THE STORY OF THE WRECK OF THE REPUBLIC TOLD BY CAPTAIN J. B. RANSON, R.N.R., OF THE RESCUING STEAMSHIP BALTIC
Readers of The Outlook are familiar with the main incidents, which were reported in The Outlook of last week, connected with the sinking of the steamship Republic, of the White Star Line, outward bound for Naples, by the Italian liner Florida, inward bound for New York, in a dense fog off the island of Nantucket. Among many other vessels dramatically summoned by the use of the wireless telegraph was the steamship Baltic of the White Star Line. Her Commander, Captain Ranson, is a man of forty-five, of ruddy face, broad shoulders, and elastic step, and is a living testimonial to the healthfulness of the seaman's life, which he has followed for thirty years. He went to sea as an apprentice on a British sailing vessel at fourteen, and at twenty-four was Captain of a steamer of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company on the west coast of South America. He has been in the service of the White Star Line for eighteen years. Captain Ranson has told to a member of the editorial staff of The Outlook in a special interview the story of the rescue of the sixteen hundred passengers whose lives were jeopardized by the collision, and we are permitted to give this story as told to one individual in a carefully considered form heretofore unpublished. The Outlook is glad to have this opportunity of placing the accurate facts before its readers in their proper perspective for the first time. We discuss somewhat fully on another page the principles and lessons of what we believe to be the most dramatic event in ocean travel of modern times.--THE EDITORS.
ON the morning of the disaster we had already made the Nantucket lightship by the submarine bell. The Baltic was inward bound for New York from Liverpool, and we were going at a reduced speed in a very heavy fog. We had located the lightship about midnight, and had proceeded about eighty miles to the westward. At seven-fifteen on that Saturday morning the wireless operator came rushing up to me on the bridge--he did not take time to write the message on the usual printed form, but had put it down on the first slip of paper he could lay his hands on--and handed me this message: "The Republic dangerously. Latitude 40:17 north; longitude 70 west." You can see from the wording of this message, from which some such word as "injured" is apparently omitted after the word "dangerously," in what urgent haste it was sent. It came from the wireless station at Siasconset, on the island of Nantucket. My first move was to throw the helm hard a-starboard and make for the position of the Republic with all possible speed. We knew her latitude and longitude, and our job was to find her in the thickest kind of a fog. At that time we were sixty-four miles from the position given us in the first message from the Republic, but of course she was drifting all the time, and during our twelve hours' search I estimate we traveled two hundred miles in our zigzag course before we found her, and all within a sea area of ten square miles.
But before I go on with the story I might explain the three scientific methods which we employed in our hunt for the drifting Republic. These were wireless telegraphy, the submarine bell and telephone system, and Sir William Thompson's apparatus for sounding. Wireless telegraphy you are doubtless familiar with. Almost all passenger vessels, as well as naval ships, are supplied with it, and can communicate with each other or with the stations on land within a radius of two hundred miles. A wireless message cannot convey to you the definite position of a moving vessel. The electric waves from a wireless instrument move in a circle. It is like throwing a stone into the water, and the stronger you throw the stone the farther the wavelets go; so, if you get a distress call, the vessel sending it may be anywhere in any direction within a circle of two hundred miles, of which the sending vessel is the center. Of course a vessel in trouble can send her latitude and longitude, and that helps to locate her. But if you are in a fog and have lost your reckoning, wireless will not help you much in regard to the position of the land. But a submarine bell will. The Nantucket lightship, like all modern lightships in this country, Great Britain, and the Continent of Europe, has a submarine bell which is kept constantly ringing--by compressed air I believe. The sound waves go out below the surface of the water and can be heard for a distance of seventeen miles by passing ships with the proper instruments installed. On my ship, for example, there are two apertures on either side of the bow which you might call submarine ears. They are connected by wires with a telephone receiver on the bridge. By listening at this telephone and switching the instrument from the starboard "ear" to the port "ear" and back again, you can hear the faint tones of the lightship's submarine bell when you get in range of it. If the tone is louder through the starboard "ear" than through the port "ear," you know the lightship is on your starboard side. If the tone is exactly the same through both "ears," you know the lightship is dead ahead. This apparatus helped me greatly, as I shall explain later, in finding the Republic.
