You know the story. A large, “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg while crossing the icy Atlantic; the hull was pierced, water flooded in unchecked, the ship sank, and thousands of people suffered a cold, watery death. What most don’t know is that this particular tale is not only the story of the RMS Titanic, but the much earlier story of the Titan, a fictional vessel created by Morgan Robertson and told of in his 1898 tale of disaster-at-sea, Futility. Amazingly, what was originally a fictional tale of human nature, water, and death became a thing of terrible reality when the RMS Titanic (pictured above, in drydock) disappeared beneath frigid Atlantic waves on the night of April 14, 1912. Later that same year, avarice overruled decency and Robertson’s Futility was renamed The Wreck of the Titan in an attempt to capitalize on the morbid popularity of all things Titanic.
Now let’s fast-forward to our 21st century where it’s nice to know that in this more enlightened time such morbidity has waned, and civilization has advanced far beyond such gruesome fascination. Today the Titanic dead rest in peace; they are forever remembered, honored, and respected for their battle for survival, their courage in the face of certain doom, their unimaginable suffering and death, and their subsequent place of honor in history. Memo to self: e-mail James Cameron to get a final accounting of Titanic movie merchandise including production stills signed by Leo and Kate, digitally mastered soundtracks, crew mugs, T-shirts, and key-chain collectibles.
In progressing from Titan to Titanic, what was wholly unreal became terrifyingly real in many respects, but in truly accidental fashion. However, what could be expected when what was once fictional becomes a reality … on purpose? To address that question, consider that following the explosive success of the film Titanic, several proposals to recreate the vessel were made, and some of the designs actually made it into the pages of Popular Mechanics. Unfortunately, many of those persons behind the seemingly legitimate proposals largely bit off far more than they could possibly chew as the funding for most new-Titanic endeavors never materialized. Additionally, and sadly, some of those proposing Titanic recreations were found (or suspected) to be either fanciful publicity-seekers or blatantly lying con artists.
One possible exception to the general rule of impossibility may (repeat: may) exist in the form of the Minnesota-based S.S. Titan Foundation. What is now the S.S. Titan Foundation was originally founded on April 13, 1998, as S.S. Titan, Limited. Regardless of the name, both incarnations of S.S. Titan claim to be fully registered financial enterprises within the state of Minnesota.
As stated on the Foundation’s new website (http://www.sstitan.org/), its intent is to respectfully perpetuate the Titanic’s legacy by constructing an enormous ship generally modeled on the visual aspects of the original, ill-fated vessel. The Titan, claims the website, will be the largest and fastest ocean liner ever to grace the high seas — larger, in truth, than Titanic, itself. Amazingly, if the S.S.Titan Foundation succeeds in building an exact replica of Titanic, that ship would be a dwarf among the ostentatious giants so common in the modern cruise industry.
Intended to be a seafaring vessel of modern design and construction, Titan would, by law, have state-of-the-art damage control devices aboard should a collision occur at sea, ensuring the vessel at least ample time to allow everyone a safe exit from the ship. Accordingly, unlike Titanic’s faulty design that yielded “watertight” compartments that met porous upper levels, Titan’s watertight bulkheads will be constructed to meet a watertight deck.
Dear readers, “watertight” doesn’t mean that a ship is unsinkable, and “watertight” isn’t something new. The HMHS Britannic, Titanic’s larger, “watertight,” near-duplicate sister ship, sank like a rock after being struck by German weaponry during WWI. In truth, Britannic sank beneath the waves in less than half the time it took for Titanic go down, as it disappeared in approximately 1 hour. Moreover, as she raced to kiss the bottom, Britannic’s propellers continued to spin from the awesome power of her then-active engines, and 30 unfortunate people in two fleeing lifeboats were yanked away from apparent safety and, in food-processor fashion, were chopped to bits by the whirling blades.
