This Sunday, April 15, is the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The mammoth passenger liner set sail on April 6 with 2,223 people on board from Southampton, England. Bound for Pier 59 in Chelsea in New York city, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912. Within just two hours and 40 minutes, the Titanic had split apart and sunk; 1,157 people drowned in waters of 28 degrees F (-2 degrees C).
The disaster of a ship boasted to be unsinkable immediately fascinated the world and sparked, as an Associated Press article observes, a fascination, if not an obsession and a mania, for disasters.
With the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking here, something like Titanic-mania has been set loose. From its building (the Titanic was one of the three Olympic-class ocean liners of the White Star Line’s fleet) to its calamitous striking of the iceberg, the Titanic’s story is epic in scale. It is also tragic: What better conveys the hubris of us mortals than the tale of an Olympic ship undone by the forces of nature? Many a large-scale disaster, from the BP oil spill, the Challenger explosion, Hurricane Katrina, the Exxon Valdez and the recent grounding of the Costa Concordia — and such non-natural disasters as the subprime mortgage crisis and the European debt crisis — have “all borrowed from the storylines — morality plays, really — established by the Titanic’s sinking: The high-profile investigations … wall-to-wall news coverage … issues of blame, technological hubris, ignored warnings and economic fairness.”
A veritable Titanic industry exists of books, movies, museum exhibits, travel excursions to the site of the ship’s sinking, documentaries and who knows what else. What follows is a selection of ways to remember the Titanic and, most of all, those 1,157 people — many of whom had booked their voyage in hopes of starting a better life in America — who lost their lives.
1. Eat a Titanic Meal
Around the world, you can eat a meal like that last served before the Titanic sunk including oysters, filet mignon, poached salmon, chicken Lyonnaise, foie gras, roasted pigeon, lamb with mint sauce and Punch Romaine, a palate-cleansing ice flavored with oranges and drenched in champagne.
With the said, such dinners celebrating the last meal of those on board the Titanic are arguably in bad taste. After all, such commemorative meals are technically recalling the last meal of all of those who died. The Tampa Tribune offers what is indeed “food for thought”:
… marking the ship’s sinking by hedonistically celebrating only the extravagance that took place before the iceberg is not only bad form, it speaks ill of our respect for those caught in that night’s tragedy as well as tragedies that have yet to happen. If we’re willing to overlook mass casualties for the sake of having a party and making a buck, what else will we choose to sanitize?
2.Take a Titanic Memorial Cruise (But See #8 and #9 Below)?
Carrying “history buffs, many dressed in period costumes,” the Azamara Journey is bound for the site where the Titanic sunk. On Thursday, it stopped in Halifax to visit one of the cemeteries in the city where 121 Titanic victims are buried. Another ship retracing the Titanic’s route, the MS Balmoral, left southern England on April 8, and will be joining the Azmara Journey for memorial services 640 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland.
3. Debunk a Titanic Myth
Initial news reports said that, in a display of chivalry, rich men from the Titanic’s first class had given up their places on the lifeboats (the ship carried only 16, enough for one-third of those on board — but it had the capacity to carry up to 64) for women and children. But a recent study by economists Mikeal Elinder and Oscar Erixon of Sweden’s University of Uppsala have found that men have nearly double the chance of surviving a shipwreck than women. Elinder and Erixon studied 18 shipwrecks since 1852:
Out of the 15,142 people onboard the 18 ships sailing under eight different national flags when they went down, only 17.8 percent of the women survived compared to 34.5 percent of the men, the two researchers explain in their 82-page study titled: “Every man for himself — Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters.”
Case in point: when the Estonia passenger ferry headed from Tallinn to Stockholm suddenly sank in the middle of the icy Baltic Sea in 1994, 852 of the 989 people onboard perished, with only 5.4 percent of women surviving, compared to 22 percent for men.
As Erixon says, these figures “sort of busts the myth about the British gentleman” or about chivalry more generally.
4. Sing a Titanic Song
“Oh they built the ship Titanic / To sail the ocean blue / And they thought they had a ship / That the water would never go through.”
My 6th-grade P.E. teacher, Mr. Kahn, taught us The Titanic song while strumming his guitar. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the refrain of “it was sad, it was sad, it was sad / It was sad when that gre-at ship went down / Husband and wives, little children lost their lives, / It was sad when that great ship went down.” The version in the video above is by Woody Guthrie.