The third method I employed, in connection with the wireless telegraph and submarine bell, was Sir William Thompson's sounding apparatus. The Baltic was equipped with this appliance, and we could take soundings to the depth of one hundred fathoms while going at full speed. Employing the ordinary method of a sounding lead attached to a rope, you have to stop your ship dead to take a sounding. The modern sounding appliance is attached to a wire like a piano string, and it goes to the bottom, records the depth, and is hoisted to the deck again without the ship's speed being retarded a second. Moreover, the weight at the end of the wire is filled with a substance--often just common brown soap--to which some of the soil or sand or mud of the bottom of the sea sticks. An examination of this material, which is frequently described on the charts or is known from previous experience, helps to locate your position.
This explanation will enable you to understand a little better, perhaps, how we pursued the Republic all day long, like a hound on the scent, and finally found her, at about half-past six in the evening, after steering and zigzagging about all day. The Republic's position, as I have already said, kept constantly changing in the fog, and, as fast as I could get to a point of latitude and longitude noted in the last wireless message received, Captain Sealby on the Republic would have moved, involuntarily of course, to another. I was getting wireless messages thick and fast all the time from Captain Sealby on the Republic, from the Company's office in New York, via Siasconset, and from the other ships which had joined in the search for the Republic in response to the "C. Q. D." distress call, of which we have heard so much during the past few days. This is a general danger signal to all ships equipped with wireless apparatus within range, and warns them to be on the alert to render help if necessary. The initials "C. Q. D." may naturally be supposed to stand for "Come Quick! Danger!" The message I received was as follows:
Hear general call and message repeated. Republic fifteen miles south of Nantucket light vessel. Requires immediate assistance. Do utmost to reach her. SIASCONSET.
Among the ships responding to the "C. Q. D." message were the Lucania, La Lorraine, the Furnessia, the New York, and the Gresham and the Seneca, the latter two being United States Government vessels. You can easily imagine that our operator was kept pretty busy receiving these messages and sending them to the bridge, and that on the bridge we were kept busy, not merely responding to them by wireless replies, but changing the course of our ship in response to the directions or instructions which they gave. As a matter of fact, it may literally be said that my ship, the Baltic, was steered some of the time by Captain Sealby on the Republic. For example, read these messages from Captain Sealby:
[Here Captain Ranson selected from a pile of a hundred or more telegrams written on the thin paper blanks of the Marconi Company the following despatches, apologizing for their somewhat bedraggled appearance, which he explained was due to the fog and rain that enveloped the Baltic's bridge, where they had been received and read.--THE EDITORS.]
You are getting louder. Keep steering east-southeast. Listen for our ship's bell. SEALBY.
Steer southeast now. SEALBY.
But it was not only these direct instructions that helped me, which were received, of course, after we were near enough to the Republic so that she could hear our whistle and the bombs we were firing. Some of Captain Sealby's telegrams helped me by inference. For example, quite early in the day I received this wireless:
Have picked up Nantucket by submarine bell bearing north-northeast. Sounding thirty-five fathoms. SEALBY.
Now this gave me very important and useful information. I knew that the Nantucket lightship's bell could be heard by the submarine telephone not over seventeen miles, and that therefore the Republic must be within a radius of seventeen miles from the lightship. Consequently, when I could not hear the submarine bell myself, I knew that I was outside of the Republic's position. In the second place, I knew the Republic was in thirty-five fathoms of water. So we kept sounding continually, and as soon as we struck forty fathoms we changed our course to strike thirty-five fathoms, for I knew there was no use of our being in forty fathoms when they were in thirty-five; and so it was when we got near enough to the Republic for them to hear our whistle. When I received a message from Captain Sealby saying, "We heard your whistle, but it has gone out of range now," we immediately changed our course to get within range again. Here are some of the messages received during the day that indicate the kind of wireless conversation that was continually going on:
Lucania says please listen for his four blasts.
Republic says we can hear a bomb to the west of us. Is it you?
La Lorraine says he hears Republic's bell, and is steering straight towards him.
La Lorraine says tell Captain Ranson we are blowing a whistle, not a horn. Please make as much noise as possible.
Have not heard Lucania, but she is still around. Am in touch with Lorraine. SEALBY.
La Lorraine and Baltic ask Republic if he hears bell, bomb, or whistle. He replies he hears steamer's whistle, and thinks we both must be close to him. BALTIC OPERATOR.
Republic operator says, "We are sinking rapidly." We are keeping everything clear and standing by for Republic's signals. BALTIC OPERATOR.
