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Titanic hype: The accidental perfect story

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The Titanic memorial in Belfast, Northern Ireland.


EDITOR’S BLOG. A search for “Titanic” on Google generates over 70 million hits. That says something about the interest for the sunken ship, but it is harder to figure out what it really says. What drives people’s huge interest in the fate of the Titanic? Why do fans spend lifetimes and fortunes on collecting Titanic memorabilia, reading all the books, watching all the movies?

My own Titanic interest has come and gone over the years. I wouldn’t say I’m a real Titanic fanatic. I have read a few books and when James Cameron’s Titanic movie hit cinemas in 1997 I went and saw it twice in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was living then. As millions of others, I have pictured myself on the deck at the moment when the ship broke in two parts as it sank.

Harland & Wolff's shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I have also been to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she was built. Belfast is an interesting place to visit regardless of the Titanic. Decades of political violence have torn deep wounds in the society that have not healed, and maybe never will.

Belfast’s own relation to the Titanic does also seem to be complicated. After all, the city gave birth to a ship that sunk on its maiden voyage and brought some of the richest and best known celebrities of that era down with it. At the time of my visit, in July 2009, the Titanic did not exactly appear to be at the top of mind in the the city. In downtown Belfast, the Titanic Memorial statue had been sandwiched in between a steel gangway and and a ferris wheel that, for some impenetrable reason, had been put up right next to the city hall building. Down at the docks, where cranes still bear Harland & Wolff’s shipyard logotype, the Titanic Boat Tour ticket booth was closed and deserted.

The Titanic memorial in Belfast, July 2009, squeezed in between a ferris wheel.

Since then, Belfast has ramped up its Titanic heritage with a brand new Titanic visitor’s center. No one will be be in doubt as to if the city really was the birthplace of the world’s most famous ocean liner or not.


Today, April 15, 2012, it is exactly one hundred years since the Titanic sank. One of her lookouts, Frederick Fleet, had spotted an iceberg late in the evening on the previous day. He rang the alarm bell and called the bridge, where First Officer William McMaster Murdoch answered.

“What did you see?”

“Iceberg right ahead”, Fleet replied.

“Thank you”.

First officer Murdoch ordered the rudder hard to port and put the ship’s engines in full reverse, in an attempt to steer clear from the iceberg, while reducing speed at the same time.

These few seconds, viewed in retrospective, constitutes one of those rare moments in history when time seems to stand still and the world holds its breath as it waits for what will happen next. What was said on the bridge and the actions that the officer took during that single minute, a short fragment of time, sealed the fate of the Titanic. And herein lies much of the drama that has captivated a whole world ever since, and made the Titanic to one of the best stories of our time.

A closed Titanic Boat Tour ticket booth in Belfast, July 2009.

It may still be debated among historians and ship expertise, but it can be argued that if First Officer Murdoch hadn’t steered to port, but decided instead to hit the iceberg head on, the Titanic would have made it. Or, alternatively, he could have increased speed, in order to gain rudder control, instead of putting the engines in reverse. That could have helped the Titanic alter its course quicker so that she might have steered clear.

Instead, the ice ripped a huge hole below the water line and opened five of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea. 1,514 of her 2,223 people on board went down with the ship, among them many of the most prominent people around then. One of them, the richest person on the Titanic, whom did not survive, was the American businessman, real estate builder and inventor John Jacob Astor.


Cameron's Titanic.

Every good story contains drama, but the story of the Titanic also has a fair amount of wealth, luxury, nostalgia, fate and pure bad luck in it. The ship itself – the real maybe not as much as the imaginal – has features that create vivid images of grandness and size. The Titanic was, after all, a technological wonder, the largest liner of its time, and a proof of mankind’s endless engineering ability. In 1997, director James Cameron helped spice things up even more by adding sex and antagonism between Titanic’s steerage and first class passengers to the story, with the always selling concept of rich-girl-falls-in-love-with-poor-boy.

With so much tasty material, there is no wonder that the Titanic has captivated a world-wide audience for one hundred years. As new generations find their way to the story of the ill-fated vessel, interest is bound to last for a good while.


More great stuff

Titanic book review: ”A Night To Remember”, by Walter Lord 

Tourism: Hundred years later, the Titanic makes new headlines

→ USA Today: The story of how Harland & Wolff built the world’s greatest liner

Whatever happened with the Titanic’s sister ships? Find out here.

The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.