Today marks 103 years since the sinking of the Titanic. I have a lot of thoughts when it comes to the Titanic and I’ve wanted to write a piece about it, my obsession, and its effect on my life for a few years now. It’s been a part of my life for 18 years and finally I have decided to tackle it. I’ll apologize in advance; this is rather long and I start talking about science a couple times!
When I was 10 my mom took me to the theatre to see Titanic. I’ve tried to remember why I was so insistent upon this and I think I can relate it back to a book my mom had bought for my grandpa. It was a thick book about the discovery of the ship in 1985 and I remember looking at the hauntingly beautiful pictures of this ship on the bottom of the ocean and being fascinated. 3 hours later, when the movie was over and the tears had cleared (and it took hours, I remember crying in a dressing room at the mall shortly after we left the theatre), I was a different person. I can pinpoint a couple moments in my life that changed me and seeing Titanic that day was one of them. I became obsessed.
I fell in love with everything Titanic. I loved the movie. I loved Kate Winslet. I was part of Leo Mania. I had magazines with Leonardo DiCaprio’s face on them and even a couple books about him and the movie. I loved the soundtrack. I listened to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ on repeat (often with dialogue from the movie). I had my coach give me two figure skating programs to Titanic music. I had my own Heart of the Ocean necklace and a Titanic shirt of the movie poster – and I’m not even embarrassed to confess that I still wear both of these! I was 10 when this movie came out and I watched it every day after school for months. I wrote a short story in school that year and was told my story was a little too familiar (it was essentially Titanic fanfiction, I just didn’t know it at the time). I watched when Titanic won 11 Oscars that year. And as it was recorded on VHS, I watched it another couple dozen times. That VHS tape is still in the basement of my parent’s house.
But this obsession extended far beyond the movie. I fell in love with the ship. I fell in love with the Titanic. I wanted to know everything I could about it. I mentioned already that I have Leonardo DiCaprio books, but I have even more Titanic books. The Titanic was the largest object ever moved. It was 882 1/2 feet long and consisted of over 50,000 tonnes of steel. She was considered unsinkable (though the origin of that belief is unknown) but on April 14th, 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg in the middle of the North Atlantic. The ship found its permanent home on the morning of April 15th on the bottom of the ocean and over 1500 passengers and crew lost their lives.
Beyond the facts, one thing that really struck me about the Titanic were the stories of the people. Every person on that ship had a story to tell. Every person was a daughter or son. I personally love reading about the crew. First Officer Murdoch has fascinated me for a while. He’s depicted as committing suicide in the movie and afterwards movie executives flew to his hometown to offer his family an apology for the scene. But this is just one of the controversies concerning his actions during the sinking that are still hotly debated. I still want to know why he turned left instead of right in an attempt to avoid the iceberg.
There’s also the story of Charles Melville Hays. Charles was one of the most famous residents aboard the ship. He was President of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and had great plans to turn Prince Rupert, on British Columbia’s north coast, into a world-famous port. He predicted that “the deep, ice-free port, closer by a day’s sailing to markets in the Orient, would soon rival Vancouver and San Francisco”. Prince Rupert boomed and the railway connecting the city to the rest of Canada was completed following his death, but without his driving force Prince Rupert never became what Charles Hays envisioned. The local high school and highest mountain in the area are named for Mr. Hays.
Another thing that has fascinated me for years is why. Why was this event such a big story when it happened? Why have its iconic images of the women and children going first, the band playing till the end and the Captain going down with the ship lasted with us for 103 years? Why did the Titanic hit the iceberg that night? I think there are a couple main reasons why the Titanic is remembered.
First, there is the romantic tragedy of the event. It was the fact there were not enough lifeboats. It was families being separated or dying because they stayed together. It was only 1/3 of the passengers surviving. It was the lifeboats being launched half full. It was the fact it was the maiden voyage of the grandest ship in the world. It was having the richest people in the world on board, including celebrities, as well as every day people. It could have been you on board. It was the fact it was an iceberg and not another ship or a bomb or torpedo. It was the stories of the band playing till the very end, and the wireless operators sending messages till the last minute and the Captain going down with the ship. All of these images of events on Titanic are beautiful and sad and timeless.
