Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.


Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.


The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

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.

Nomadic saloon, May 31st, 2011

Nomadic saloon, May 31st, 2011

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 Nomadic in dry dock, May 31st 2011

The Nomadic in dry dock, May 31st 2011

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.

Porthole on the Nomadic, the 'mini-me' version of Olympic and Titanic

Porthole on the Nomadic, the ‘mini-me’ version of Olympic and Titanic

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.

These same bollards once tethered Nomadic to Titanic

These same bollards once tethered Nomadic to Titanic

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.

Titanic porthole, salvaged from the wreck

Titanic porthole, salvaged from the wreck


....and away; off into the half mythical twilight of history and legend.....

….and away; off into the half mythical twilight of history and legend…..

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.


Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When building the Olympic and Titanic, the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff went out of their way to create ships that provided a vast amount of space and comfort, far more than any rival then afloat. As might be expected, this showed up nowhere more so than in first class.

The two sisters were half as large again as their nearest rivals, the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania. Those record breaking legends could cross the Atlantic in five days, but they were known as snappy rollers in any kind of bad weather. The Atlantic had bad weather in spades.

With Olympic and Titanic, White Star opted for slower, steadier ships that could make the crossing in six days. In effect, they eschewed speed for comfort and steadiness. And the sheer scale of the new ships allowed them to create unparalleled passenger spaces, both indoors and out.

A full two thirds of their vast interior spaces were given over to the 750 first class passengers. This included suites, cabins, and the most luxurious range of public rooms that had ever gone to sea. First class had the sole use of a salt water indoor swimming pool and an adjacent set of Turkish Baths, complete with masseuse. There was also a racket ball court nearby and, on the upper deck, a fully equipped gymnasium, facing out over the ocean.

There was a library, a smoking room and a barber’s shop. In an age where phones were still a relative novelty, the Titanic had a fifty phone switchboard. For those personal valuables too big for the purser’s room, there was an enormous, bank sized vault down on G-Deck, with walls of Belfast steel fully a foot thick. It is still down there.

There was a small garage and, irony of ironies, a huge ice making machine. Stenographers were available; there was even a florists.

The main dining room was joined by a separate, a la carte option, and a pair of veranda cafes that looked out over the ocean. Unique to the Titanic was the Cafe Parisien, the first real night club at sea. Full of wicker furnishings and climbing wall plants, it was a definite attempt to put a little bit of Europe into the heart of a British liner. One would be added to the Olympic in her massive, post Titanic disaster refit.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

Inside, the ships tended to have lighter, less heavily panelled spaces than the Cunarders. Combined with the sheer scale of these rooms, it gave Olympic and Titanic a feeling of almost endless, spectacular space. Casual luxury was very much the order of the day. Of the four elevators, the three forward ones were exclusively for the use of first class passengers.

The single remaining elevator was the preserve of second class; the first time on any ships that such a facility had been provided. As for third class, they were simply expected to walk to where they needed to go. Needless to say, their quarters were mere shades of the sumptuous show pieces up top.

Titanic left Southampton on schedule at noon on Wednesday, April 10th, and called in for passengers and mail at Cherbourg that same evening. The next day found her briefly at anchor off Queenstown in Southern Ireland, where her last passengers came on board. While she was there, some local traders were allowed on board to set up a temporary market. Two hours later, the big liner was skirting the coast of Southern Ireland. As twilight fell, she stood out into the reddening Atlantic, and the voyage proper could really begin.

The Titanic was less than half full in first class. As was normal, each of the 322 first class passengers was given a booklet, explaining the ship’s routine, and the services available to them on board the ‘Floating Ritz’. They were also given a first class passenger list to browse; in this case, it was some twenty-eight pages in all.

The bars aboard Titanic opened at half eight in the morning, and closed- in theory- at eleven thirty at night.They had two sets of musicians to entertain them; a five man band led by the soon to be immortal Wallace Hartley, and a separate trio that played mainly in the reception room before dinner, and later in the Cafe Parisien.

They could use the new fangled Marconi wireless to send telegrams to anywhere in America, via the great transmitting station at Cape Cod. Ten words for 8s 4d, extra words sixpence each, address and signature for free. Up on the broad sweep of the promenade deck or outside on the boat deck, a deck chair could be hired, at four shillings for the entire crossing.

Downstairs, the racket ball court could be rented for two shillings per half hour session; this included the services of the resident professional, Fred Wright. He did not survive the sinking.

CNV00004Somewhere in that booklet, White Star took the precaution of intimating to it’s clients that certain professional card sharps were in the habit of crossing the Atlantic, hoping to make a killing. On that score at least, the Titanic would not disappoint.

