Authors: Erik Larson
It was Turner’s intention, however, to provide reassurance. His looks helped. With the physique of a bank safe, he was the embodiment of quiet strength. He had blue eyes and a kind and gentle smile, and his graying hair—he was fifty-eight years old—conveyed wisdom and experience, as did the mere fact of his being a Cunard captain. In accord with Cunard’s practice of rotating
captains from ship to ship, this was his third stint as the
’s master, his first in wartime.
Turner now told his audience that the next day, Friday, May 7, the ship would enter waters off the southern coast of Ireland that were part of a “zone of war” designated by Germany. This in itself was anything but news. On the morning of the ship’s departure from New York, a notice had appeared on the shipping pages of New York’s newspapers. Placed by the German Embassy in Washington, it reminded readers of the existence of the war zone and cautioned that “
vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction” and that travelers sailing on such ships “do so at their own risk.” Though the warning did not name a particular vessel, it was widely interpreted as being aimed at Turner’s ship, the
, and indeed in at least one prominent newspaper, the
New York World
, it was positioned adjacent to Cunard’s own advertisement for the ship. Ever since, about all the passengers had been doing was “
thinking, dreaming, sleeping, and eating submarines,” according to Oliver Bernard, a theater-set designer traveling in first class.
Turner now revealed to the audience that earlier in the evening the ship had received a warning by wireless of fresh submarine activity off the Irish coast.
He assured the audience there was no need for alarm.
Coming from another man, this might have sounded like a baseless palliative, but Turner believed it. He was skeptical of the threat posed by German submarines, especially when it came to his ship, one of the great transatlantic “greyhounds,” so named for the speeds they could achieve. His superiors at Cunard shared his skepticism. The company’s New York manager issued an official response to the German warning. “
The truth is that the
is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.” Turner’s personal experience affirmed this:
on two previous occasions, while captain of a different ship, he had encountered what he believed were submarines and had successfully eluded them by ordering full speed ahead.
He said nothing about these incidents to his audience. Now he offered a different sort of reassurance: upon entering the war zone the next day, the ship would be securely in the care of the Royal Navy.
He bade the audience good night and returned to the bridge. The talent show continued. A few passengers slept fully clothed in the dining room, for fear of being trapped below decks in their cabins if an attack were to occur. One especially anxious traveler, a Greek carpet merchant, put on a life jacket and climbed into a lifeboat to spend the night. Another passenger, a New York businessman named Isaac Lehmann, took a certain comfort from the revolver that he carried with him always and that would, all too soon, bring him a measure of fame, and infamy.
With all but a few lights extinguished and all shades pulled and curtains drawn, the great liner slid forward through the sea, at times in fog, at times under a lacework of stars. But even in darkness, in moonlight and mist, the ship stood out. At one o’clock in the morning, Friday, May 7, the officers of a New York–bound vessel spotted the
and recognized it immediately as it passed some two miles off. “
You could see the shape of the four funnels,” said the captain, Thomas M. Taylor; “she was the only ship with four funnels.”
Unmistakable and invulnerable, a floating village in steel, the
glided by in the night as a giant black shadow cast upon the sea.
HE SMOKE FROM SHIPS AND THE EXHALATIONS OF THE
river left a haze that blurred the world and made the big liner seem even bigger, less the product of human endeavor than an escarpment rising from a plain. The hull was black; seagulls flew past in slashes of white, pretty now, not yet the objects of horror they would become, later, for the man standing on the ship’s bridge, seven stories above the wharf. The liner was edged bow-first into a slip at Pier 54, on the Hudson, off the western end of Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, one of a row of four piers operated by the Cunard Steam-Ship Company of Liverpool, England. From the two catwalks that jutted outward from the ship’s bridge, its “wings,” the captain could get a good look along the full length of the hull, and it was here that he would stand on Saturday, May 1, 1915, a few days hence, when the ship was to set off on yet another voyage across the Atlantic.