It was also the mystery of it all that has kept people interested. How did the Titanic not see the iceberg in time? Why did the Californian not respond to the distress calls? Did the ship actually break in two? This all happened during a time before phones and texting and computers and the internet. All there is from that night are survivor testimonials. I’ve read of number of these and everyone was panicked and no one was thinking clearly. I’ve read about the trials that followed and it was so difficult to lay blame in the sinking because everyone remembered it differently. This kept interest high until 1985 when the Titanic was discovered. It was only confirmed then that the ship had actually split in two. And then, naturally, interest spiked in 1997 with the film. The star-crossed love story between Jack and Rose reminded everyone of the events of April 14, 1912 and brought back a human aspect that may have been forgotten.
Before the Titanic’s maiden voyage there was an air of greatness surrounding the shipping companies – they were unstoppable and developing bigger and faster ships. The designers truly believed that nothing human or nature could destroy their ships, but it turns out they were ignorant in thinking they could overcome nature in particular. I’ve watched a number of documentaries on the Titanic and one of my favorite things, which has been said over and over, is that the Titanic tragedy is a perfect example of human arrogance. We believe we can do no wrong and that we are indestructible. It wasn’t human error or another ship or some other human cause that sunk the Titanic. It was nature. The planet said, ‘look, I’m still in control’ and put a halt to human activities. It’s the whole concept of humans thinking they’re masters of the universe and own the planet. It reminds me of some of the topics covered in my evolutionary biology classes. Humans have been around for a small fraction of the history of planet Earth and in the end if Mother Nature doesn’t like us or has had enough, she will get rid of us (I think this is the only occasion my Biology Major and History Minor have had anything in common). Looking at the Titanic tragedy reminds us to step back and realize we’re not as indestructible as we may have thought.
In another connection between my Major and Minor, the Titanic is currently 2.5 miles below the surface of the North Atlantic and in these cold temperatures it should take years for the Titanic to disintegrate. However, the Titanic has become infested with rusticles, essentially a rust icicle, filled with iron eating bacteria. These bacteria are literally eating away the ship. Even now, over 100 years later, the Titanic is not immune to the effects of nature.
This is what I love about the Titanic. It was the largest object ever moved and considered unsinkable but that one iceberg sunk her so easily. But beyond the sinking, the disaster is a lot more complex. You can take the Titanic and look at it as a microcosm of society. The class system on Titanic can be related to present day society. There’s a similar unequal distribution of wealth. In looking at the Titanic in this way you can begin to see how the planet might react in a disaster. The rich people and countries would be fine; they wouldn’t have to worry about getting to safety and attaining necessary food and water and resources. But those in third class, those poor countries would be the ones hurt hardest. And very few would care about their suffering. The upper class would exploit their wealth in an attempt to avoid the issue; they would get on the first available lifeboat. The one group where I’m not entirely sure of their fate is the crew. I am curious to see how those in charge would fare, would the world leaders be their equivalent? The Titanic begs the question of how would you react in this situation and while you can speculate and go about your daily life, until your life is actually put at risk, and you’re in that moment, you don’t actually know what you’ll do.
This scenario works well for the current climate change issues we’re facing. I’ve defended James Cameron a number of occasions but I’ve also disagreed with his actions. But there’s one quote that’s stuck with me for a few years, and perhaps he just put it in words I could understand, “we are moving forward, full speed ahead and we can see the iceberg ahead of us and we can’t turn [fast enough] because of the momentum of the system.”
The Titanic has had a profound effect on my life. The event brings up so many questions and thoughts and I have yet to find all the answers or learn everything I can. A few years ago I traveled Europe with Kris and we visited Belfast and naturally we went on the Titanic tour. I’ve now been to two Titanic Artifact Exhibits. The permanent one in Las Vegas with the ‘Big ‘Piece’, and a traveling exhibit that came to our hometown a few years later. When Titanic was released in theatres for the 100th anniversary I went 3 times. I also found a local theatre showing it in 2014. I must have seen the film over 200 times by now. I can quote it almost line by line. I think one of the times I was most proud of my sister was when she was able to recite lines to me while listening to the movie soundtrack. She’s accompanied me to Titanic events on more than one occasion, and only complained slightly in doing so. I cried when Kate won her Oscar. Leo still owns my heart. They are my #1 Real Life OTP. There are a few places I still want to get to. I want to see Iceberg Alley in Newfoundland and I want to see the Titanic cemeteries in Halifax. I want to go to Southampton and see where she set sail.
The Titanic is not the largest maritime disaster, not even the largest peacetime maritime disaster. But the Titanic will always be the one that is loved and remembered. There are a number of reasons why I think this is. Feel free to add yours.
Thanks for reading,