Crossing the English Channel has always held a wildly mystical attraction for me, whether it was war-weary soldiers returning home from battle or long-suffering French aristocrats escaping Madame Guillotine. There was something brave and noble about standing on the deck of a ship with a fierce wind blowing in your face, angry waves crashing against the hull and sea spray wetting your lips with a briny taste.
Or so I believed. I had my own narrow escape from the ravages of the cold sea on such a trip. I never forgot it.
Boarding the ship at Oostende, Belgium with only my backpack and naÃ¯vetÃ© for company, I was eager to get to London to visit a friend studying there. So what if the ferry was overbooked and the weather was stormy? I was tough, I could take it.
I nearly froze to death when I lost my balance as the ship rolled on the swell of the sea and I slid across the deck like a greased seal. I ended up cold and wet and hanging onto the rail for dear life.
I never forgot my youthful folly and many times while writing about the sinking of the Titanic, I pulled up those emotions to try to understand what my characters were experiencing on that fateful night, April 14, 1912, when the ship hit an iceberg.
Bitter cold, calm sea and freezing water.
Let me recreate the scene for you at 11:40 p.m. that night.
Contrary to what some films and TV shows have depicted, most passengers were asleep or reading in their cabins when the Titanic hit the iceberg. They were not enjoying a party-like atmosphere in the dining saloons drinking champagne and dancing. The public rooms closed down around 11 pm in all classes. It is true that diehard poker players like my hero in Titanic Rhapsody, Captain Lord Jack Blackthorn, were busily engaged in a game of poker or bridge whist in the smoking room.
The Titanic glided as smoothly as a haughty swan over the sea on that starlit night. No moon. Which is why it has been speculated that the two lookouts didnâ€™t see the one-hundred-foot tall iceberg until the last minute (they had no binocularsâ€”a shipâ€™s officer was transferred at the last moment and took the key to the locker with the binoculars with him).
â€œIceberg right ahead!â€ shouted the lookout into his telephone to the bridge. He rang the bell three times.
For thirty-seven seconds the two lookouts waited as the ship appeared to be heading straight for the iceberg. The shipâ€™s first officer tried to avoid the berg and ordered the ship turned to port (left). What happened next no one saw comingâ€¦
The Titanic was cruising close to top speed in spite of the iceberg warnings. This was not unusual. According to the thinking of that time, Captain Smith was justified in getting through the ice region as quickly as possible. What he didnâ€™t know was that the ship was on a direct collision course with the berg, a huge mass of ice that had traveled farther south than was ever thought possible.
The cold Labrador Current swirled around the iceberg to form a protective layer, which insulated it from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream and prevented it from melting.
Pushing the iceberg into the shipping lanes.
The Titanic never had a chance.
The White Star Line ship smashed into the iceberg along her starboard (right) side, slashing open a 295 foot gash that doomed the ship. The passengers snug in their beds or enjoying a hot whiskey and water in the smoking room had no idea that five possibly six of her sixteen compartments were flooded.
Or that the mail hold down on G deck was rapidly filling with water. Or that down in the boiler rooms the air was heavy with steam as the engineers tried to pump out the water in boiler room 5, praying the bulkheads would hold. (The hull plates of the Titanic were held in place with 3-lb. rivetsâ€”three million rivets total.)
Thomas Andrews, the shipâ€™s designer, did a quick assessment of the damageâ€”the Titanic could float with two, three, even four of her first watertight compartments gone, he said, but not five. The ship had an hour, no more than two to survive.
After conferring with Mr. Andrews, Captain Smith ordered the wireless operator to send out the distress signal CQD (the British landline operatorsâ€™ signal â€œCQâ€ was for â€œall stationsâ€ with the addition of â€œDâ€ by the Marconi company for added emphasisâ€”danger ). He added an â€œSOSâ€ (adapted because of its distinctive Morse Code pattern of three dotsâ€¦three dashesâ€¦three dots) with the Titanicâ€™s call letters: â€œMGY.â€
Where are Katie and Jack, my heroine and hero in Titanic Rhapsody, when first class passengers feel a â€œjarâ€ in their staterooms? Or when the steerage passengers are tossed about in their bunks only to find seawater seeping in under their cabin doors?
I wish I could tell youâ€¦but I canâ€™t or I will spoil the romance. I will say that Katie and Jack experience all the fear and dread of the passengers that night when the Titanic hits the iceberg.
To give you a feeling of what happened during those last hours, weâ€™ll go through what a first cabin lady experienced, then a second class gentleman, and finally, a family in steerage.
|Â© Andreas Meyer | Dreamstime.com
If youâ€™re a first cabin lady, youâ€™re most likely asleep in your cabin where itâ€™s cozy and warm with the electric heater going, the lights dim, when suddenly something jolts you awake. Strange, you think, but nothing to be alarmed about. You try to go back to sleep until you realize the engines have stopped. Here, in the middle of the Atlantic?
