British Isles Part III: Titanic Hubris

adjective : having great magnitude, force, or power
adjective : of or containing the element titanium
noun : a family of giants in Greek mythology who were believed to have once ruled the earth, they were subsequently overpowered and replaced by the younger Olympian gods under the leadership of Zeus
noun : a luxury British cruise-liner that struck an iceberg near Newfoundland on its maiden voyage on the night of April 14-15, 1912 with the loss of 1,513 lives

noun : Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance
noun : (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin

While this post focuses on our tour of Belfast’s Titanic Museum, the pairing of Greek words in the title foreshadows our looming but ever-evolving cruising plans to sail the Greek Ionian and Aegean Seas this summer.

“Titanic Hubris” also links to our British Isles Part I post, given that the Lusitania (highlighted at the end of the post) served as Titanic’s template ship. Although Lusitania’s hull could have nested within Titanic’s hull (given Titanic was about 100 feet longer), Titanic’s timeline nests within Lusitania’s:

1906 Lusitania commissioned
1912 Titanic commissioned
1912 Titanic sunk
1915 Lusitania sunk (by a German submarine)

While on the subject of linkages forwards and backwards, the Titanic story also ties to our most recent post “Troubles”, as the Belfast shipbuilding firm of Harland and Wolff that built Titanic was virulently anti-Catholic. “At Harland and Wolff it was not unknown for workers [from their all-Protestant workforce] to paint on the sides of ships under construction the words ‘NO POPE’ in letters ten feet high or more,” writes naval historian David Allen Butler.

We also have an Italian connection in this post, as the Italian-Irish radio inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi figures prominently in the story. Marconi’s father was Italian nobility and his Irish mother, Annie Jameson, was the granddaughter of the famous distiller John Jameson. Fitting, given that Hazel James wintered in Italy, patiently awaiting her crew’s return.

Even before the 1997 eponymous film, Titanic occupied such a place in popular culture one could wonder what else could be said about it. It turns out…lots. To me—as we wandered the comfortable Titanic Museum, far from the frigid, churning open ocean—it was the “what-ifs” I found most fascinating. If it weren’t for a handful of things that could have gone either way, 1,500 passengers and crew wouldn’t have drowned; conversely, if it weren’t for a handful what-ifs that broke to the good, 700 souls wouldn’t have been rescued.

What I learned most from our museum tour is that the Titanic tale is the story of a collision. But—like the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” (where only 1/10th of an iceberg is visible above the sea surface)—what occupies our collective consciousness is the collision between Titanic’s starboard side and a massive iceberg. What’s just as fascinating, less visible and below the waterline is the collision between communications technology and hubris.

The Titanic.

At the time of Titanic’s first and only voyage, Guglielmo Marconi and his Marconi Company had a near monopoly on radio and Titanic (as well as most other passenger ships sailing the North Atlantic) was outfitted with a Marconi radio installation and staffed by Marconi Company operators. Like a modern binary computer compiling programming instructions into a series of ones and zeros, to transmit a radio message in the early 20th century, the sending radio operator would encode a text message into a series of Morse Code “dots” and “dashes” (short and long sounds) separated by short and long pauses. The receiving radio operator would then decode the signals and silences into letters and words.

Guglielmo Marconi in 1902

What’s very different from later radio technology is that those early radios used a single “channel” to transmit and receive. Therefore, all messages transmitted by a ship or a shore-based “station” (a radio installation) could be received by all other stations (provided a trained radio operator was monitoring the station). Finally, given the distance limitations of early radios, when a transatlantic ship was in the middle of its passage it could not directly contact shore-based radio stations. For a ship crossing the northern North Atlantic ocean from east to west (as Titanic was doing), the first North American station that could be contacted was Cape Race, Newfoundland. (Incidentally, not far from Gander, Newfoundland where the musical Come From Away is set. And the proximity between Cape Race and Gander is not coincidental given their position in the [literal] middle of the ocean).

Cape Race’s position in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Another view of Cape Race with Titanic’s track.

Ship-based radio was a novelty in the early 20th century (similar to internet access on cruise ships 10 or 20 years ago) and a passenger ship’s radio was used to transmit and receive both official messages for the ship’s captain and officers, as well as messages and stock market reports for wealthy first class passengers. Radio operators were highly trained and skilled as they needed both Morse Code fluency and the technical skills to tune, troubleshoot, and repair the temperamental early radios. As such, each ship had only one or two radio operators onboard, and radios were not required to be monitored 24×7. Radio operators had their own lingo and fraternity (similar to PC tech guys in the early days of the personal computer). As an example, they would often jocularly refer to each other as “Old Man” when hailing in their radio transmissions.

