My first encounter with the Nomadic was as soulful as it was sobering. For any ship lover, she is nothing less than hallowed turf; a diminutive yet very tangible link to that most famous, feted, ill fated ocean liner of them all- Titanic.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sail on more than my fair share of storied, fabled legends; Norway, Canberra, Rotterdam, Queen Elizabeth 2. But this was something else, and it is not easy to really describe. That said, I am going to try and put the story into some kind of context.
When, in 1907, the White Star Line decided to shift its first line Atlantic express service from Liverpool to Southampton, they also made the very shrewd decision to start including outward calls at the French port of Cherbourg. With proximity to such must see European gems as Paris and the French Riviera, Cherbourg became a hugely popular embarkation port for wealthy Americans at the end of their European tours. But operations at Cherbourg presented one huge logistical problem.
The port back then simply did not have a pier capable of accommodating the largest Atlantic liners. So the big ships had to anchor out in the bay, the Grande Rade, and embark passengers and mail via tender boats. It was a time consuming, awkward job but, without a pier, there was no other option but to carry on.
By this time, White Star had also committed to the building of the gargantuan Olympic and Titanic, by far the largest liners that the world had ever seen. For their intended visits to Cherbourg, White Star realised that a huge upgrade in the local tender service would be needed.
So, even as the two new giant liners began to rise like skeletal twin cathedrals against the Belfast skyline, Harland and Wolff simultaneously began construction of a pair of specially built tenders; the Nomadic and the Traffic.
As built, the Nomadic was intended to carry the first and second class passengers out to the Olympic and Titanic. So the owners created a kind of ‘mini me’ version of the two sisters, to give the passengers a kind of appetiser to the main course. At 1,200 tons and crowned with a single funnel, painted in the company colours of buff and black, the Nomadic had elegant interiors, including a saloon and a bar. She was a spiffy, sparky little creation; a workhorse with a veneer of polite aristocracy. She would continue serving liners arriving off Cherbourg right into the 1960’s.
She was handed over as completed in Belfast on that memorable May 31st, 1911, when the Titanic took to the water and the Olympic was officially handed over to the White Star Line. Together with the newly completed Traffic, she left Belfast for Cherbourg that same day, parting company with the Olympic as the huge liner headed for a courtesy call at Liverpool. They would not be separated for long.
The June, 1911 debut of the Olympic was a worldwide media sensation. She was the first of the great liners ever to sail from Southampton at the start of her career, and would remain a ‘Southampton ship’ throughout her near quarter century of service. And she would also inaugurate the new tender service at Cherbourg, where some very prominent and well heeled patrons were awaiting the arrival of the much touted new wunderschiff with more than a little anticipation.
They would have to wait a little longer.
The Olympic arrived in the bay of Cherbourg exactly on time on the evening of June 14th, 1911, and the doughty duo, Nomadic and Traffic, duly loaded up with passengers and cargo, and waddled proudly out to the breathtaking new liner. But there was some problem with getting gangways up between tenders and parent ship; a not totally surprising incident considering that cross decking onto a ship of this size had never been attempted before. It was eventually sorted out, but a number of the more forthright first class passengers were left cooling their heels- while not curbing their tongues- as the people on Nomadic and Olympic worked awkwardly to sort out the glitches.
But this was a one time fail; ever after, the tender service at Cherbourg worked like clockwork. For generations of Americans, the end of their European vacation would be confirmed by their first sight of the Nomadic alongside the quay, smoke curling from her funnel, as mountains of baggage and mail were hauled aboard. She was, quite literally, the portal to the New World.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 10th, 1912, the Nomadic got up steam and headed out into the bay for her first, and as it turned out last, appointment with the second of the giant sisters- the Titanic.
Thanks to a near collision with the liner New York in Southampton, the Titanic was a full hour late arriving off Cherbourg, and the passengers already aboard Nomadic fumed quietly at the delay. Among them was the American multi millionaire, John Jacob Astor and his pregnant teenage bride, Madeline.
Millionaire and merchant seaman alike must have caught their collective breath at the awesome spectacle of the Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as she loomed ever larger into their field of vision. For the embarking passengers, there would have been that time honoured sensation of leaving the biting cold for the warm, welcoming interiors of the sparkling new liner. Job done, the Nomadic backed away from her huge new client like a courtier bowing to a queen. As she bumbled back into safe harbour, all eyes on the tender were on the Titanic as the giant liner slowly gathered way. Ablaze with light, she slowly receded into the distance, bound for Queenstown and New York.
Of course, they never saw her again.
The rest of the story is well known. How the Nomadic fell into decades of neglect and near destruction. And how, incredibly, she came to be brought back home to her place of birth in Belfast. As the last surviving, intact ship of the White Star Line still in existence, the Nomadic was to be restored to her original. pristine appearance. Now lovingly maintained and open to visitors, the Nomadic provides the eternally curious with a spellbinding trip back in time. People flood aboard her today with as much palpable excitement as the hordes she once carried out to embark on the Olympic, the Majestic, or even the Queen Mary.
But my encounter with her had more than a little nostalgia.
Through one of those quirky fates of history, I toured the Nomadic in Belfast on May 31st, 2011. The ship was nowhere near ready to open to the public yet. More to the point, it was exactly a century to the day since she had been completed. Just a few yards away was the crowded former slipway from which Titanic herself had taken to the water on that same, memorable day.
The stone grey day gave way to pale blue sunny skies. Fleets of plump white clouds flitted across the skyline like so many ghostly galleons. Covered in a layer of grey primer paint, and without her funnel, the Nomadic crouched in her dry dock, shrouded by a massive, overhead tent. As this was a working area, I had to put on a hard hat and hi-viz jacket before walking aboard her.
To call the mood ’emotional’ would be an epic understatement. The adrenaline was running like tap water. Inside, working lights reflected on the ghostly, newly uncovered wall sconces and decorations that had once made the Nomadic such a tempting advert for the Olympic. In the spartan, chaotic half light, the ghosts of earlier times seemed to wander through their own memories, looking for once familiar touchstones, or maybe a pre embarkation Martini.
There was the palpable feeling of having stepped back through a time portal. Outside, I touched the vast, cast iron bollards that had once tethered Nomadic to Titanic with as much reverence as a fragment of the ‘one true cross’. And my mind wandered back to that cold, starlit evening in Cherbourg, way back in April of 1912.
I wondered if Astor had admired those same elegant wall sconces just inside, musing idly that some might look good in one of his Newport mansions. Perhaps he asked for a blanket for the delicate, five months pregnant Madeline? On the fantail, I pondered whether old Isidor Strauss had maybe pulled a shawl tighter around the shoulders of his beloved wife of many years, Ida, shielding her from the cold as they stared up at the awesome bulk of the floodlit Titanic, waiting for them out in the bay.
What of Molly Brown? Under the fulsome cover afforded by one of her huge, famous hats, had she discreetly scoped out the other first class passengers waiting to board Titanic, slowly working out who to cultivate on the crossing and, more to the point, who to avoid….
And, of course, there are the shades of many more famous people that walked these same, hallowed decks. Charlie Chaplin. Marie Curie. Even Burt Lancaster. The Nomadic is nothing less than living history, returned to the place of her birth in one of the most perfectly exquisite pieces of irony ever, in my humble opinion.
Nomadic. Compulsive, compelling time travel. A wondrous voyage. Enjoy.