Kevin Rushby for The Guardian, April 13, 2012:
Staring out into the icy gloom from the ship’s bridge, I have an ominous feeling that something is about to go wrong. And then it does. A vast pale shape looms up from the darkness. An iceberg? But it’s a clear night and we’re much too far south … There is a moment of bewilderment, then much shouting: “Full astern!” and “Hard-a-starboard!” The bows begin to turn away from the ice.
I turn to the captain with a grin: “Congratulations. I think we just savedthe Titanic.” A fraction of a second later the bridge gives a sickening lurch. There’s a dull crunch followed by a cacophony of screeching and banging.
“Spoke too soon,” laughs the captain with a cheery nonchalance that ill becomes the master of a multi-million pound vessel that is about to sink. But this is not a real ship; it’s the most advanced marine simulator in the world. In fact, now that we had failed to save the Titanic, we could reprogramme and have a go at dodging U-boats in a second world war convoy, or unloading oil workers on to a storm-tossed rig off Newfoundland.
“It has taken years to develop,” says Captain Chris Hearne of the Marine Institute in the Newfoundland capital, St John’s. “But this is now the best place to learn about handling ships in the most dangerous conditions: huge tides, fog, ice, storms …”
As he speaks the simulator gives a confirmatory wobble. It is a remarkable experience: 360 degrees of visibility from a genuine ship’s bridge that rolls and shudders on hydraulic arms in response to computer-generated sea conditions. And this summer, as part ofCanada‘s contribution to the Titanic centenary, the simulator will be open to the public, with an actor on the bridge playing the role of Harold Bride, the Titanic’s junior radio officer, a survivor of the disaster. Since hiring the simulator normally costs around £4,000 a day, the experience is a snip at C$25 (about £15).
“We used all the data we could find to build the Titanic programme,” says Chris. “It threw up some interesting stuff. For example, we found that the rudder was good – the ship had very good manouevrability.” He is refering to concern at the time about the Titanic’s design, its rudder being too small for its three huge propellers.
A street in St John’s, Newfoundland. Photographs by Kevin Rushby
Newfoundland’s connection with the Titanic might seem tenuous: after all, the ship never came here, nor did survivors or victims. But St John’s, a tough little town with a vibrant waterfront busy with sturdy ice-breaking ships, is undoubtedly the place to soak up the atmosphere of Atlantic sea-faring. It was – still is – the closest town to the dead ship, which lies 600km south-east of here. From here you can even take a £40,000 trip on a Russian-built submarine to visit the wreck. It is also a great place to spot icebergs, the gorgeous natural wonders that were the nemesis of what was at the time largest moving manmade object ever seen.
I am here a little early in the season, though. Icebergs come with the spring, and as I emerge from St John’s airport at sunset on an evening in early April, the temperature is well below zero, the trees are very bare, and the grass looks very dead. It seems the warmer weather needed to calve big icebergs has yet to arrive. I drive into town and take a side road up to Signal Hill, the promontory that overlooks the town and the Atlantic. The wind is spitting daggers of ice at the windscreen, but there’s some daylight left and I’m still hoping, against all the climatic evidence, for a glimpse of an iceberg. Will there be any out there?
There is only one other person crazy enough to be up on the hill as the barbed icy rain comes slashing down. A grizzled old-timer in a mountain of clothing, he points down to a white patch near the harbour mouth: “Some broken pack ice down there awready. An’ they got a growler with bergy bits over Tor Cove way.”
His accent is hard to understand. Is he an Irishman impersonating a Wurzel after a shot of Novocaine in the tongue? And what are growlers and bergy bits?
Unfortunately the weather is just too horrible for further conversation. We each retreat to our car. There is no sign of anything I would call an iceberg. I motor back into town and find warmth in one of St John’s many convivial bars. You would think you were in Ireland: the folk duo are playing Wild Mountain Thyme and The Fields of Athenry, but the inter-song banter is in authentic local dialect – I understand about one word in 10.