On the back of the same booklet was a map of the Atlantic, and the information that the Titanic was expected to make thirteen round trip voyages to New York in 1912. Her first eastbound crossing, scheduled to sail from Manhattan on April 20th, was booked solid.

On the Atlantic crossing, successive days at sea tend to blend into each other. There was none of the round the clock entertainment that passengers expect now as their right. But on the maiden voyage of Titanic, many of the passengers were entertainment enough in their own right.

Fifty-eight millionaires were booked in the gilded glamour of first class. There were railroad owners and newspaper barons, movie stars and sporting icons; presidential aides and society matrons. Decorated military men and the simply obscenely rich of two continents. There were fashion house owners, steel barons, and a smattering of lords and ladies (though the British aristocracy continued to favour the Lusitania and Mauretania) as well as the odd art collector.

There was also an extraordinary menagerie of seven pampered pooches, housed in seriously swanky kennels. All things considered, it was a high rolling, demanding lot, and the crew would certainly have had their work cut out to keep them happy.

Maybe that is why Captain Smith cancelled the normal lifeboat drill. It was due to be held on that fateful Sunday morning but, for reasons we’ll never know, he decided not to go ahead with it.

By this time, a pretty agreeable vibe permeated the entire ship. The Titanic was two thirds of the way to America, and performing quite beautifully. The sea was incredibly calm. It had been like a millpond since the ship sailed. Surviving crew veterans later said that they had never seen such a continuous, calm sea on any crossing.

The sun shone continually, but the ship’s progress across the ocean generated a breeze that made it too cold to sit outside for very long. Inside, stewards patrolled the indoor promenades with carts of hot soup, and wrapped blankets around anybody who wanted them.

CNV00006Under this kind of subtle daily conditioning, a kind of pampered stupor overwhelmed the passengers on board the Titanic like some kind of sleeping sickness. When combined with the breezy complacency of the Captain and his officers- not to forget the owner- it created a fatal cocktail that went a long way towards numbing those same passengers to any sense of danger. So, when mortal peril came knocking that April night, the initial reaction was a mixture of confusion, disbelief and, in some cases, simple denial.

And that explains a huge amount of what happened as the ghastly black comedy- the sinking of the Titanic- unfolded. Anything-anything at all- seemed more likely and believable than the simple, fatal truth.


ImageI doubt that few cruise ships are as loved or mourned as the late, great SS. Canberra. She had a following that verged from loyal to fanatical and, indeed, she still does. Her game changing role in the Falklands War earned her the nickname of the ‘Great White Whale’, What follows are just a handful of recollections from sailing aboard her.

I did two cruises aboard the Canberra; the first was a seven night run down to Madeira and Vigo in the summer of 1985. Her paintwork was an absolute disgrace at the time. It looked as if she had just come back from the Falklands. To call her exterior ‘shabby’ is by no means an understatement.

The second trip was ten years later; a short, three day cruise over to Le Havre and Cherbourg in an unfeasible, balmy October 1995. This time, the proud old girl was immaculate; bridal white from stem to stern, and draped in welcoming signal flags. She was definitely quite a sight.

I remember the marble staircase that wound up to the Crow’s Nest Bar. On our first cruise, the Canberra rolled and pitched her way through Biscay like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. Just walking up that damned staircase could make people seasick in slow motion. In fact, it did. But the views out over from that fabulous room were incredible.

I remember watching the sun set in the same waters on our way back. Biscay was as still as a millpond that time. Falling into what looked like a sea of burning straw, the setting sun threw her two staunch, graceful funnels into sharp relief; they flared up like twin ramparts, proud and inviolate against the summer sky. It remains one of my most cherished shipboard memories to this day.

She was almost relentlessly British in temperament, much more so than the rival, highly American accented Queen Elizabeth 2. Many P&O loyalists would not have dreamed of touching the legendary Cunarder, and said so vociferously. On Canberra, you could always get a decent cup of tea, and the currency was always sterling, rather than dollars. For decades, those loyalists were the fuel that kept the ship running.

The Canberra had inside, four berth cabins down on G Deck without private facilities. Showers were down the hall. You could buy individual shared berths in those cabins at incredibly cheap rates. Most people today would shudder at the notion of such accommodation. It was, in fact, this lack of private in cabin facilities that ultimately doomed her. New SOLAS 1997 statutes made it seemingly uneconomical to update her. But back in the day, no-one seemed to mind the showers being just ‘down the hall’.