With death left in her wake, Britannic plummeted to the bottom despite containing many safety improvements over her sister ship such as watertight compartments that stretched from keel to deck, a double hull extended above the water line, improved lifeboat davits, and more lifeboats. Yet despite it all, Britannic rapidly filled with water and literally plowed into the sea floor with such horrific force that the steel-plated bow (front) of the vessel was actually skewed and ruptured by the impact, as confirmed by Jacques Cousteau in 1976.
In truth, Titanic and Britannic were actually the second and third children of the White Star Line’s luxury-ship fleet, called “Olympic Class” vessels after the original sister, Olympic, was launched. Ironically, though the oldest and smallest of the sisters, only the Olympic escaped into the 1920’s and 1930’s as a wholly intact vessel. However, though the sister with the greatest longevity, Olympic shared in her sister’s history of disaster by enduring at least two collisions at sea, the last of which was against the famed lightship Nantucket in which, tragically, more lives were lost. Not long after that collision, White Star was bought entirely by longtime arch-rival Cunard, and at the ripe old age of about 25, Olympic was finally scrapped. Regardless, I have several reports alleging that certain interior portions of her were spared the wrecking ball, removed entirely intact, and purportedly survived for decades in various locations within western Europe, and below is a picture that purports to be of one of RMS Olympic’s dining rooms.
As for the omnipresent public fantasy of possibly raising one of the two remaining Olympic Class vessels, I argue that Britannic is the sister that can more easily be returned to the surface. Currently the largest passenger ship lying on the bottom, Britannic lies less than 400 feet below sea level – far more accessible than Titanic’s 2½ mile deep location – and unlike her older sister, Britannic did not break apart as she sank. Amazingly, except for the blast damage that sank her and her ruptured bow, she’s mostly intact. So close and accessible is the sunken vessel, that when Britannic went down, her bow gouged into the sea bottom even as her midsection and stern were at or above the surface. Please note that while people were brutally hacked apart outside the ship, no person actually died aboard or within Britannic, and so the submerged giant is not a true tomb. Therefore, raising her would not disturb the rest of any who died during her sinking; the same cannot be said of Titanic.
Despite the condition and history of the wreck, I believe that Britannic should remain exactly where she is, and considering that she’s relatively close to the surface, perhaps undersea visits could be conducted to this sunken majesty now lost to the senselessness of war. Do consider that many who’ve visited the wreck of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor have stated that when they first peered down onto the twisted mass of metal where 1,177 sailors died horribly, that singular moment became at once a thing frozen in time and one of the most sobering experiences of their lives. Given the impact Arizona has on those who view her, it’s possible that Britannic may have different, yet powerful lessons of her own to tell.
Perhaps the Titan, should it become a reality, will break the curse of the Olympic Class vessels. History says “no,” and it says “no” with deafening loudness. After all, she sank in fiction, her namesake is synonymous with horrific tragedy, and her other sisters are also at the center of other true tales of death and calamity at sea. Personally, and perhaps strangely, I hope that history is wrong and that some shipbuilding interest does succeed in recreating the vessel, if only as a tribute to the lost originals.
In closing, I ask you to remember that the S.S. Titan Foundation is not the only competitor in the race to complete a new Titanic. Then again, I ask you to consider that after the airships Akron, Macon, and Hindenburg plummeted out of the skies, dirigible travel and construction gradually faded into non-existence on an international scale. (Note: Hindenburg’s predecessor, the record-setting Graf Zeppelin, survived in fine fashion until scrapped for materials by Nazi Germany’s war machine during WWII.) Now, why do I mention all this about airships while in the middle of a text on ocean-going vessels? Well, several new rigid, helium-based, lighter-than-air vessels have reportedly been proposed for construction and flight both inside and outside of the USA in recent years. Their intended assignments will be to carry freight, and more importantly, passengers for sightseeing. So while I hope there will be modern versions of the Titanic and the Hindenburg, I also hope that their tragic histories fail to repeat themselves. (Update 11/5/2017: A semi-rigid airship was built, but it suffered a crash despite moving slowly. Click here for the video.)