Authors: Erik Larson
When the war began, the Admiralty, exercising rights granted by its deal with Cunard, took possession of the
but soon determined the ship would not be effective as an armed cruiser because the rate at which it consumed coal made it too expensive to operate under battle conditions. The Admiralty retained control of the
for conversion to a troopship, a role for which its size and speed were well suited, but restored the
to Cunard for commercial service.
The guns were never installed, and only the most astute passenger would have noticed the mounting rings embedded in the decking.
remained a passenger liner, but with the hull of a battleship.
for detail and discipline, Captain Turner called himself “an old-fashioned sailorman.” He had been born in 1856, in the age of sail and empire. His father had been a sea captain but had hoped his son would choose a different path and enter the church. Turner refused to become a “
devil-dodger,” his term, and at the age of eight somehow managed to win his parents’ permission to go to sea. He wanted adventure and found it in abundance. He first served as a cabin boy on a sailing ship, the
, which ran aground off northern Ireland on a clear, moonlit night. Turner swam for shore. All the other crew and all passengers aboard were rescued, though one infant died of bronchitis. “
Had it been stormy,” one passenger wrote, “I believe not a soul could have been saved.”
Turner moved from ship to ship and at one point sailed under his father’s command, aboard a square-rigger. “
I was the quickest man aloft in a sailing ship,” Turner said. His adventures continued. While he was second mate of a clipper ship, the
, a wave knocked him into the sea. He had been fishing at the time.
A fellow crewman saw him fall and threw him a life buoy, but he floated for over an hour among circling sharks before the ship could fight its way back to his position. He joined Cunard on October 4, 1877, at a salary of £5 per month, and two weeks later sailed as third officer of the
, his first steamship. He again proved himself a sailor of more than usual bravery and agility. One day in heavy fog, as the
was leaving Liverpool, the ship struck a small bark, which began to sink. Four crew and a harbor pilot drowned. The
dispatched a rescue party, which included Turner, who himself pulled a crewman and a boy from the rigging.
Turner served as third officer on two other Cunard ships but resigned on June 28, 1880, after learning that the company never promoted a man to captain unless he’d been master of a ship before joining the company. Turner built his credentials, earned his master’s certificate, and became captain of a clipper ship, and along the way found yet another opportunity to demonstrate his courage. In February 1883, a boy of fourteen fell from a dock into Liverpool Harbor, into water so cold it could kill a man in minutes. Turner was a strong swimmer, at a time when most sailors still held the belief that there was no point in knowing how to swim, since it would only prolong your suffering. Turner leapt in and rescued the boy. The Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society gave him a silver medal for heroism. That same year he rejoined Cunard and married a cousin, Alice Hitching. They had two sons, the first, Percy, in 1885, and Norman eight years later.
Even now, as a certified ship’s master, Turner’s advance within Cunard took time. The delay, according to his best and longtime friend, George Ball, caused him great frustration, but, Ball added, “
never, at any time, did he relax in devotion to duty nor waver in the loyalty he always bore to his ship and his Captain.” Over the next two decades, Turner worked his way upward from third officer to chief officer, through eighteen different postings, until on March 19, 1903, Cunard at last awarded him his own command. He became master of a small steamship, the
, which served Mediterranean ports.
His home life did not fare as well. His wife left him, took the boys, and moved to Australia. Turner’s sisters hired a young woman, Mabel Every, to care for him. Miss Every and Turner lived near each other, in a suburb of Liverpool called Great Crosby. At first she served as a housekeeper, but over time she became more of a companion. She saw a side of Turner that his officers and crew did not. He liked smoking his pipe and telling stories. He loved dogs and cats and had a fascination with bees. He liked to laugh. “
On the ships he was a very strict disciplinarian,” Miss Every wrote, “but at Home he was a very kind jolly man and fond of children and animals.”