Despite the war in Europe, by now in its tenth month—longer than anyone had expected it to last—the ship was booked to capacity, set to carry nearly 2,000 people, or “souls,” of whom 1,265 were passengers, including an unexpectedly large number of children and babies. This was, according to the
New York Times
the greatest number of Europe-bound travelers on a single vessel since the year began. When fully loaded with crew, passengers, luggage, stores, and cargo, the ship weighed, or displaced, over
44,000 tons and could sustain a top speed of more than 25 knots, about 30 miles an hour. With many passenger ships withdrawn from service or converted to military use, this made the
the fastest civilian vessel afloat. Only destroyers, and Britain’s latest oil-fueled
class battleships, could move faster. That a ship of such size could achieve so great a speed was considered one of the miracles of the modern age.
During an early trial voyage—a circumnavigation of Ireland in July 1907—a passenger from Rhode Island sought to capture the larger meaning of the ship and its place in the new century. “The
,” he told the
Cunard Daily Bulletin
, published aboard ship, “is in itself a perfect epitome of all that man knows or has discovered or invented up to this moment of time.”
The paper reported that the passengers had taken “
a vote of censure” against Cunard “for two flagrant omissions from the ship. She has neither a grouse moor nor a deer forest aboard.” One passenger noted that if the need for a new Noah’s ark ever arose, he would skip the bit about building the boat and just charter the
for I calculate that there is room on her for two of every animal extant and more.”
devoted the last paragraph to waggling Cunard’s fingers at Germany, claiming that the ship had just received news, by wireless, that Kaiser Wilhelm himself had sent a telegram to the ship’s builders: “
Please deliver me without delay a dozen—baker’s measure—
From the first, the ship became an object of national pride and affection. In keeping with Cunard’s custom of naming its ships for ancient lands, the company had selected
, after a Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula that occupied roughly the same ground as modern-day Portugal. “
The inhabitants were warlike, and the Romans conquered them with great difficulty,” said a memorandum in Cunard’s files on the naming of the ship. “They lived generally upon plunder and were rude and unpolished in their manners.” In popular usage, the name was foreshortened to “Lucy.”
There was nothing rude or unpolished about the ship itself. As
departed Liverpool on its first transatlantic run in 1907, some one hundred thousand spectators gathered at various points along the Mersey (pronounced Merzey) River to watch, many singing “
Rule, Britannia!” and waving handkerchiefs. Passenger C. R. Minnitt, in a letter he wrote aboard ship, told his wife how he had climbed to the highest deck and stood near one of
the ship’s four towering funnels to best capture the moment. “
You do not get any idea of her size till you get right on top and then it is like being on Lincoln Cathedral,” Minnitt wrote. “I went over parts of the 1st class and it is really impossible to describe, it is so beautiful.”
The ship’s beauty belied its complexity. From the start, it needed a lot of attention. In its first winter, woodwork in the first-class writing room and dining saloon and in various passageways began to shrink and had to be rebuilt. Excess vibration forced Cunard to pull the ship from service so that extra bracing could be installed. Something was always breaking or malfunctioning. A baking oven exploded, injuring a crew member. Boilers needed to be scaled and cleaned. During crossings in winter, pipes froze and ruptured. The ship’s lightbulbs failed at an alarming rate. This was no small problem: the
had six thousand lamps.
The ship endured. It was fast, comfortable, and beloved and, as of the end of April 1915, had completed 201 crossings of the Atlantic.
the ship for its Saturday, May 1, departure, much had to be done, with speed and efficiency, and at this Capt. William Thomas Turner excelled. Within the Cunard empire, there were none better than he at handling large ships. While serving a rotation as captain of Cunard’s
, Turner had achieved a measure of fame during an arrival in New York by fitting the ship into its slip and snugging it to its wharf in just nineteen minutes. He held the record for a “round” voyage, meaning round-trip, which he achieved in December 1910, when, as captain of the
’s twin, the
, he piloted the ship to New York and back in
just fourteen days. Cunard rewarded him with a Silver Salver.