Reconstruction of a ship’s radio room from the early 20th century. On the desk to the right, note the Morse Code transmitter keys; on the left, note the headset. It’s dizzying to think how much communications technology has advanced in a little over 100 years.

While there were many interactive and multi-modal exhibits in the museum—ranging from the ship’s design and construction, its impact on the Belfast and Irish economy, and (of course) its fateful voyage—it was the simple transcripts of the radio transmissions that I found most fascinating. Given the limitations of Morse Code, messages were concise, to the point, and often heavily abbreviated (not unlike text messages of today). In addition, receiving radio operators logged all messages so a complete record survives the tragedy. As I stood reading in the cool, dark, safe and comfortably carpeted museum space, it was hard to imagine the emotion, panic and dread that must have been just below the surface of the Morse Code messages. Here is the first transcript (I’ll explain some intricacies after)…

The bottom-line is that on the afternoon and early evening of April 14, 1912, Titanic had received reports of pack ice and icebergs in its vicinity. At 9:30 p.m., Titanic had thanked the ship Masaba for its ice report. However, at 11:00 p.m. the ship Californian which was likely only 10-20 miles from Titanic reported that it had stopped engines because it was surrounded by ice. It’s likely that shortly before the Californian’s transmission, Titanic had just come into radio range of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

Given that Titanic was barely in radio range of Cape Race, the Cape Race Morse Code signals would have been barely audible. Also, the Titanic’s radio operators would have likely had a backlog of personal messages that first class passengers wanted sent to friends and family in the US. Given the Californian was relatively close to Titanic, its signals would have been deafeningly loud as compared to Cape Race’s signal. It’s easy to imagine a tired and perhaps grumpy Titanic radio operator at 11:00 p.m. trying to transmit a backlog of vanity messages and having their receiver headset volume turned up to its loudest to hear the faint Cape Race signal hundreds of miles away. Then, the blasting transmission of the Californian drowns out and “steps on” the Titanic’s transmission “mid sentence” with Cape Race and forcing the Titanic operator to retransmit what was interrupted. The Californian sends, “WE ARE STOPPED AND SURROUNDED BY ICE.” Rather than Titanic thanking Californian for its nearby warning, Titanic responds, “SHUT UP! YOU ARE JAMMING MY SIGNAL. I AM WORKING CAPE RACE.” In later testimony, after the Californian radio operator received Titanic’s curt and discourteous reply, he switched off his radio and went to bed feeling that he had done his duty.

That use of the term “SHUT UP!” reminded me of today’s road rage and how easy it is to “say” online what we would never say to someone face-to-face. It also reminded me of the timeless quality that of online communications tending to lose meaning in their transmission. Was the Titanic operator saying “SHUT UP!” in a nasty, angry way…or a friendly, slap on the back “come on!” kind of way? If Titanic’s operator would have said “PLEASE BE QUIET OLD MAN” would the Californian operator stayed on station and heard the Titanic’s Mayday call that would soon follow? If Titanic’s operator would have relayed Californian’s message to the bridge, would the officer-of-the-watch considered slowing Titanic’s speed?

An hour later the Californian’s officers-of-the-watch saw what they thought were distress rockets from the direction of Titanic and reported their observation to Californian’s captain but the captain chose to not investigate (or to wake the radio operator). That’s a whole other story.

At 12:15 a.m. Titanic made its first distress call by transmitting the letters CQD. When you read “CQD” below, think SOS (Save our Ship) or Mayday (or a 911 call for the landlubberly of us). There’s more on CQD below but, for now, just remember that its a deadly-serious and not-to-be-ignored distress call.

Titanic’s distress calls and the replies from the ships Carpathia and Frankfurt.

A quick note on the above acronyms of CQD and OM: In the early days of radio, distress calling had not been standardized and for a short time CQD was informally adopted by radiomen as an abbreviation for “Sécurité Distress.” (Sécurité is French and pronounced secure-ah-TAY. “CQ” is a rough, phonetic translation of Sécurité). By now, you may have guessed that “OM” is an abbreviation of Old Man.

The ship Carpathia that received the distress call was about 60 miles from Titanic (much further than the radio-silent Californian). Carpathia’s journey through the night to Titanic’s last known position at top speed and in iceberg laden waters must have been harrowing.

The Carpathia that rescued Titanic’s survivors.
Titanic survivors the next morning on Carpathia’s deck.

Several other interesting endnotes to the tale:

First, you may have noticed in the transmissions above that on the day of the sinking, the weather in the vicinity was reported as clear and fine, with moderate and variable winds. While that sounds ideal, what it means is that not much of a sea would have been running (i.e., no big waves) therefore, at night icebergs would have been less visible since waves would not be breaking on their bulk. Lookouts aboard Titanic actually spotted the iceberg prior to the collision but the ship could not be turned fast enough to avoid collision.