And the deck space seemed vast to me. There was never a problem with finding somewhere to lay down. Up forward, the steel promenade deck was coated in green paint, and it had the most exquisite upward sheer. It merely accentuated the incredibly fine lines of one of the most beautiful ships ever to cut salt water.

Of course, sometimes she didn’t ‘cut’ so much as hack her way through the sea. In bad weather, the Canberra had a level of stability roughly comparable to that of the late Colonel Gaddafi. if ever a ship could have rolled the milk out of your morning cuppa, it was surely her.

Yet anyone with even a shred of human empathy would forgive her these little foibles. First and foremost, the Canberra was a lady and, like many ladies, she was fickle, quirky, and prone to sudden mood swings. To be honest, it was a huge part of her charm. I smile thinking about it even now.

And what emotions she aroused! The Southampton send offs were amazing affairs, with a quayside band thumping gamely away at everything from ‘Rule Britannia’ to ‘Copacabana’ as the side of the ship vanished beneath a technicolor torrent of paper streamers. The whole vast, soaring flank of the Canberra seemed to be wreathed in a rainbow. There’s no doubt that the people of Southampton absolutely adored her.

Those are just a few of my memories; an affectionate take on a ship that inspired great affection in all who were lucky enough to know her. I’ll always remember those two graceful funnels, proud against the falling sun, until the day I die. And for that, I will always be grateful,


CNV00015Like most of the major shipping lines, Cunard emerged from the Great War as a very much truncated version of it’s former self. Losses had been appalling right across the fleet, and the sinking of the Lusitania deprived the company of one third of it’s express service to New York at one fell swoop.

That meant that Cunard was right at the top of the pecking order when it came to making claims on surrendered German prizes of war. The company was gifted the proud, lumbering Imperator- a ship half as big again as the lost Lusitania- as compensation. Like all of the surviving post war Cunarders, she was converted from coal to oil burning.

Oil was not cheaper than coal as such; but it did permit a mass cull of the numbers needed to feed fuel to these monster liners. The legendary ‘black gangs’ of old were consigned to history, along with the tea clippers. Oil was also cleaner to use and load, and permitted quicker turn around times in both New York and Southampton.

Cunard moved it’s first string of express liners from Liverpool to Southampton after the war, to compete directly with their great rivals, the White Star Line. By 1922, each had a first rate trio once more working on the famous old New York run. The Imperator was renamed Berengaria and, by one of those inexplicable, random quirks of fate, she became the most popular and fashionable liner on the Atlantic, until the arrival of the French Line’s stunning new Ile De France in June,1927.

CNV00014She was joined by the proud, stately Aquitania and the the immortal Mauretania, still the holder of the Blue Riband. One of the three would leave Southampton each Saturday, bound for New York. A second ship would then leave Manhattan every Tuesday, heading for Europe. The third ship would always be at sea, heading in one direction or the other. In this way, Cunard could manage a smart, well balanced weekly service across the Atlantic. It was a pattern that continued more or less right up until the Second World War.

White Star ran a variation on the theme, with sailings from Southampton on Wednesdays, and New York sailings each Saturday, Their flagship service was maintained by the Olympic, the twin sister ship of the Titanic, which proved tremendously popular post war. She was joined by another war prize; a staunch, graceful twin stacker that the line named Homeric. The third ship was the Majestic, another ex-German that was the largest liner in the world for thirteen years. She was another proud three stacker- the sister ship of the Berengaria, in fact. The White Star Line advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the flagship of the line and, as such, she carried enormous prestige.

These two services were in more or less direct competition. But the Homeric found it hard work keeping pace with her faster sisters, and the White Star service never had the same smooth, even balance as that offered by their Cunard rivals. But as the twenties boomed, all these huge steamers prospered in a brave new world. Each line offered a call at Cherbourg in both directions, so that passengers could embark directly from mainland Europe if it suited their travel plans better. For both, it was a popular move.

The rebound in passenger numbers was really surprising, considering that the Volstead Act of the early twenties choked off the vast westbound flow of immigrants that had filled steamer company coffers for decades. Luckily for the lines, the same era coincided with a phenomenal rise in tourism, Americans now wanted to see the old continent that so many of them had fought and died for. And come to see it they did. In droves. Within a year or two, the Atlantic liners were fuller than ever before.

CNV00013It was an incredible time; an era of flapper girls, baseball, steamships and jazz. The new, adventurous American tourist class were dazzled by the bright lights of Paris, the historic lore of London, and the indolent lifestyles of the French and Italian rivieras. With Prohibition kicking in back at home, thirsty young Americans soon found that the Atlantic was wet in more ways than one; Atlantic crossings became five and six day marathon house parties. The good times seemed set to roll forever.

