The morning of Wednesday, April 10th 1912 dawned bright and clear in Southampton, as the Titanic began final preparations for her maiden voyage departure. Captain Edward Smith left his house in Winn Road, Southampton, and boarded the ship at around 7.30 that morning.
He boarded a ship that was an absolute hive of activity. After a week sitting idly at dockside in Southampton as a myriad of last minute jobs were completed, Titanic was all business. Second Officer Lightoller was thoroughly miffed by Captain Maurice Clarke, the marine superintendent from the Board Of Trade. Clarke was there to see that all the regulation life saving equipment and signalling gear was in top condition.
Clarke had to sign the official certificate of seaworthiness for the Titanic; without it, she simply would not have been allowed to sail. Lightoller’s ire at Clarke was because of the slow, methodical way that he went through everything. At one stage, he demanded that two fully loaded lifeboats be dropped into the water from the starboard side, and then raised again. It was as if he had some kind of premonition. Only when he was completely satisfied did Clarke sign the certificate, and leave the ship. No doubt Lightoller was glad to see the back of the man on what was such a busy day for him already.
At about the same time that Smith boarded Titanic, a very full boat train pulled out of London’s Waterloo Station, bound for Southampton. It fussed to a halt, directly alongside the Titanic at around 9.30. The bulk of the passengers were travelling in third class, and it was these that boarded first. The second and first class passengers went on board around an hour later.
All told, some 922 passengers boarded the Titanic at Southampton, with another 395 scheduled to embark at Cherbourg and Queenstown, before the ship set off for New York. In all, the Titanic was only around two thirds full for her maiden voyage.
And a large number of those- mainly in second class- had come from ships whose own voyages had been cancelled, as a result of the national coal strike which was just then ending. The sailings of three vessels were aborted, and their coal- and passengers- were transferred over to the Titanic. For those passengers, it would prove to be the unluckiest free transfer of all time.
The ship already had steam up; indeed, her boilers had been alight ever since her arrival from Belfast a full week earlier. Simply tied up at her pier, the Titanic had burned over a thousand tons of coal in the acts of keeping lights, wireless, and other electrical services working around the clock. In that mad last week, with a million small jobs needing to be finished, few visitors were allowed aboard the new ship.
As the noon sailing time approached, a large crowd began to congregate along the quays, wharves and streets adjoining the new White Star Dock. Though the company itself had intended to keep the sailing low key, the presence of so many millionaires on the first class passenger list- some fifty eight in all- guaranteed some platinum chip rubbernecking. Helpfully, The Times had listed all these luminaries on its front page a few days earlier.
It was said to be the biggest congregation of wealth ever assembled in one place at the same time, and yet there were one or two notable absences. J.P. Morgan, owner of the White Star Line, had been advised at the last minute not to travel by his doctors. Another last minute cancellation was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the American multi millionaire. Plagued by an unfathomable feeling of doom, Vanderbilt was one of the fifty people- across all three classes- that either cancelled their passage on the Titanic, or who were no-shows on the day.
Fat lot of good it did him; three years later, Vanderbilt went down with the Lusitania, torpedoed off the coast of Southern Ireland.
Shortly before noon, the gangways for all three classes came down. All of the duty officers on board went to their sailing stations. Men stood by the ropes, ready to unshackle the Titanic once her tugs were ready, and prepared to make fast. Her whistle boomed out in the bright spring breeze, triggering a frantic dash from a nearby pub by a group of six stokers, who should long since have been aboard. Instead, they had collectively decided to risk a final pint.
Their pleas to the officer at the gangway- probably young James Moody- were in vain. Moody was having no excuses. The six stood there in stunned disbelief as the enormous bulk of the Titanic warped slowly away from them. Her six tugs took up their stations, like puppies trying to cajole a reluctant dinosaur.
Below the waterline, the three enormous propellers kicked into life. With a combined weight of a full hundred tons, they slowly began to push the liner forward. Still guided by her tugs, the enormous bulk of the Titanic moved into midstream, and the maiden voyage proper began.
Scant minutes later, it almost ended.
As the Titanic came level with Berth 38, the huge wash generated by her forward momentum caused ropes on the tethered liner New York to first strain, and then snap like so much cotton thread as the Titanic came level with her. The stern of the smaller American liner loomed ominously into mid stream, directly toward the Titanic. A collision seemed inevitable.
At this stage, the Titanic was under the control not of Captain Smith, but of the Southampton harbour pilot, George Bowyer. But it was Smith who quickly ordered the port engine to be reversed, kicking up a wash that stalled the flailing New York just four feet short of the Titanic.
At the same time, quick thinking by the captain of the Vulcan, one of the six tugs escorting Titanic, resulted in a line being attached to the New York. She was dragged back to her berth by the Vulcan like a disgraced puppy. Once the distance had opened up between them, the Titanic nudged gingerly forward once more.
No one at the time could have known that this was the closest that Titanic would ever get to anything called New York….
It had been a sensational near miss, and it was the talk of the passengers on board as the Titanic sailed down past Calshot. Once she rounded Spithead, the Titanic exchanged flag salutes with a Royal Navy destroyer passing the opposite way, and then disembarked pilot Bowyer.
Delayed a full hour by the near collision with the New York, the Titanic set out across the English Channel to pick up the passengers impatiently awaiting her at Cherbourg. As dusk fell, these embarked on the White Star tenders, Nomadic and Traffic, for the transfer to the ship.
Those passengers were greeted by the awesome spectacle of the Titanic, anchored in the bay, and floodlit from bow to stern. Right at that moment, she must have been a truly wonderful sight.
Once all were aboard, the Titanic executed a graceful, stately pirouette, and stood slowly out into the darkness. The tenders backed slowly away, like twin courtiers, bowing to a queen. Crewmen on the Nomadic and Traffic watched her disappear into the twilight, certain in the knowledge that she would be back in just three weeks.
They never saw her again.