I have long had a fascination with nautical lore. It is one of these interests that comes as a residue from having spent much time–perhaps too much time–by the ocean as a boy, toying with sailboats and motorboats, quahogs, crabs, bluefish, and what lies beyond the surf. It is impossible for me not to be entranced by the sea; one is drawn to its primeval magnetism, and by the knowledge that it represents the origin of life on earth. Perhaps it also represents the destiny of earthly life; when H.G. Wells’s time traveler hurls himself forward hundreds of thousands of years into the future, he finds himself on a ghastly blood-red beach, accompanied by monstrous crabs and eternal silence.
While these may be idle musings, one who has spent much time near or on the ocean cannot deny the pervasive sense of dread about the sea that goes along with its allure. It is powerful, mysterious, and intractable. As Herman Melville put it so well in Chapter 114 (“The Gilder”) of Moby-Dick:
[W]hen beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.
I was reminded of this recently after having come across the story of a nearly forgotten sea disaster that took place in 1914 near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. I am speaking of the loss of the passenger liner RMS Empress of Ireland. Perhaps because the Titanic disaster took place two years earlier, the Empress of Ireland has never really captured the public imagination, at least not in the United States. Since collisions of ships at sea are in the news more and more these days, now is a good time to tell her tale. People often ask how, in this modern age, ships could possibly collide with each other. But anyone who has spent time aboard a ship at sea knows that things are not so simple on the water. Shipping lanes are traversed by large volumes of ships; and human error, nature, and the unpredictability of Fate can all combine when least expected.
The Empress of Ireland departed Quebec on the late afternoon of May 28, 1914. Bound for Liverpool, England, she carried a total of 1,477 passengers and crew. For the first few hours of the trip, things went without incident; but as the ship passed Father Point, Rimouski, a large bank of fog enveloped the ship. As the liner moved in and out of one fog bank after another in the St. Lawrence River, the ship’s captain, Henry Kendall, saw from the bridge another vessel coming towards him from the opposite direction in the darkness. It was a collier (a coal-ship) named the Storstad. Captain Kendall gave some blasts with the ship’s horns to ward off the collier, but these had no effect. The Storstad kept approaching the Empress of Ireland at a right angle to her side. The captain frantically tried to make evasive maneuvers, but passenger liners are not easy to turn on short notice.
The Storstad‘s bow smashed into the liner’s side with tremendous force. Water immediately began to pour into the Empress of Ireland; on the bridge, the captain ordered distress signals to be sent out immediately, but the gash in the ship’s hull was so huge that the vessel was on its side within a matter of minutes. Most passengers were in their bunks or staterooms at the time, and never had much of a chance to get on deck for a potential rescue. One passenger, a Dr. J.F. Grant, was lucky enough to wriggle out of his cabin and crawl along the walls of the ship’s passageway. Unlike the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland did not upend and break in two; she simply rolled over and sank like a stone.
Luckily some other ships arrived on the scene to help with rescue efforts. In all, 463 lives were saved out of an original total of 1,477. The remainder went down with the ship. Divers later made salvage efforts and were able to remove about 800 bodies from the wreck. Incredibly, there actually was one man aboard the Ireland who had also survived the sinking of the Titanic two years earlier. (One suspects that he gave up travel by sea soon after, not wanting to press his luck). His name was William Clarke, and he later made this comment to compare the two passenger liner disasters:
The Titanic went down like a little baby going to sleep, while the Empress of Ireland, much as I hate to admit it, rolled over like a hog in a ditch.
What is perhaps most incredible is the speed with which the huge liner went to the bottom. From the moment of the collision to the time of the Ireland‘s sinking, barely more than 10 minutes elapsed. By contrast, the Titanic’s death was long, slow, and morbidly majestic: she took nearly three hours to sink. In some ways the Titanic‘s passengers had time to process what was going on around them, as terrible as it was; but those aboard the Ireland were simply deluged with water after being thrown out of bed by the tremendous force of the collision. The cold water overwhelmed them, and all was lost.
Be sure to pick up a copy of my latest book on the Roman historian Sallust.