An old-timer at the bar listens to my tale of a Titanic-inspired journey to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and frowns, “Is it a hundred years already? Who’d have thought it!”
I get him to explain the terminology. “Growlers are the littlest bergs: they keep low in the water and hiss and growl with escaping air. They hardly show anything above water. Very dangerous … You don’t see ’em … Not till it’s too late.”
The slightly larger bergy bits are, as I might have guessed, broken fragments of bigger icebergs. In the summer months, pubs in St John’s collect them to make cocktails.
An iceberg in the ocean south of Ferryland
Next day I visit the Johnson Geocentre on the slopes of Signal Hill, where the Titanic story is well told in archive photographs and storyboards. There are no souvenirs of debris, just the sort of steady and factual account you’d expect of a seafaring town. As I work my way through it, a man with the lined face of a fisherman asks to borrow a pen: “Want to note down the exact position of the ship when she went down.”
He’s an amateur painter who has been working on a rendition of the sinking. Why? “Dunno. Felt like it.”
He frowns. “People here know what tragedy is. I lost a grandfather to the ice. Went out on the seal-hunt in 1914 and never came back. Only last month a boy was lost: he was travelling back from his grandmother’s on a skiddoo and got disorientated in the pack ice.”
The sting of this recent tragedy is raw. I hear the tale from many people and can only wonder what kind of a place produces 14-year-olds with the courage to tackle night journeys alone across pack ice.
Exactly a century ago, on the night of 14 April, 1912, a very different tragedy was unfolding in these freezing waters. Despite at least nine warnings from other ships about ice in the area, some giving the precise coordinates of icebergs, the great ship was struck at 11.40pm and radioed for help. The call was picked up at Cape Race, 140km south of St John’s, where the Canadian Marconi company had built a station eight years earlier.
Next morning I set out to visit Cape Race, driving south along the Avalon peninsula. It is a forbidding landscape: forests of stunted spruce trees occasionally give way to tiny settlements. The houses are mostly weatherboarded, gardens non-existent; on the beaches bits of eroded whalebone lie among the driftwood. This is a tough place to make a living. At Ferryland I stop to look at the archaeological dig that has revealed one of the first attempts at a settlement here, in the 1620s – an attempt abruptly ended by a French attack in 1695.
A little further along, a flash of white catches my eye and I spend half an hour searching for side roads down to the shore. When I finally make it, I see a huge white iceberg slowly sailing past a rocky coast dotted with lovely old wooden houses. After Easter there are many operators along this coast keen to take visitors out on boats to see these natural wonders close up. I could sit for a long time, marvelling at the serene purity of the berg, but I have an appointment at Cape Race. A local man, David Myrick, is going to drive me up to the lighthouse and a new visitor centre.
He turns out to be an impish 60-year-old radio operator whose great-uncle, Jimmy Myrick, was at the wireless station that fateful night in 1912. Jimmy was a 14-year-old apprentice, but according to Myrick family legend, it was he who first heard the distress call and ran to fetch help.
Cape Race lighthouse
This is still an extremely remote spot, with 30m cliffs and notorious fogs that have caused many wrecks. David Myrick grew up here in the station’s twilight years after the second world war: he spent his childhood playing on the cliffs and tracking moose across the moors behind.
The visitor centre makes a brave stab at capturing the history of the place, but the highlight is definitely David, who demonstrates the exact Titanic distress call in faultless Morse code.
“We spoke it like a second language,” he says. It is still used, he tells me, in amateur radio circles, and in the Arctic, where it can be clearer than other forms of communication.
We drive back towards St John’s and David keeps up a seamless banter of anecdotes, character assassinations and jokes. I ask about Newfie jokes. Aren’t the islanders the butt of all Canadian humour?
“I thought it was the English,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Did you hear about the Englishman who was asked if he spoke to his wife while making love. He said, ‘Yes – if there’s a phone handy.'”