This dual hegemony was rudely interrupted in June of 1927, when the dazzling new Ile De France made her debut. She was the first large, purpose built liner to emerge since the Great War. Rather than copy the old Edwardian decor so prevalent on the competition, the ‘Ile’ was swathed from bow to stern in the bold, new Art Deco style that was all the rage. With fabulous food and service, she suddenly made every other ship at sea look completely outdated. Neither Cunard or White Star had anything quite like her. But worse was soon to come.

Rebounding with incredible zeal from the post war loss of her merchant marine, Germany had begun construction of a pair of streamlined new giants, designed with the express purpose of recapturing the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for the Fatherland. They, too, were fast, streamlined and bold. Their designer said that they gleamed ‘like new planets’,

The second of these ships- Europa- was delayed for a full nine months by a dockyard fire that nearly destroyed her. But the Bremen emerged on time in the summer of 1929 to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard.

CNV00023Twenty years of steady advances in marine technology could not be ignored, and the Bremen did exactly what she had been built to do, taking the Blue Riband at the first attempt, and finally ending the amazing reign of the ageing Mauretania as the speed queen of the Atlantic crossing.

But even worse was still to come. Cunard and White Star would soon find themselves confronting a far worse storm than anything their big ships had ever ridden out at sea. The first signs of the Great Depression were already stirring, like some long dormant Kraaken. Soon, all of the great liners would be fighting for their very survival.


The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

May 31st, 2011. A warm day in Belfast as we gather at the edge of the River Lagan, not long before noon. Despite the bustle and the numbers, there’s a sense of awe and a kind of stunned, expectant hush. Almost as if some invisible shadow were looming over all of us.

‘We’ were journalists and feature writers from all over the world. Film crews. Radio outlets.

Privileged VIP spectators and historians.There were officials from the iconic Harland and Wolff shipyard itself.  They even remembered to invite a priest, together with a choir of local school children that performed hymns at the head of the slipway…

On the water, a flotilla of small, brightly coloured excursion boats stood just offshore, all of them jam packed with hundreds of water borne spectators. Each boat was dressed from bow to stern in brightly coloured signal flags that flapped idly in something that vaguely resembled a breeze.

Exactly one hundred years previously, to the very minute, over a hundred thousand spectators had blackened the same Belfast landscape to watch the culmination of a five year story. They literally filled the streets, and stood in their thousands on patches of waste land all along the banks of the river. Above them- on the very slipways where we now stood a century later- had loomed the enormous, pristine bulk of RMS Titanic.

May 31st, 1911 was the day that Titanic was launched. A century later, we were there to remember the culmination of Belfast’s greatest single achievement; a high water mark that would end in a disaster from which the city never really recovered.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

The building of the Olympic and Titanic at Belfast was, quite simply, the largest single construction project anywhere on Planet Earth since the great pyramids of Giza. Before the twin sisters could even be laid down, the massive Harland and Wolff shipyard- the largest in the world- had to be virtually stripped and rebuilt in large part.

Whole new boiler, plating and builder’s shops had to be constructed. At the same time, a massive, thousand foot long graving dock- the biggest of its kind anywhere- was carved and configured from an adjacent slip of land. This dock- the Thomson graving dock- still exists to this day, though it is no longer used for ship work.

The space normally reserved for building three ocean liners was razed. In its place came a vast, sloping concrete ramp, more than four hundred yards long, that ended where we now stood- at the edge of the river.

Above it, a massive steel spider’s web of cranes, walkways and elevators encased the whole ramp. This massive lattice structure- the Arroll Gantry- would dominate the Belfast skyline for decades.

On the ramp, a pair of enormous slipways were laid, side by side. The biggest that the world had ever seen. Here, side by side, the Olympic and Titanic literally sprung upwards from the Belfast soil. For three years starting from the winter of 1908, their vast, emerging hulls literally loomed over the entire city.

To aid in the construction, an enormous, 250 ton floating crane was purchased from Germany, and shipped over to Belfast to do the heavy lifting. Only when all this was done could work on the actual ships even be contemplated.

Nomadic's once opulent interiors under restoration

Nomadic’s once opulent interiors under restoration

It was all necessary because nothing on their scale had ever been built before. Olympic and Titanic were half as large again as any other ships in existence. Now, in one stroke, the two giant sister ships would be built, quite literally side by side at the same time. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before anywhere.

A work force of fifteen thousand sweating, swearing Irishmen worked on the twin hulls as they clawed at the sky. Through three bone chilling winters and searing hot summers, the two ships slowly took shape in their steel and concrete cocoon.The pace was deliberately staggered to keep them three months apart and, with the Olympic being the lead ship, it was she that emerged first, being launched to tremendous acclaim in the autumn of 1910.