Youâ€™re curious, but not worried since everyone says the ship is unsinkable. You throw a heavy coat over your nightdress and peek outside, running down the corridor in your soft satin slippers. Others are about, gossiping, yawning, until the bedroom steward in a very nice manner tells you to put on your lifebelt and go up on deck.
In this cold? you ask him. Yes, he tells you, though he assures you itâ€™s merely a matter of precaution. Begrudgingly, you tell your ladyâ€™s maid to help you put on your corset, then fasten on the lifebelt made of six squares of cork. All the while the girl frets about, saying youâ€™re all doomed. At the last moment, you grab your gloves and hat and scarf and join the other ladies and gents on the Boat deck.
Ah, thereâ€™s nothing to worry about, you decide, relieved. The shipâ€™s musicians are playing a lively ragtime tune and everyone is chatting about the chunks of ice on the forward well deckâ€”then a shipâ€™s officer orders you into a lifeboat. Yes, orders you, like youâ€™re a common servant. Why, the nerve of the man.
Women and children first, he says. What about the gentlemen? You hear someone whisper men are being allowed into the boats on the starboard side, but not here. Why get into the boats at all? you wonder, believing youâ€™re safer on the ship than that small boat.
Then someone says the Titanic is sinkingâ€¦
It canâ€™t be that serious, can it? you wonder, not believing it possible You wait with your maid on the port side of the ship, watching the ladies being separated from their husbands and put into the lifeboats. Boats not even half-filled. No need to hurry. You hear someone say theyâ€™ll be laughing about this over breakfast.
Really? You start to shiver from the bitter coldâ€¦frosty puffs of air come out of your mouth when you speak. Unbelievable noise fills your ears. From the boilers, someone says. Ladies screaming as theyâ€™re pulled from their husbandsâ€™ arms. Then you notice the ship is listing heavily to one side. Well, what are you waiting for? Get into the damn lifeboat!
You donâ€™t protest when a seaman tosses you into a boat. Then your maid. After all, youâ€™re the lucky ones, you realize as the boat is lowered over the side and hits the water. The lifeboat pulls away from the ship so as not to be pulled down by the suction when the ship sinksâ€¦yes, it is true. The Titanic is going down.
You put your shoulder to the oar and rowâ€¦listening to the whispers that a rescue ship is on the wayâ€¦the Carpathia. Will it arrive in time?
Not if youâ€™re a gentleman in second classâ€¦
|Â© Daniel Raustadt | Dreamstime.com|
Youâ€™re anxious to get to New York and start your new jobâ€”and thrilled to be on the Titanicâ€™s maiden voyage. Who would have thought youâ€™d find yourself walking the second class promenade deck late at night, your hands in your pocket, your mind on the pretty girl you met earlier in the day? Still, youâ€™ve no time for romance. Youâ€™ve got family back in England needing the money youâ€™ll send home to them. Itâ€™s nearly midnight. Time to turn in for the night.
You head for the second class staircase whenâ€”
Wait, what was that? Did you feel a bump?
You rush to the starboard sideâ€”good God, was that an iceberg? Did we hit it? you wonder. No alarm sounds, though you donâ€™t find out until later the Titanic has no PA system and relies on the three hundred stewards to alert the passengers to put on their lifebelts and go topside.
You wait, noting the other passengers seem calm and no one is in a hurry to get into the lifeboats. Then you spy the pretty girl you had your eye on over on the port side. Sheâ€™s trying to convince her aunt to get into a lifeboat. Sheâ€™s grateful when you charm the older woman and talk her into getting into a boat with her niece following her. Then you see the girl waving at you as the boat is lowered over the side. Sheâ€™s smiling. Tears in her eyes.
Youâ€™ll never forget that smile.
No time to waste. The chap you share a cabin with finds you and tosses you a lifebelt. The grim look on his face tells you that youâ€™ll both need more than a lifebelt to make it. No men are allowed into the boats here on the port side, so you do your duty and assist the women and children getting into the boats.
Itâ€™s been more than two hours since the Titanic hit the iceberg and sheâ€™s listing heavily.
The last few minutes are chaotic. Men rush the lifeboats, then a shot rings outâ€”theyâ€™re pushed back. You help a woman get into a boat, then someone hands you a baby. You give it to the woman before the boat is lowered.
No more wooden lifeboats left. You try to help the shipâ€™s officers launch one of the four collapsibles when suddenly thereâ€™s a thunderous explosion. Youâ€™re blown clear of the ship, but after swimming long, hard strokes, your hands swell up, your legs go numb and your back feels like itâ€™s breaking in two.
