In the next two months, we will be bombarded with news items about the centenary of Titanic, which sank in April 1912. Liverpool’s White Star Line never recovered from the shock waves that resulted from the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable. The story of Titanic’s sister ship, Oceanic, is a less dramatic one, although its fate was remarkably similar.
Like Titanic, Oceanic was designed by Thomas Ismay, director of the White Star Line and built in Belfast by Harland and Woolf. Launched in January 1899, it became known as the ‘Queen of the Seas’, the largest liner in the world and the first to exceed SS Great Eastern. The dramatic photograph was taken of the ship in Canada Graving Dock in August 1899. Oceanic could hold 1700 passengers and 350 crew and the photograph gives a good indication of her size when set against the small crowd in the dock.
Oceanic’s short life had its moments of tragedy, including ramming and sinking the small Waterford Steamship Company SS Kincora, killing 7. In 1905, Oceanic was the first White Star Line ship to suffer a mutiny, which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 35 stokers upset with the officers over working conditions.
In 1912, after the departure of RMS Titanic, Oceanic became involved in the near collision of Titanic with SS New York. Oceanic was nearby when New York broke from her docking and nearly collided with Titanic due to the large wake caused by Titanic’s size and speed.
Finally, in 1914, Oceanic was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service and equipped with guns. Steaming up to Scarpa Flow, it then set out to patrol the seas around the Shetlands for enemy shipping. To quote Wikipedia: ‘An accurate fix of their position was made on the night of 7 September by navigator Lieutenant David Blair RNR (previously assigned to, then reassigned from Titanic). While everyone on the bridge thought they were well to the southwest of the Isle of Foula, they were in fact an estimated thirteen to fourteen miles off course and on the wrong side of the island. This put them directly in the path of a reef, the notorious Shaalds of Foula, which poses a major threat to shipping, coming within a few feet of the surface, and in calm weather giving no warning sign whatsoever.
Captain Slayter had retired after his night watch, unaware of the situation, with orders to steer to Foula. Captain Smith took over the morning watch, and with his former knowledge of the ship was only happy when the ship was in open sea. Having previously disagreed with his naval superior about dodging around the island, he instructed the navigator to plot a course out to sea. Slayter must have felt the course change, as he reappeared on the bridge to countermand Smith’s order and made what turned out to be a hasty and ill-informed judgement which resulted in the ship running directly onto the Shaalds on the morning of 8 September. She was wrecked in a flat calm and clear weather. She was the first Allied passenger ship to be lost in the war.’
Shades of the Costa Concordia indeed – although both Captains were acquitted at court martial. Lieutenant Blair, who had survived Titanic’s sinking, was not so lucky and was court martialled for fixing the wrong course.
My knowledge of ships and shipping is extremely limited but it is a huge part of Liverpool’s history and it is important to remind ourselves that the port was what made Liverpool great. The recent news about the Cruise Liner terminal is a real cause to celebrate and will unquestionably add to the exciting mix the city offers to tourists.