Titanic: My Original Interest in the UK

The iconic bow of the RMS Titanic in 2004.
Image Credit: NOAA (Public Domain)

     Thirty years ago today – after being hidden by 73 years of cold and darkness – the RMS Titanic was discovered in the wee hours of the morning.

     The search by a joint French-American expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel was the culmination of decades of unsuccessful attempts to find the British luxury liner, which had struck an iceberg and sank with a great loss of life on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on April 15, 1912.

     Of course, as many people may know, the Titanic was said to be unsinkable because of features such as electrically-driven watertight doors, which pushed the limits of shipbuilding technology at the time. 70 years later, Dr. Ballard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) developed a deep sea camera sled (known as the Argo) which could transmit live video. Like Titanic, Argo pushed the limits of technology in order to achieve better results – in this case, to have a better chance at finding the great ship, and given its fate, this was somewhat of an eerie prospect. But even the latest side-scan sonar technology – relying on pings bouncing off of objects (whether natural or man-made) – developed by the French had failed to capture the ship after over five weeks of searching in the general area of the Titanic’s last known position.

The Titanic was the largest ship in the world at the time of her
maiden voyage - with a gross tonnage of 46,328 tons and length of 882
½ feet - half again as big
and nearly a hundred longer than her Cunard rivals,
Lusitania and Mauretania.

     It was hoped that Michel and the French Research Institute for Exploration of the Sea (IFREMER) would have at least found some promising targets and then Ballard and his team would use the Argo sled to confirm the sightings and hopefully video-tape the wreck. In fact, the American team had been using Argo to map the wreck site of the lost nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, as part of a now declassified Cold War mission for the US Navy, which had funded the development of Argo and other underwater imaging equipment for Ballard (who was an intelligence and research officer in the Naval Reserve) and WHOI.

     As it was, the American half of the Titanic expedition began at square one, and with less time to spend – only twelve days, but Ballard had learned from his then secret missions to the Scorpion and another lost sub, the USS Thresher that when ships sink, objects tend to spill out of them and underwater currents create a debris field across the ocean floor. If this was the case with the Titanic, it meant that the search should focus on a larger target – the debris field – rather than the ship itself, which was only 92 feet wide. Once the debris was found, Ballard could then use it as a trail to find the main wreck.

     Using this knowledge, the American team joined up with the French and deployed Argo from the research vessel Knorr, which towed the video sled back and forth across the ocean floor in a process known as “mowing the lawn”. As the expedition went on for days, the grainy black and video images being fed back to the expedition members aboard the Knorr revealed little more than the topography of the sea floor and some bits of trash and other objects with no obvious connection to a ship. It seemed as though the Titanic would once again prove allusive, and for Ballard in particular – for whom finding her was a lifelong dream – this would have been a personal blow.

     Then at 12:48 AM on September 1, 1985, wreckage started appearing on the monitors aboard the support ship, and the turning point came when the Argo passed over a coal-fired boiler which was identical to the ones installed on the Titanic in 1911, and period photographs of the boilers during assembly in Belfast confirmed this. Titanic was found. Ballard, Michel, and their combined teams rejoiced at having solved one of great mysteries of the 20th Century, but then realized that they were approaching the time at which White Star liner sank beneath the waves – 2:20 AM. A small service was held on fantail of the Knorr to commemorate the finding of the ship, remember the lost, and honor the survivors of the great tragedy.

Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel, the co-discoverer's of Titanic, in 2012

     Eventually, the ship itself was found upright, albeit in two main sections – proving correct the accounts of those who had seen the ship break up as she went down. The hundreds of hours of film and tens of thousands of still photos were the first images of Titanic in 73 years, and despite being broken into pieces, was still in remarkably good condition 2 ½ miles (nearly 13,000 feet) under the surface. A follow-up expedition in 1986 saw Ballard diving to Titanic in the three-man submersible Alvin to see ship close-up and using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason Jr. to explore the interior and other confined areas.