Cries, screams ringing in your head, people clinging to you, clutching you around the throat, dragging you down underwater. You canâ€™t breathe, youâ€™re choking. Then the coldâ€¦the bitter, freezing coldâ€¦
The last thing you remember is the pretty girlâ€™s smiling faceâ€¦
But what if you canâ€™t get topside? It is time to speak of the steerage passengers, who until now have waited patiently for a steward to bring them up on top to get into the lifeboats.
Well, not all the third class passengers have been patient.
How could you be if youâ€™re a good wife and mother and your familyâ€™s lot depends on you getting to the lifeboats?
|Â© Photodynamx | Dreamstime.com|
Holy Mary, youâ€™ve had time of it since you boarded the Titanic at Queenstown. Getting the two little ones, Mary and Bridget, settled in their bunks with Danny, a lad of ten, wanting so to follow his da around the ship.
And then thereâ€™s Patrick, your man. A strong, blustering bloke with strong hands and a big heart. Him always ready to enjoy a pint after a hard dayâ€™s work and eager to give you a hug and a kiss when youâ€™re weary from toiling from dawn till night.
â€œYouâ€™ll have a better life in America,â€ he promises you, after buying passage on the grand ship. And now look at the lot of you. Huddling in the stairway down here on E deck like drowned rats after the seawater came flooding into your cabin. The ship hit an iceberg, they say, split her open where youâ€™re quartered in the fore part of the ship in the married couples section.
And would you believe the likes of them stewards shouting and hollering to put on lifebelts that donâ€™t exist? Only through the help of the good Lord did Patrick find belts for you and the children. And now they wonâ€™t let you through the gate to go topside?
â€œHave you no heart, man?â€ Patrick yells to the steward, asking him to let his family through. No, he tells him, you have to wait. Then you put your hands over the girlsâ€™ ears when Patrick lets go with a barrage of expletives and his fists. He pushes the steward aside and bangs on the barrier. With help from the other men, down it goes with a loud crash.
Then Patrick picks up the girls, one in each arm, and orders you to grab Danny and go ahead of him. Up the stairs you go, the companionway taking you up to the next deck. Then someone says go through the second class door and somehow through Divine grace you find your way up on top.
Oh, such chaos youâ€™ve never seen. People yelling and rushing about like frightened mice with their tails caught in the jaws of a hungry cat. Patrick, good man that he is, doesnâ€™t stop. From boat to boat he goes until he finds one that will take you and the girls. And Danny.
But not him.
â€œWomen and children first,â€ orders the shipâ€™s officer, shaking his head. Patrick nods. He knew all along thereâ€™s no place for him, but he didnâ€™t let anything stop him until his family was saved.
God bless him.
â€œA kiss to you, lass,â€ he says, brushing your lips with his, then he tosses you into the boat and itâ€™s lowered away. You huddle in the lifeboat with your children close to you. The sea is so calm, so smooth, the piercing screams and pitiful pleas for help sound sharp and clear in your ears, but you canâ€™t cry. That will come later. Now you have to be strong. For the girls and Danny.
Patrick would want it that way.
And there you have it. A trio of passengers and how they fare on that fateful night. Then at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the Titanic breaks in two and sinks into the North Atlantic, a pale gray vapor hanging like smoke over the spot where she disappears.
|Â© Igokapil | Dreamstime.com|
|Â© Igokapil | Dreamstime.com|
|Â© Igokapil | Dreamstime.com|
For the passengers and crew, cold and freezing in the lifeboats, it will be hours before the rescue ship Carpathia reaches them. Then itâ€™s on to New York. Between twenty and thirty thousand people crowd Chelsea Piers when the Carpathia steams into New York Harbor around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, 1912.
Even the aftermath of the Titanic is dramatic. Reporters hire their own tugboat to try to get to the passengers first and buy their exclusives stories; the newspapers blast the headlines for days about the society folks on board (third class passengers donâ€™t fare as wellâ€”theyâ€™re sent to homeless shelters and their names donâ€™t appear on the survivorsâ€™ list); and the U.S. Senate subcommittee holds hearings at the Waldorf-Astoria, interviewing first class passengers and crew.
Weâ€™ve come to the end of our journey on the Titanic and a grand tale it is. Before I go, I want to take one last look at the ship of dreams.
I want to take one more walk down her sweeping Grand Staircase with the great glass dome overhead like Katie Oâ€™Reilly, my heroine, does in Titanic Rhapsody. I see the stars peeking through, heavenly witnesses to all that is elegant and romantic.
A place of enchantment where everything is unique to this time, this place. Katie canâ€™t believe sheâ€™s really here and neither can I.
I quicken my pace and leave the ship, knowing the Titanic will stay with me always.