ESPITE THE SORROW
that shaded his personal life, his career gained momentum. After two years as master of the
, he moved on to command the
, the ship that later, in April 1912, under a different captain, would become famous for rescuing survivors of the
. Next came the
, and the
. His advance was all the more remarkable given that he lacked the charm and polish that Cunard expected its commanders to display. A Cunard captain was supposed to be much more than a mere navigator. Resplendent in his uniform and cap, he was expected to exude assurance, competence, and gravitas. But a captain also served a role less easy to define. He was three parts mariner, one part club director. He was to be a willing guide for first-class passengers wishing to learn more about the mysteries of the ship; he was to preside over dinners with prominent passengers; he was to walk the ship and engage passengers in conversation about the weather, their reasons for crossing the Atlantic, the books they were reading.
Turner would sooner bathe in bilge. According to Mabel Every, he described passengers as “
a load of bloody monkeys who are constantly chattering.” He preferred dining in his quarters to holding court at the captain’s table in the first-class dining room. He spoke little and did so with a parsimony that could be maddening; he also tended to be blunt.
On one voyage, while in command of
, he ran afoul of two priests, who felt moved to write to Cunard “complaining of certain remarks” that Turner had made when they asked permission to hold a Roman Catholic service for third-class passengers. Exactly what Turner said cannot be known, but his remarks were sufficient to cause Cunard to demand a formal report and to make the incident a subject of deliberation at a meeting of the company’s board of directors.
At the start of another voyage, while he was in charge of the
, a woman traveling in first class told Turner that she wanted to be on the bridge as the ship moved along the Mersey River out to sea. Turner explained that this would be impossible, for Cunard rules expressly prohibited anyone other than necessary officers and crew from being on the bridge in “narrow waters.”
She asked, what would he do if a
happened to insist?
Turner replied, “
Madam, do you think that would be a lady?”
Turner’s social burden was eased in 1913 when Cunard, acknowledging the complexity of running the
, created a new officer’s position for both, that of “staff captain,” second in command of the ship. Not only did this allow Turner to concentrate on navigation; it largely eliminated his obligation to be charming. The
’s staff captain as of May 1915 was James “Jock” Anderson, whom Turner described as more “
The crew respected Turner and for the most part liked him. “I think I speak for all the crew if I say we all had the utmost confidence in Captain Turner,” said one of the ship’s waiters. “
He was a good, and conscientious skipper.” But one officer, Albert Arthur Bestic, observed that Turner was popular only “up to a point.” Bestic noted that Turner still seemed to have one foot on the deck of a sailing ship, as became evident at odd moments.
One evening, while Bestic and other crewmen were off duty and playing bridge, the ship’s quartermaster appeared at the door carrying a knot called a Turk’s head. Complex to begin with, this was a four-stranded variant, the most complicated of all.
Captain’s compliments,” the quartermaster said, “and he says he wants another of these made.”
The bridge game stopped, Bestic recalled, “and we spent the rest of the 2nd. dog”—the watch from 6:00 to 8:00
.—“trying to remember how it was made.” This was not easy. The knot was typically used for decoration, and none of the men had tied one in a long while. Wrote Bestic, “It was Turner’s idea of humor.”
broke all records for speed, to the dismay of Germany. In a 1909 voyage from Liverpool to New York, the ship covered the distance from Daunt Rock off Ireland to New York’s Ambrose Channel in four days, eleven hours, and forty-two minutes, at an average speed of 25.85 knots. Until then that kind of speed had seemed an impossibility. As the ship passed the Nantucket lightship, it was clocked at 26 knots.
Turner attributed the speed to new propellers installed the preceding July and to the prowess of his engineers and firemen. He told a reporter the ship would have made it even faster if not for foul weather and a head-on sea at the beginning of the voyage and a gale that arose at the end. The reporter noted that Turner looked “bronzed” from the sun.
By May 1915 Turner was the most seasoned captain at Cunard, the commodore of the line. He had confronted all manner of shipboard crises, including mechanical mishaps, fires, cracked furnaces, open-sea rescues, and extreme weather of all kinds. He was said to be fearless. One seaman aboard the
, Thomas Mahoney, called him “
one of the bravest Captains I sailed under.”
It was Turner who experienced what may have been the most frightening threat to the
, this during a voyage to New York in January 1910, when he encountered a phenomenon he had never previously met in his half century at sea.