     The discovery of the wreck sparked renewed interest in the Titanic – spawning a string of books and television specials along the way, leading to more expeditions to the wreck and a more thorough understanding of ship, and how and why she sank, as well as shedding new light on the stories her passengers and crew. One of the people caught up in this was filmmaker James Cameron, a man with an interest in the sea and shipwrecks. While filming The Abyss in 1989, he met with Dr. Ballard, who talked about his expeditions to Titanic, and according to Cameron:

“Meeting Ballard, I discovered that there was a romance to the wreck which appealed to me. I started reading up on the history and that is very seductive. The event’s almost novelistic. The elite of society were aboard, all the class issues, the number of people that died in steerage. It's got all these tensions and symbols. It's a gold mine.”

     With this, Cameron set out to write, produce, and direct a film about Titanic, which saw Cameron diving to wreck itself as part of the filming, and he has said that the film was really about getting 20th Century Fox to pay for an expedition more than anything else. Be that as it may, Cameron went on to create of the highest-grossing films of all time, and one of the millions of people who watched it during its original run in theaters was yours truly.

James Cameron in 2012 with the ships wheel from his epic 1997 film, which he donated to Titanic Belfast.
Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

     At the time, I was a seven years old lad when I viewed the film (save for certain scenes) in April 1998, and I liked it so much because of its extensiveness – the legendary and masterful musical score by the late James Horner, the overall screenplay, the revolutionary use of special effects and CGI, and the meticulously-built and faithfully-created live sets which were used to bring Titanic back to life in an extraordinary way that had not been done before, and which has not been done since. Indeed, it was these things I paid attention to, as well as the historical events surrounding the ship, and not the love story of Jack and Rose – which was something I did not really comprehend at the time and found quite boring. Looking around all that and focusing on the beauty of the ship itself and real story of it and its passengers and crew was what peaked my interest, and soon after I became fascinated – some would say obsessed – with all things Titanic.

     Through books, films, magazine articles, documentaries, and other media, I delved deeper and deeper into the Titanic and virtually anything related to it, including other ocean liners, and this resulted in a fascination with those great liners which were built in the 19th and 20th centuries – many of which happened to be British, such as the Olympic and Britannic (Titanic’s sister ships), Lusitania, Mauretania, Aquitania, Majestic, Berengaria, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2).

RMS Queen Mary, probably the greatest of all British ships, as she appears
on this 1940's baggage tag of the merged Cunard White Star Line.

Image Credit: Centpacrr via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

     As I became more engaged my study of British ships, it led to learning about Britain and its heritage as a maritime nation and much more. I became increasingly attached to Britain over the last decade because of those ships, and due to British cultural exports such as 101 Dalmatians, Harry Potter, James Bond, and the Beatles, as well as the writings of Lewis, Burns, Scott, and Shakespeare. Along the way, I became interested in the monarchy, British politics, and the British people themselves.

     Becoming immersed into British society and culture – and from all parts of the United Kingdom – quite simply, I developed a serious liking for the country and its people, and in 2012, this reached new heights as I closely watched the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics with pride in a country which I had already adopted as my second home. This is why I have been passionate about the UK staying together and not breaking up, because I see as a strong country, rich in people and a diverse culture – from Shetland to Land’s End – and a place with so much robust and positive potential going forward.

     But I always remember that it was the Titanic that brought me to this point, and it remains my original interest in the United Kingdom, since she was owned by the Liverpool-based White Star Line, sailed from Southampton, and – perhaps more importantly – was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. In fact, all of the White Star liners were built at Harland and Wolff, and the shipyard workers took pride in the near-simultaneous construction of Titanic and her older sister-ship Olympic in just 3 ½ years – a phenomenal achievement of maritime engineering which has yet to be rivaled.

Titanic (at left) and Olympic under construction at Harland and Wolff's in Belfast.
Image Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (Public Domain)

     When Titanic left Belfast on April 2, 1912 for Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage, she carried the pride of a city with her, along with the dreams, ambitions, and lofty expectations of the men who built her. Among them were the eight men of the Guarantee Group, who were aboard the liner to observe its operations and spot the need for improvements. They were led by Thomas Andrews, the well-liked and respected managing director of Harland and Wolff and head of the drafting department – meaning that he had overseen Titanic’s design and construction. Known for being a diligent and hard worker, Andrews – along with his men – walked up and down decks to ensure that the maiden voyage went smoothly aboard the brand new vessel.