5. Find Out More About the Iceberg(s)
Scientific American considers whether more than one iceberg struck the Titanic (some testimonies from survivors mention seeing more than one peak to the iceberg) and evaluates some photographs that claimed to contain a photo of it. Most icebergs in the North Atlantic originate from Greenland; more iceberg sightings in the region where the Titanic sank were reported in 1912. The previous years had seen mild winters in Europe and it is speculated that, with relatively warm temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean, “the melting rate and activity of the calving glaciers on Greenland” had increased.
6. Check out a Titanic Exhibit
A number of museums and historical societies in the UK, France and the U.S. have exhibits with memorabilia and other artifacts to tell the passengers’ stories. Belfast, where the Titanic was built, is the “world’s largest [um, titanic] Titanic-themed attraction,” says the Guardian, with full-scale reconstructions, special effects, interactive features, boat tours and guided walks.
RMS Titanic, Inc. lists exhibitions from New York City to Las Vegas.
7. Recite a Titanic Poem
British poet Thomas Hardy wrote “The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)” after the disaster, elevating the meeting of the ocean liner and the iceberg to a mythical level. A few (iceberg, or perhaps ship-shaped) stanzas:
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
8. Question the Cruise Liner Industry’s Push to Build Bigger and Bigger Ships
The cruise liner industry has the technology to build bigger and more elaborate ships. But as the January 13 disaster of the Costa Concordia reveals — the Italian luxury liner ran aground off the coast of Italy and 32 passengers died — sailing on a cruise ship today still has plenty of dangers. Cruise liner companies have pointed to an industry report that notes that the death rate since 2002 is at 0.2 per million, including the Costa deaths.
But Jacques Loiseau, president of the French Association of Naval Captains (AFCAN), notes that there is a “tendency toward gigantism” in the cruise liner industry and says that “even in the best conditions, with such a size you won’t ever be able to save everyone.”
16 million people sailed on cruises in 2011 and Costa Cruises has gone from having 363,000 passengers in 2000 (including German and Spanish subsidiaries) to 2.89 million in 2010. Are all these passengers making sure to ask how many lifeboats their cruise ship has and what are emergency and evacuation procedures — and has the crew been trained?
The cruise ship industry continues to grow. With gigantic ships carrying some 3,000 crew and passengers sailing through coastal waters, it is more important than ever to consider the environment impact of these “floating cities,” says the Environmental Protection Agency:
Some of the waste streams generated by cruise ships include bilge water (water that collects in the lowest part of the ship’s hull and may contain oil, grease, and other contaminants), sewage, graywater (waste water from showers, sinks, laundries and kitchens), ballast water (water taken onboard or discharged from a vessel to maintain its stability), and solid waste (food waste and garbage). There is significant concern about the potential environmental impacts of these waste stream discharges.
The cruise industry has fiercely resisted efforts to regulate it over the years. Alaska is seeking to introduce a passenger tax on cruise ships arriving in its waters. There have long been attempts to pass the Clean Cruise Ship Act through Congress; this bill would prohibit the dumping of “sewage sludge, incinerator ash, and hazardous waste” within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. coastline.
The environmental organization Oceana points out that “the average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew generates and air pollutants equivalent to 12,000 automobiles every day.” The Costa Concordia had an estimated 2,380 tons of fuel on board — that ship’s recent grounding should provide an impetus for more oversight and regulation of the cruise ship industry.
Harvard University professor Steven Biel points out that being poorer significantly lowered your chances of getting a place on one of the 16 lifeboats. On 25 percent of those in steerage or third-class survived, vs. 42 percent of the second-class passengers and 60 percent of the first-class passengers. Captain Edward John Smith, an experienced sailor, went down with his ship. While four of the officers survived (and never received command of a ship of their own), none of the 34 engineering officers (whose efforts kept the lights burning until just two minutes before the Titanic went down) survived. None of the eight members of the band, who played music until the end, did either.
Records of the Titanic’s passengers and crew are now available online: One hundreds years after the ship’s sinking, let us remember their stories and those lives cut tragically short.
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Image by Willy Stöwer via Wikimedia Commons