Soon after leaving Liverpool, the ship entered a gale, with a powerful headwind and tall seas that required Turner to reduce speed to 14 knots. By itself the weather posed no particular challenge. He had seen worse, and the ship handled the heavy seas with grace. And so, on Monday evening, January 11, at 6:00, soon after
leaving the coast of Ireland behind, Turner went down one deck to his quarters to have dinner. He left his chief officer in charge.
The wave,” Turner said, “came as a surprise.”
It was not just any wave, but an “accumulative” wave, known in later times as a rogue, formed when waves pile one upon another to form a single palisade of water.
had just climbed a lesser wave and was descending into the trough beyond it when the sea ahead rose in a wall so high it blocked the helmsman’s view of the horizon. The ship plunged through it. Water came to the top of the wheelhouse, 80 feet above the waterline.
The wave struck the front of the bridge like a giant hammer and bent steel plates inward. Wood shutters splintered. A large spear of broken teak pierced a hardwood cabinet to a depth of two inches. Water filled the bridge and wheelhouse and tore the wheel loose, along with the helmsman. The ship began to “fall off,” so that its bow was no longer perpendicular to the oncoming waves, a dangerous condition in rough weather. The lights of the bridge and on the masthead above short-circuited and went out. The officers and helmsman struggled to their feet, initially in waist-high water. They reattached the wheel and corrected the ship’s heading. The wave’s impact had broken doors, bent internal bulkheads, and shattered two lifeboats. By sheerest luck, no one was seriously injured.
Turner rushed to the bridge and found water and chaos, but once he assured himself that the ship had endured the assault without catastrophic damage and that no passengers had been hurt, he simply added it to his long list of experiences at sea.
Fog was one of the few phenomena that worried him. There was no way to predict its occurrence, and, once in fog, one had no way to know whether another vessel was thirty miles ahead or thirty yards.
The Cunard manual, “Rules to Be Observed in the Company’s Service,” required that when encountering fog a captain had to post extra lookouts, reduce speed, and turn on his ship’s foghorn. The rest of it was luck and careful navigation. A captain
had to know his position at all times as precisely as possible, because fog could arise quickly. One instant there’d be clear sky, the next obliteration.
The dangers of fog had become grotesquely evident one year earlier, also in May, when the
Empress of Ireland
, of the Canadian Pacific line, was struck by a collier—a coal-carrying freighter—in a fog bank in the Saint Lawrence River. The
sank in fourteen minutes with the loss of 1,012 lives.
Turner knew the importance of precise navigation and was considered to be especially good at it, careful to the extreme, especially in the narrow waters close to a port.
morning, May 1, Turner would make a detailed inspection of the ship, accompanied by his purser and chief steward. All preparations for the voyage had to be completed by then, rooms cleaned, beds made, all stores—gin, Scotch, cigars, peas, mutton, beef, ham—loaded aboard, all cargo in place, and the ship’s supply of drinking water tested for freshness and clarity. Special attention was always to be paid to lavatories and bilges, and to maintaining proper levels of ventilation, lest the liner start to stink. The goal, in official Cunard parlance, was “
to keep the ship sweet.”
Everything had to be done in such a manner that none of the passengers, whether in first class or third, would be aware of the nature and extent of the week’s travail. The needs of passengers were paramount, as the Cunard manual made clear. “
The utmost courtesy and attention are at all times to be shown to passengers whilst they are on board the Company’s ships, and it is the special duty of the Captain to see that this regulation is observed by the officers and others serving under him.” On one previous voyage, this duty included allowing two big-game hunters, Mr. and Mrs. D. Saunderson of County Cavan, Ireland, to bring two four-month-old lion cubs aboard, which they had captured in British East Africa and planned to give to the Bronx Zoo. The couple’s two-year-old daughter, Lydia, played with the cubs on deck,
much to the amusement of the other passengers,” according to the
New York Times
. Mrs. Saunderson attracted a good deal of attention herself. She had killed an elephant. “No, I was not afraid,” she told the
. “I think I never am.”