The rise and fall of the super liners

To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, Mike Walsh remembers when he signed on as a deckhand, aged 16, on the MV Britannic, the last of the White Star Lines.

NOTHING quite prepares you for the city-like size of an ocean liner.

The MV Britannic (III) was the last of the White Star Liners with their distinctive black and buff Titanic funnels and the distinguished blue ensign, which marks it as a Royal Mail ship.

After going up the gangway with kitbag on shoulder I was faced with a bewildering labyrinth of endless corridors, stairways, shopping malls; and that was on each deck.

As in a city I found the need to constantly ask directions to the crew’s quarters in the behemoth’s bows.

I sailed several times to New York and never really got to know the ship such was its size.

There were cinemas and dance halls; shopping arcades. It had its own police force and fire fighting crews. There was an onboard bank.

My seagoing career was delayed six-months. My chest at 15-years old was 32.5”; the minimum was 33”.

I worked hard at it and whilst I did so I worked in a small factory.

There my best friend a lady named Norah, who left to marry an American serviceman.

I thought I had seen the last of my friend. Several days into the 8-day voyage to New York I dodged the atrocious weather by going to my 4am watch using a corridor far below the ship’s waterline.

Who should I bump into, in nightdress and curlers, but my friend Norah; how we hugged each other.

Such was the ocean greyhound’s size we two had been blissfully unaware of each other for days on end.

Yet, at 27,000 tonnes and 712 feet in length MV Britannic was considerably smaller than its ill-fated similarly un-Christened big sister, the RMS Titanic.

The names of all White Star liners end in ic.

Saying ic aloud reveals the reason why so many died when RMS Titanic took its final voyage to the icy depths of the North Atlantic.

Few of its passengers, dead or alive, realised their vulnerability; the hole through which the flooding waters cascaded was in truth the size of a household fridge.

Certainly the building of the biggest passenger ship of the time was as pioneering as many aspects of space travel today.

The complexities of building a ship of that size was probably the most challenging venture undertaken by man.

Starting from scratch it ends in a sleek waterborne great city that sweeps across the world’s most notorious ocean at the speed of a car.

When the brakes are applied it careers on for a league before it comes to a stop; that is six land miles.

Life on board carries on as it does elsewhere. People shop, they dance and use the swimming pools, the theatres, gyms, bars and restaurants.

Some play bingo, others prefer ballroom dancing, promenading and taking the air. The fashionable ladies indulge themselves at the beauty and hairstyling salons.

If any fall ill the ship’s hospital is highly recommended.

Others are happy to use the extensive library or read the ship’s daily newspaper.

The crew go about their tasks cheerfully; there is in fact a community of crews; a class system of sorts.

The deckhands consider the catering crew as cissies; not for waiters the all-weather tasks to be carried out on deck regardless of time or weather.

Those who toil far below the waterline are known as grease monkeys.

The ship is twin-propeller; gleaming shafts the circumference of a small family car; the pistons are like gleaming thumping lifts; the noise is deafening.

The men and officers back then were a breed apart.

I recall a perfect mid-Atlantic day; the seascape was as smooth as a sheet of ice as I stood at the ship’s wheel.

I was a little taken aback when the First Officer ordered me to alter course but he had his reasons.

His keen eyes had spotted a pod of whales in the far distance. His intention was to use the liner as a spear; I am sad to say I carried out orders as they were given.

I don’t judge the past; that is for others. It is as the great bard surmised, all part of life’s rich tapestry.

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