Friday, April 13, 2012

Titanic and Her Big, Bad Sisters

"There is a line often quoted in the newspapers...God himself cannot sink this ship. She was appropriately named, the Titans dared to challenge the gods and for the arrogance they were cast down, into hell..."  George C. Scott as Titanic's Cpt. Smith in a forgotten 90's TV miniseries.





Even the casual observer knows that the Titanic wasn't just a big ship. She represented a zenith of human engineering in the first decade of the 20th century.  The industrial revolution's triumph over the natural world, we're all familiar with Titanic vernacular that includes the tragically ironic claims that she was unsinkable, as well as accounts that the band played on, etc.

That fateful encounter with an iceberg and ensuing stories of heroism and tragedy have become a post-modern epic, perhaps the first legend in the time of iron, steam and electricity.  Our imaginations and pop-culture have run away with the story in films, novels, stage musicals, and even weirder, inflatable amusement slides:

Does that mean we're 89 years away from 9/11 the ride?
But Titanic was only the first chapter in the White Star Line's trilogy of gargantuan, and seemingly star-crossed luxury liners.  Under construction along side her at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast Ireland were two, nearly identical ships that together would have constituted the three most palatial, Victorian hotels afloat.

They were subtlety named Britannic and Olympic.
One of these boats is weeks away from making James Cameron a Billionaire.

The Olympic and Titanic were nearly identical copies of each other, built side by side and finished over the course of two years.  Although Olympic would be launched first and make a successful crossing to New York, the Titanic underwent some last minute changes to the first-class deck.

Originally they all shared Titanic's paint scheme until Olympic and Britannic were drafted by the Royal Navy.




For the superstitious, one incident involving the Olympic may have served as an ominous sign of things to come.  A few months before Titanic set to sea, Olympic was slammed in her side by the Royal Navy ship HMS Hawke.  It was only the first in what would become a recurring issue with Olympic's penchant for colliding with everything except an iceberg.


The Hawke, post-Olympic.  It takes a special kind of Captain to not see
you're headed towards the biggest ship in the world. 

Or you could take the attitude of the White Star Line at the time and brag to the papers that you've built a new line of ships that will prove "virtually unsinkable."


Bully! Took a lick and soldiered on home to Southampton for Tea.

The career of the Olympic lies somewhere on a continuum of illustrious service and reverse nautical-Darwinism.  Having survived such a harrowing encounter at sea with minimal damage considering, it's not difficult to see how an overzealous attitude prevailed months later when Titanic begin her week of trials before setting off across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile in the vacant slipway left by the Olympic, construction was well underway on Britannic, slated to be third leviathan, identical to the Olympic and Titanic in every aspect of its design.  But then of course, came the early morning hours of April 15th 1912.

We all know what really happened.

Understandably after the Titanic disaster, some changes were advisable in the design.  Thus work was stalled on Britannic as a major overhaul of its safety features began; minor details like the water tight bulkheads that only went to E deck on Titanic had caused an ice-tray spillover effect that dragged down by the bow.  So those bulkheads were bumped up a few letters all the way to B deck.  Most important among the changes was the concession that maybe it isn't the best idea in the world to carry only the bare minimum of lifeboats on a ship intended for 2,500 passengers.


It must have been like M*A*S*H* and the Loveboat rolled into one.

The affect on Britannic was the addition of extra-large davits to accommodate a greater quantity of lifeboats. 

Originally downplayed on the earlier two ships for fear that too many lifeboats would negatively impact the clean aesthetic of the deck, the refit on Britannic would ultimately save lives when she met the most violent end of the three great liners...




Olympic in her "Razzle n' Dazzle!"

Britannic was launched early in 1914 into a world about to implode into The Great War and along with the Oympic was requisitioned a year later to serve as a military transport.  Whereas Olympic was given a dramatic "dazzle" camouflage paint scheme and employed as a troop transport, Britannic was converted into a floating military hospital, emblazoned with crimson crosses on a ghost-white hull.


Olympic continued moving people and ramming into things around the Atlantic, while Britannic meandered about the Mediterranean on various missions. It was on a voyage to the Greek Islands when, through a twist of fate, she combined Olympic's penchant for randomly hitting small things that ships sometimes hit, with Titanic's knack for hitting the worst possible thing a ship can ever hit.  Britannic's side was ripped open by an underwater mine that caused such severe flooding she nearly capsized before slipping beneath the sea after only 55 minutes.



En-sunk-lepedia Britannic.

The death toll (30 men killed) was nowhere near the colossal loss of life on Titanic since in this case Britannic's lifeboats were able to accommodate the little more than 1,100 souls aboard (also the water was much warmer than the North Atlantic and help was minutes as opposed to hours away).

After the war, the first and last of the Big Three, Olympic, went back into service as a luxury liner, although likely tormented by whatever is the ship equivalent of PTSD. She would continue to serve as the proto-Carnival Cruise era floating hotel/shopping mall, making numerous crossings from Liverpool to New York.  She had been the first of the three giants to make a voyage that her sister ships were fated to never complete.



Olympic was retired in 1934 (not before hitting one more ship and cleaving it right in half).  She was scrapped and bits of her sold off to become expensive Titanic recreations in various exhibits around the world.



Gone it seems with those great vessels are the romantic days of discovering America and Europe by sea and starting your life over abroad. The days when the safest method of travel could sometimes end in epic, global headlining disaster. Although in recent months, what with Somalian Pirate attacks, Italian cruise liners capsizing and running aground, maybe the world hasn't lost its appetite for the occasional futility at sea... 

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