Seven months later, on May 31st, 1911, it was the turn of Titanic.

Launching of the Titanic

Launching of the Titanic

The launch was picture perfect; in just sixty-two seconds, the biggest moving object on the planet was set afloat with breathtaking ease. Her progress into the river was almost a celebration in itself. The superstitious smiled in the sunshine, and noted that Titanic was, indeed, a ‘lucky’ ship.

And, to cap off the day, the newly completed Olympic was brought into the bay and handed over to her delighted owners. It was an incredible moment; one without equal in the history of British ocean liners to this day.

And this, rather than what followed, was what we gathered to remember on that sunny May day in 2011.

We all know the rest of the story. The sinking of the Titanic hit home like a hydrogen bomb; but nowhere more so than in the city where she had been built. For years, the Titanic had been such an integral part in the daily life of the city. She quite literally loomed above it; dominating the skyline from every angle.

Her sinking resulted in some kind of nervous breakdown that fractured the psyche of the city for decades. Her name was mentioned only in hushed tones; there was always the nagging doubt that there had been something wrong with the ship. But around the world, Belfast would forever be known as ‘Titanic Town.’

CNV00072The discovery of Titanic’s shattered corpse in 1985 began a process of rethinking the story, and nowhere more so in her birthplace. Gradually, a sense of pride in the achievement itself began to resurface.

This was evident during our visit to that proud, hospitable sea city. “She was all right when she left here” was a refrain I heard a lot of. “The sinking was a disaster; the Titanic was not” was another. Fair enough, too.

The city of Belfast gradually reclaimed it’s prodigal child. After decades alone in freezing darkness, two and a half miles under the Atlantic, the spirit of Titanic- what she was, and the sheer sense of wonder she had once engendered- was embraced again by the city that had turned its back on both her and the sea for decades. It was a strange kind of homecoming, but a hugely emotional one as well.

The ‘Troubles’- those vicious decades of mindless, murderous, sectarian violence- were slowly coming to an end. Yet, as both sides realised, the Titanic was still there. The long shadow of the doomed juggernaut still looms over the city that gave birth to her even now.

Now, a century later, we were here to honour that achievement.

The Nomadic in dry dock

The Nomadic in dry dock

At exactly noon, a single white rocket spluttered and arced into the Belfast sky, just as one had done exactly a century before. In 1911, this had been to announce that the launch was imminent.

Minutes later, a second rocket soared up. In 1911, this second rocket had been to warn the spectator fleet on the river to move clear of the Titanic launch path. Out on the river of 2011, the second assembled armada did the same. And then something amazing happened….

A series of bells, whistles and horns on that little tribute flotilla began to moan, whoop and shriek across the waters of the harbour. It was a sudden, unexpected surprise, and I had to catch my breath. From my vantage spot on the edge of the Lagan, I was quite literally right next to where the Titanic had rumbled down into the same water exactly a hundred years ago. And yes, there was a lump in my throat big enough to play football with. But we were not finished yet.

For there was also an encounter with the Nomadic…

When the White Star Line built the Olympic and Titanic, they also built a pair of brand new, state of the art tender boats to ferry passengers and mail out to the ships as they lay at anchor off Cherbourg. Ironically, these were both completed on May 31st, 1911.

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

The first class passengers boarded the Nomadic; a kind of ‘mini- me’ Titanic. complete with ornate wood panelling and elaborate, moulded ceilings. If you watch Cameron’s film, it is the Nomadic that is tied up alongside the Titanic in the scene where the ship is at Cherbourg.

Incredibly, the real Nomadic has survived. After decades of neglect, she was returned to her birthplace in Belfast to undergo a complete, painstaking restoration. And, one hundred years to the day after her completion, I walked around her largely stripped, silent interiors.

I wondered if John Jacob Astor had briefly admired the same, preserved decorative sconces that I was staring at. As I stood on the fantail, it was easy to imagine Isidor Strauss wrapping a shawl around his beloved wife’s shoulders, keeping her warm that April evening as they stared in amazement at the looming, floodlit bulk of the Titanic, waiting for them out in the bay.

On that strange, unforgettable day, all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind, echoing silently around the ghostly shell of the once pretty little Nomadic.

I touched the same ancient, weathered bollards that had once held the mooring ropes that briefly shackled the Nomadic to the Titanic. For a few silent, awesome moments, past and present whirled around in my head like a quiet storm.

All things considered, it was an amazing, emotional couple of days. Belfast? Top city, wonderful people and hospitality. But that’s entirely another story…