Second, the Titanic was moving at 22 knots when it struck the iceberg. Although it doesn’t sound like much (25 land-based miles per hour), on the water, that’s fast. For reference you can water ski at about 18-20 knots and on Hazel James’ AIS transceiver we see the speed of all nearby container and passenger ships, and 22 knots is about the fastest that we’d see any large ship traveling—and those are modern ships, complete with a dizzying array of electronics and communications.

Third, and to bring us full-circle and back to the Lusitania, like the Lusitania the noble Carpathia that had rescued the Titanic’s survivors would also be sunk by a German submarine (Lusitania in 1915 and Carpathia in 1918).

As we think about all the what-ifs in this Titanic story, it’s easy to focus on the hubris of man over nature and and how horribly things went wrong. While there’s no denying that, we do have to balance that with the glass-half-full side of the story: 700 people survived. Without Marconi’s radio and without Carpathia’s radio operators monitoring the airwaves late into the night all lives aboard Titanic would have been lost.

Titanic below the waterline and before her 1911 launch.
For comparison, Hazel James’ diminutive propeller. (For boat nerds, a VariProp three-blade feathering propeller. When sailing, the blades “feather” to reduce hydrodynamic drag.)

Everything above (and above the waterline) in this post was drafted prior to starting our travels from the US back to Hazel James. On the flight as we winged eastward to Rome, Italy and reunification with our girl, I sanded the rough edges of the draft. As I paused to switch out my 80-grit for 120-grit sandpaper, I stepped back to widen the aperture and gain some perspective on the deeper meaning of the story (After all, it was the 9/10ths of the iceberg lurking underwater that ripped the gaping maw in Titanic’s starboard side.) As I pondered, it occured to me that indeed “All roads lead to Rome.” The “roads” being the countless learnings and epiphanies from our 2022 European travels, and “Rome” being Colleen and her life and times, and demise.

When Rhett and I returned from London to Florida on New Year’s Day 2023—exactly four months ago—and with our February 4 wedding day approaching fast, the guilt and remorse that I had felt about Colleen’s death executed and abrupt about face from its gradual retreat.

In the weeks after Colleen’s 2019 death and as I was trying to make sense of the nonsensical. A clinician-friend of mine explained a model of grief that I found immensely helpful amidst the chaos. He said to think of your grief and its triggering as a button in a box. In that box there is perpetual motion ball, ceaselessly caroming. In the weeks after the tragedy the ball is big relative to the box and thus the grief-button is almost constantly depressed. My friend urged me to trust that over time and with self care, the ball will slowly shrink and offer some respite from the constant triggering. However, he cautioned, don’t ever expect the ball to disappear completely.

While my friend’s model held true to my experience, he neglected to mention a regression or—more accurately—a re-expansion of the ball was possible. In this case likely precipitated by a return to land based life and Rhett’s and my upcoming union. In retrospect, I should have seen the surprise attack coming.

As Rhett’s and my wedding day approached, I conjured layers of “could-uh, would-uh, should-uhs”: all the ways I failed Colleen, the fact that our last goodbye was more afterthought than eternal farewell, a tide of memories of a daughter, sister and mother cut short.

My guilt surfaced in the inky and icy gloom like a Titanic survivor in an old-fashioned life jacket. I was moving forward and marrying another person that I love and exploring the world with that person. On one hand, it shows the highest respect to Colleen and her legacy that I’m living and loving and sailing the world an not taking one drop of life for granted. On the other hand, Rhett and I are the ones doing the enjoying and Colleen isn’t.

I was a bit panicked as we returned to the US in January as I had already felt the tremors of the backslide. I contacted my therapist and took the opportunity of being in Florida to see her several times during our time at home. Just last week I had my final session with her and as we were closing, my therapist suggested that although she was confident that I was not perfect throughout Colleen’s struggles, I also not forget the positives of Colleen’s and my voyage, the support that I gave Colleen, the fact that we were together and married until the end and not giving up on each other, her being the mother of the world’s best two children, the unabashed passion and fun that we shared for so many years, the victory of sobriety in her last year of life. It was my version of the 700 Titanic souls who survived.

As my therapist and I delved deeper into the folds of that mystery. It further occurred to me that another way I can honor Colleen is to apply the lessons of the past to my future with Rhett. As I’m sure Rhett would attest, I’m a work-in-progress. But—as the AA aphorism says—“Progress, not perfection.”

Fair winds and following seas, Hazel James out. Expect our next transmission from Italy as we plan our sail into Greek waters.

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