A Titanic nexus

Paul Sparkes
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Majestic ship was a symbol of its time

“It’s the water that really takes the body heat away — and 27 times faster than the air.”

Dave Griffiths, regional co-ordinator for the Canadian Coast Guard in this region, was fielding questions about the challenges facing the Titanic and its human payload that night in the Atlantic a century ago.

Clearly, any passengers who had fallen in the water and were dragged aboard a lifeboat would have been in far greater danger from hypothermia than those sitting dry in the open lifeboat. And, as Griffiths reminded us, factors such as body fat and the will to survive come into play in situations of hypothermia and its attendant  stress.

Could it happen again? Could a passenger vessel be out there frantically calling for help — one vessel on the way and arriving too late, another seeming to slip away beneath the horizon?

“Today, there is a much greater amount of traffic out there,” Griffiths points out.

“A rescue today would be a co-ordinated operation and all craft in the vicinity of the stricken vessel would make a beeline for the site — in fact, they are now duty-bound to do so.  

“Even if a vessel believed it was too far away to help, it would call in, give its position and estimate when it could arrive on site.”

Griffiths explained that there was no consistency in flare colours at the time. of the Titanic’s sinking. Today, with red the international flare colour of emergency, there would be no confusing a ship’s flares for celebratory rockets. Titanic’s rockets flared white, conveying no conclusive message.

Today, crews of ocean-going vessels have training and protective suits so that their hedge against nature in such an emergency is way ahead of what it would have been 100 years ago.

Orange smoke floats and beacons that float free of a troubled vessel and send their signal to a satellite all come together today to obviate the kind of appalling desolation that numbed the bodies and minds of those left aboard Titanic.

As the great vessel’s lifeboats floated away, some two-and-a-half hours of panic, terror and even submission to the inevitable drew to a close just before 2:30 a.m. on that 15th day of April.

‘Natural effulgence’

“In the night, the icebergs are readily distinguished even at a distance by their natural effulgence, and in foggy weather by a peculiar blackness in the atmosphere.

“As they are not unfrequently drifted by the Greenland stream considerably to the south of Newfoundland, sometimes even as far as the 40th or 39th degree of latitude, ships sailing through the northwestern Atlantic require to be always on their guard against them.”

A European scientist wrote these words

52 years before the Titanic’s horrendous encounter.

Words of wisdom more often fall on deaf ears than on receptive ones. Titanic was in latitude 41 degrees, 46 minutes north when she struck the iceberg.


These ‘floating rocks’

The British/American vessel President (steam and sails) was making its transatlantic run out of New York in March 1841 when it was lost. The ship’s fate remains unknown but at the commencement of the voyage, it was known to have experienced a gale.

Nevertheless, given the time of year and mariners’ familiarity with the hazard of ice in the region, many believed it had been sunk by a collision with an iceberg.

There were 136 people aboard; it was the largest ship in the world at the time (243 feet long).

A near-contemporary account says, “it is supposed to have been sunk by a collision with an iceberg and no doubt many a gallant bark has either foundered in the night or been hurled by the storm against these floating rocks.”

Damn the ice, full speed …

While it was clearly known long before 1912 that major ice could challenge any vessel, there was a brusque, devil-may-care attitude in the decade known as the  Edwardian era. It is perhaps more than an impression that the cautionary index finger of the late Victorian century was greeted in Edward’s day with the finger next to it. People lived life large after the stifling Victorian period.

In his 2008 book, “The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914,” Philipp Blom wrote: “there was more duelling  between 1900 and 1914 than there had been in the 30 years before. … There were chaps with bigger moustaches, body-builders with bigger muscles, battleships with bigger guns; there were racing cars and speed records. … Little wonder that the sinking of the sleek, fast powerful Titanic was such an emblem of disaster for the period.”


For all the wisdom of several decades leading up to 1912, anyone doing even scattered reading in that period can detect a naïve mix of fiction and fact. So it is that you get those cautionary words about wandering mountains of ice followed closely by jaunty accounts of men attempting to fasten anchors into  icebergs.

In one recorded case, the anchoring did not succeed, but the two men concerned achieved two heights — the height of optimism and the height of recklessness:

“Two sailors who were attempting to fix an anchor to a berg began to hew a hole into the ice, but scarcely had the first blow been struck, when suddenly the immense mass split from top to  bottom and fell asunder, the two halves falling in contrary directions with a prodigious crash.

“One of the sailors, who was possessed of great presence of mind, immediately scaled the huge fragment on which he was standing and remained rocking to and fro on its summit until its equilibrium was restored; his companion, falling between the masses, would most likely have been crushed to pieces if the current caused by the wave motion had not swept him within reach of the boat that was waiting for them …”

A month before Titanic

The weather for the first several months of 1912 was horrendous in the North Atlantic.  Huge and powerful waves teamed up with heavy ice to challenge ships small, medium and large. Many vessels limped battered into port; others were lost and dozens of lives went with them.

The SS Erna had been secured by Baine Johnston Company in Scotland for assignments here and was reinforced in Glasgow for added duty at the Newfoundland seal hunt.

The 3,607-tonne vessel left Glasgow in March 1912, bringing out passengers bound for Newfoundland.

Twenty days later, newspapers in St. John’s were reporting that Erna was overdue, but “no grave fears for her safe arrival need yet be entertained … she evidently encountered the stormy weather experienced by other ships.”

The Sagona had left Scotland about the same time and arrived in St. John’s 17 days later reporting “a rough passage.” Her engineer said the 175-foot vessel was more often under water than above it on that crossing.

There was nothing ever again heard or seen of the Erna or the 51 people aboard. It was generally believe she had encountered an iceberg near this side of the Atlantic, and at night.   

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard, Greenland, Baine Johnston Company

Geographic location: Atlantic, Newfoundland, New York Scotland Glasgow North Atlantic

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