He found it “very gratifying” but also surprising. “I did not expect to receive any such recognition of my part in the matter,” he wrote, in a thank-you letter. “We all on board simply tried to do our duty as under any ordinary circumstances.”
Complex, detailed, and messy, this process of readying the
involved a degree of physical labor that was masked by the ship’s outward grace. Anyone looking up from the dock saw only beauty, on a monumental scale, while on the far side of the ship men turned black with dust as they shoveled coal—5,690 tons in all—into the ship through openings in the hull called “side pockets.” The ship burned coal at all times. Even when docked it consumed 140 tons a day to keep furnaces hot and boilers primed and to provide electricity from the ship’s dynamo to power lights, elevators, and, very important, the Marconi transmitter, whose antenna stretched between its two masts. When the
was under way, its appetite for coal was enormous.
Its 300 stokers, trimmers, and firemen, working 100 per shift, would shovel 1,000 tons of coal a day into its 192 furnaces to heat its 25 boilers and generate enough superheated steam to spin the immense turbines of its engines. The men were called “the black gang,” a reference not to their race but to the coal dust that coated their bodies. The boilers occupied the bottom deck of the ship and were gigantic, like wheelless locomotives, each 22 feet long and 18 feet in diameter. They needed close attention at all times, for when fully pressurized each stored enough explosive energy to tear a small ship in half. Fifty years earlier, exploding boilers had caused America’s worst-ever maritime disaster—the destruction of the Mississippi River steamboat
at a cost of 1,800 lives.
No matter what measures the crew took, coal dust migrated everywhere, under stateroom doors, through keyholes, and up companionways, compelling stewards to go through the ship with dust cloths to clean rails, door handles, table tops, deck chairs, plates, pans, and any other surface likely to collect falling soot. The dust posed its own hazard. In certain concentrations it was highly explosive and raised the possibility of a cataclysm within the
Cunard barred crew members from bringing their own matches on board and provided them instead with safety matches, which ignited only when scraped against a chemically treated surface on the outside of the box. Anyone caught bringing his own matches aboard was to be reported to Captain Turner.
The ship was built to be fast. It was conceived out of hubris and anxiety, at a time—1903—when Britain feared it was losing the race for dominance of the passenger-ship industry. In America, J. P. Morgan was buying up shipping lines in hopes of creating a monopoly; in Europe, Germany had succeeded in building the world’s fastest ocean liners and thereby winning the “Blue Riband,” awarded to the liner that crossed the Atlantic in the shortest time. By 1903 German ships had held the Riband for six years, to the sustained mortification of Britain. With the empire’s honor and Cunard’s future both at stake, the British government and the company agreed to a unique deal. The Admiralty would lend Cunard up to £2.4 million, or nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars, at an interest rate of only 2.75 percent, to build two gigantic liners—the
. In return, however, Cunard had to make certain concessions.
First and foremost, the Admiralty required that the
be able to maintain an average speed across the Atlantic of at least 24.5 knots. In early trials, it topped 26 knots. There were other, more problematic conditions. The Admiralty also required that the two ships be built so that in the event of war they could be readily equipped with naval artillery and brought into service as “armed auxiliary cruisers.” The Admiralty went so far as to direct the
’s builders to install mounts, or “holding-down” rings, in its decks, capable of accepting a dozen large guns. Moreover, the
’s hull was to be designed to battleship specifications, which required the use of “longitudinal” coal bunkers—essentially tunnels along both sides of the hull to store the ship’s coal and speed its distribution among the boiler rooms. At the time, when naval warfare took place at or above the waterline, this was considered smart warship design. To naval shipbuilders, coal was a form of armor, and longitudinal bunkers were thought to provide
an additional level of protection. A naval engineering journal, in 1907, stated that the coal in these bunkers would limit how far enemy shells could penetrate the hull and thus would “
counteract, as far as possible, the effect of the enemy’s fire at the water line.”