That irreverent sense of humour is, I discover, a common trait in Newfoundland. It also emerges in place names: Dildo, for example, is a small former whaling town. (The inhabitants claim the name was once the term for a peg used to secure oars on the old whaling boats.) Further up the coast hotelier Kevin Nolan shows me some of the other villages: Heart’s Desire and Come by Chance.
“These bays would once have been red with whale blood,” he tells me. “But now they are a great place to watch the humpbacks jumping among the icebergs.”
Kevin has his own connection to the Titanic tragedy: a staircase at his hotel, Ryan Mansion in St John’s, was carved by the same Belfast craftsmen who did the ship’s ornate first-class staircase.
Flying out of St John’s late one afternoon, I catch a brief glimpse of pack ice to the north and, calving away from it, specks of white that are bergs drifting south. The plane takes me to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a very different place from Newfoundland. It’s a busier and more American experience, but an essential one for Titanic buffs, as the city is home to the greatest concentration of debris and souvenirs from the wreck.
A deckchair at Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax
I start with the Titanic exhibition in the Museum of the Atlantic (museum.gov.ns.ca), a superb evocation of the disaster, with fascinating artefacts picked up by local sailors who were sent out in rescue parties. Among other pieces, there’s a deckchair, a medicine cabinet and several pieces of carved wood from the first-class dining room.
More evocative is the Fairview Lawn Cemetery (halifax.ca/history/tfairview.html) where 121 victims are buried. The White Star Line gave each a simple headstone in three curving lines that echo the bows of a ship. Younger female visitors have been known to swoon before the grave of one J Dawson. But this is the resting place of Joseph; the Jack Dawson of the James Cameron film was entirely fictional.
In a Halifax bar, I meet Rob Gordon, a news reporter who has been covering Titanic stories for decades. Like many locals he has a connection with the story: his great Aunt Ethel was one of the survivors, even though she initally refused to get into a lifeboat.
“Ethel was legendarily stubborn and pig-headed. She said, ‘I don’t think the boat’s gonna sink’, and went back down to her cabin.”
Fortunately, a steward went down to her and insisted she get back on deck, thus saving her life. Her father and brother went down with the ship and their bodies were never found.
I ask Rob why he thinks the story lingers so in the public imagination: “Every class of society was on that ship. And doesn’t it go the way you’d think – the first-class passengers survive and the third-class folk die? It’s an everyman story that we can all understand.”
Halifax’s Five Fishermen restaurant (fivefishermen.com) has great seafood and Edwardian period atmosphere. It is also where some of the bodies were stored after the disaster.
South of Halifax is a paradise of small coves and inlets where wooden cabins preside over aquamarine bays and forested promontories. At Lower Prospect I find a memorial to the 535 people who perished aboard another White Star liner, the Atlantic, in 1873.
Standing looking at it, I recall that back in St John’s, Chris Hearnes had spoken of the world’s worst maritime disaster, the 4,375 people who died on the Philippine ferry Doña Paz in 1987. On these wild shores none of these tragedies goes forgotten.
Way to go
How to get there
Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies year-round from Heathrow to Halifax from about £650, and to St John’s (five hours from Britain) in summer
Ryan Mansion (+1 709 753 7926, ryanmansion.com) in St John’s, which was built at the same time as Titanic, has doubles from C$285 (about £160)
Blair Beed (+1 902 455 9977) does entertaining tours of Halifax’s Titanic sites. See also atlanticcanadaholiday.co.uk, newfoundlandlabrador.com,novascotia.com, destinationhalifax.com. Book the Titanic simulator (155 Ridge Road) at mi.mun.ca/titanic. Accommodation at Heathrow through Holiday Extras (0800 1313 777, holidayextras.com). Rail travel between York and London with East Coast (0845 722 5225, eastcoast.co.uk) from £26