Captain Baltic: Am cruising round trying to locate you. CAPTAIN LUCANIA.
Captain Baltic: There is a bomb bearing northwest from me. Keep firing. SEALBY.
Siasconset says hear from Republic; says to Baltic to hurry; they are sinking fast. BALTIC OPERATOR.
Tell Captain Ranson steer northeast at once. SEALBY.
Furnessia [which had turned round to render assistance--THE EDITORS] now thirty-five miles west Nantucket. Will take three hours to get back. SIASCONSET.
Captain Ranson: Can we be of any assistance? If not, will proceed to New York, as we have hardly enough coal to reach port.
You are very close now. Right a-beam. Come carefully. You are on our port side. Have just seen your rocket. You are very close to us. SEALBY.
These messages, taken at random from scores of others, may seem somewhat matter-of-fact to you, but I can assure you they meant a good deal to us on the bridge of the Baltic, and they indicate how we had to feel our way. After twelve hours' search zigzagging and circling in the fog, changing our course as each new bit of information came by wireless, we at last found the Republic. We came within a hundred feet of the ship before we could see anything, and then we saw only the faint glare of a green light they were burning--like the illumination you burn on the Fourth of July. The ship's sidelights we could not distinguish, and that was why there was no real use in sending up rockets, although we did so constantly on the chance of their being seen. The passengers had already been taken aboard the Florida, so there was no anxiety about them. The Florida was still well afloat and there was no danger of her going down, so the first thing for us to do was to transfer the crew from the Republic to our ship. Later we steamed to the Florida and took off the passengers of both ships. As far as I could ascertain, the number taken from the Florida was 1,516 people. There was quite a nasty sea running, and a thick fog. We went to leeward; we did not dare to go to windward of the Florida, as we should have been blown on top of her. The process of transfer was simple enough. We started at eleven o'clock on Saturday night, and the crews of the three ships, the Republic, the Florida, and the Baltic, rowed back and forth in the Republic's lifeboats, and finished the next morning about eight o'clock. Both passengers and crews behaved remarkably well, but I am sure it seemed to them a perfectly simple and natural thing to do, although of course somewhat uncomfortable. The unusual thing about it was that the Republic's passengers were transferred twice for reasons of safety within a comparatively few hours, on the open sea and in small boats. This has never occurred before in my experience.
You ask why Captain Sealby felt that he must stick by his ship even at great personal risk. It is true that he and his second officer were the only ones on board when the Republic finally foundered, and were thrown into the sea and rescued with some difficulty on account of the darkness. They ran this risk, not in the least to indulge in pyrotechnics, for Captain Sealby is not that kind of a man, but for two very good reasons. First, it is a tradition of the sea that a captain must stick to his ship until the last hope is gone, and that then he must be the last one to leave her. In the second place, if he should abandon his ship even with the conviction that she was hopelessly lost, and then some other vessel or seaman should come along and save her, his own judgment could very easily be questioned, and his reputation as a resourceful and trustworthy commander would be irretrievably ruined. As to the work involved, it was hard for everybody concerned, but that is a part of the trade. During the time of the search I was where I had to be, of course, on the bridge. I went up about six o'clock on Friday morning and stayed there until we docked at one o'clock on Monday afternoon--about eighty hours. Food? My food was brought up to me. Sleep? Why, no, I was there on the bridge walking around. I couldn't have slept even had I gone below. However, that is nothing unusual; we often have two or three days on the bridge without rest in bad weather, and the effect of that is usually that one cannot sleep for some time afterward. For instance, on Monday night, after I got ashore and was free from all responsibility, I could not sleep.
Yes, all these modern appliances which aided us in our search for the Republic add greatly to the safety of passengers. These modern devices for safety in navigation correspond to the block signal system in railroad travel. Of course we have our lookout up in the crow's-nest, who calls out "All's well," just as the lookout did before modern safeguards were thought of. We have had the submarine bell apparatus on all the White Star ships for about five years. It is a comparatively recent invention. American? Yes, an American invention--from Boston, I believe.
I see no reason to think that we have reached the climax of invention for safety devices in navigation. There is always something new. Who would have thought ten years ago of wireless messages to be used in saving life at sea? Nobody dreamed of it; and it is quite possible to conceive that other discoveries may be made of equal benefit to navigation. There is no question about it--the passenger on a well-equipped transatlantic liner is safer than he can be anywhere else in the world.