in Smith’s ivory tower?

Just three months later, the Olympic began her stately progress down Southampton Water at the start of another crossing to New York. Proceeding on a parallel course on her starboard side was a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke.

Somehow, the suction from the giant Olympic sucked in the relatively small cruiser, swinging her to starboard and instigating a collision that left the reeling cruiser’s bow resembling so much sodden cardboard.

As for the Olympic, the impact tore an eighty foot hole in her starboard side, right aft. By God’s good grace there were no casualties, but it did mean the abortion of the voyage, and a trip to Belfast for repairs that took a full six weeks.

At the time of the accident, Olympic was under the command of Captain Smith, though the local harbour pilot, George Bowyer, was in charge of handling the ship at the time. All the same this incident was by far the most serious that Smith had ever been involved in over his thirty seven year career. If that did not give him food for thought, it certainly should have done. Or did the fact that the Olympic survived with no loss of life merely deepen his faith in this new, more technologically advanced breed of super liner?

Whatever, the Olympic accident did nothing to dent White Star’s faith in it’s star commodore. April 1912 found him in command of the newer, slightly larger Titanic. Her sixteen day, round trip maiden voyage to New York and back was expected to be Smith’s last hurrah. Once done, he could look forward to a long, honourable retirement.

It all went pear shaped at the start. As the Titanic edged gingerly downstream from the White Star dock, the suction from her propellers pulled the smaller New York away from her pier. Mooring ropes on the old American liner snapped like cotton, and her stern swung out like a battering ram. Only the frantic action of stopping the engines on Titanic, and the perceptive intervention of a local tug, prevented a serious and embarrassing collision between the two ships.

Up on the bridge of the slowly proceeding Titanic, the same duo of Smith and Bowyer must have seen these events unfold with scarce concealed horror. It had almost been the Olympic and the Hawke all over again. And it did seem to have an impact on Smith.

That evening, after taking on more passengers at Cherbourg, Smith took the Titanic through a series of lazy ‘S’ turns. He continued this process all the way through the English Channel, and right up to the entrance to his last port of call at Queenstown, in Southern Ireland on the following lunch time.

What provoked this? It seems that this third mishap with an Olympic class liner in enclosed waters prompted some deep, residual concern in Smith. All three near disasters had occurred within the space of ten months, and all in plain sight of the self same captain.

In all, the speed and handling trials of the Olympic had lasted a scant two days. For the Titanic, they took up a mere eight hours. This, for the two biggest moving objects on the face of the planet; two ships that were expected to navigate both huge oceans and shallow, crowded waterways alike. Perhaps the truth of that had finally come home to Smith and, in making his series of lazy, meandering turns en route to Ireland, he was attempting to get a better sense of the intricacies of steering his awesome new command.

However, that concern seemed only to apply to enclosed waters. Once clear of Ireland and with only the open ocean in front of him, Smith reverted to a cavalier, increasingly upped rate of speed. Ultimately, he was doing exactly what he had done- and got away with- for thirty eight years. But this time, it would go horribly wrong.

The long odds finally caught up with this most highly regarded of captains just four nights later, when the Titanic ran pell mell into a vast, eighty mile region of floating ice. The rest is history. If only Smith’s belated concerns about sailing in harbour waters had extended to a more cautious approach to charging head long through ice filled waters, then things might have played out very differently on that starlit Sunday evening of April 14th, 1912.

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……