     On the night of the sinking, the entire Guarantee Group was lost, including Andrews – who informed Captain Smith that Titanic’s fate was a “mathematical certainty.” He tirelessly searched through staterooms and public areas to urge people to get to the lifeboats (of which he knew there were not enough to save everybody due to the lax regulations at the time), and assisted in the evacuation with the knowledge that his ship had only a very limited time above water. For his selflessness and concern for others above his own safety, he has been marked as a hero of that tragic night.

Thomas Andrews

     Back home in Belfast however, the sinking and the loss of life – including eight of its own – proved a huge blow for the city and the shipyard that was its major employer. Men who built the ship wept – sometimes inconsolably in the streets – as the news reached them, and the shipyard closed for one day as it went into mourning with the shock and disbelief that the unthinkable had happened.

     Eventually, life went on and Harland and Wolff went on to become one of the largest, most extensive, and technologically advanced shipyards in the world – producing an array of passenger liners, cruisers and aircraft carriers, tankers and cargo ships, offshore oil rings, and even aircraft. At its peak, it employed 35,000 people and accounted for around one-eighth of the world’s shipbuilding output. But despite being officially exonerated of wrongdoing or negligence with regard to Titanic, the disaster remained somewhat of a cloud over the yard and city. For many decades, Titanic simply was not brought up in polite conversations out of shame that something produced by Belfast with such pride and optimism – with all of the advanced technology and safety features of the day – had ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic within a fortnight of leaving the city, and through the 1970’s, Harland and Wolff barely acknowledged its link to the doomed liner.

     However, with the discovery of the wreck in 1985 and a renewed popular interest in the Titanic saga, the city and shipyard began to embrace their creation as more people visited Belfast just to see where the Titanic was built. The effort and skill that it took to build her became increasingly focused upon as an achievement by the people of Belfast, in recognition that Titanic’s sinking did not reflect poorly on the workmanship of the men who built her from the keel up – so much so that a cheeky phrase has come into being: “She was fine when she left here.”

The modern-day Harland and Wolff, whose enormous gantry
(named Samson and Goliath) continue to dominate the Belfast skyline.
Image Credit: Maryade via Flickr cc

     In addition, there has also been a greater focus on the shipyard workers themselves and their stories – the lives they led in and outside the yard, and their descendants now take some pride having a connection with building the Ship of Dreams. The city of Belfast itself has also received better recognition, so that people now better understand the stock from which Titanic and so many other ships came.

     Harland and Wolff today – like so many UK shipbuilders – is now but a shell of its former self, but it is still in business, though its primary line of work is in repairing and refitting ships, offshore oil platform construction and repair, and the burgeoning renewable energy sector with regard to wind turbines and tidal power construction. These days, the company occupies a much smaller footprint than it did at the time of its peak, resulting in a large brownfield site. Some of this has been transformed into Titanic Quarter – a massive redevelopment project which includes educational institutions, residential facilities, and Titanic Studios (of Game of Thrones fame, which was visited by HM the Queen last year).

Titanic Belfast with the main exhibition building
and the
redeveloped slipways where the great liner was built.
Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

     At the heart of it is Titanic Belfast – the world’s largest Titanic-themed attraction, which contains several interpretive and interactive galleries telling the story of Titanic and the maritime heritage of the city and people which built her. The slipways on which the White Star sister ships were built have been transformed into a beautiful park promenade and plaza, and the last surviving White Star liner – the SS Nomadic, one of the passenger-ferrying tenders which served Titanic and other liners for over fifty years at Cherbourg, France – is located in the Hamilton dry dock, where she was originally fitted out over a hundred years ago, having been faithfully restored by her builders, Harland and Wolff.

SS Nomadic - the last of the line.
© Copyright Joseph Mischyshyn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

     Titanic Belfast has been visited and endorsed by arguably the two most important people in the Titanic community within the last thirty years – Robert Ballard and James Cameron. It is a symbol of Northern Ireland’s emergence from its troubled history, and helps to showcase the vibrancy of modern Belfast as it attempts to move forward confidently and boldly into the future – thanks in part to the vessel which will forever be associated with it, and which remains my first interest in the UK.