• Susan Flanagan

Lessons from Titanic | The Kids are Alright | 2012

This week two of my texting teenagers switched from regular cell phones to iPhones. They can now look up hockey highlights, check the weather in Zimbabwe, film their friends roller blading off roof tops, order a pizza in Italy and text Martians - all for $25 a month. (Note: they pay out of their own pockets).


As I dust off an old two-tape VHS set to watch James Cameron’s Titanic on the VCR, it dawns on me that #2 could watch the movie on his iPhone. This may sound far-fetched but we’re talking about a boy who set the household record of sending and receiving over 500 text messages in one day. It’s hard for my children to remember life without iPhones even though they only came on the market five years ago. The thought of poking a screen with their fingers to send messages anywhere in the world is as second nature to them as gathering around the radio to listen to stories was to my mother just as soon as her family got one in 1942 when she was a teenager.


As the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic sinking approaches I’d like my children to realize how far communications have come in the past century and the role Newfoundland played in the rescue of survivors. Back in 1912 the fact that 700 people were saved from the freezing North Atlantic was a true miracle. It was only eleven years before the Titanic disaster that a 27-year-old Irish Italian named Guglielmo Marconi received the letter s in Morse code from Poldhu, England. 1,800 miles across the Atlantic. Unheard of. I’d recommend showing your children the spot on the parking lot (plaque on wall looking out over North Head Trail) where Marconi stood in the blistering winds on Signal Hill setting up kites to raise an antenna to receive the signal.


Marconi was the Steve Jobs of the turn of the century. Back in 1896, he had taken out a patent for wireless telegraphy using radio waves. Two years later his company was communicating wirelessly between ships and lighthouses. In 1898 Marconi even managed to send messages across the English Channel from England to France. It was no surprise to anyone who knew him that he would not give up until he succeeded in sending wireless signals around the world.


It is thanks to Marconi that ship-to-shore communications were as advanced as they were in 1912. Without him, signals would not have been sent to the ship Carpathia to hightail it to the wreck site and pick up anyone they could find. The more than 700 survivors owed their lives to him. And of course, technology has been advancing at a lightning pace ever since.

I remember the first time I saw the white Russian research vessel, Akademik Keldysh, docked in St. John’s harbour. It was summer 1991 and I was working for NTV as a reporter. I scored the big story that morning and was so excited about seeing the two remote submarines that were heading to the wreck of Titanic that I snuck my engineer sister on board as my assistant.


It was incomprehensible to me that these two tiny subs, Mir 1 and Mir 2, were capable of descending almost four kilometres to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic. What freaked me out even more was the fact they were remotely operated.


It cost about $37,000 a head to take a Mir taxi down to the wreck of Titanic back in the day. Now more than 20 years later, it`s $79,000. And with Titanic mania taking hold of the world in the week leading up to the hundredth anniversary of the sinking, people are once again signing up to take the trip. http://titanicexpeditions.com/


Before you rush to the computer, take note that the entire Titanic Expedition takes up to 16 days with 12-13 days at sea. Once on site, the two submersibles will dive with two paying customers and a pilot down to the wreck. Depending on weather, the dive may begin at night. Sounds scary, but what difference does it make whether it`s night or day on the surface? It won`t take very long before it`s pitch black under that water. It`d be like Healey`s Pond multiplied by a million. You couldn`t pay me $79,000 to descend two and half hours in the scary darkness to a place where the water pressure is over 6,000 pounds per square inch. After polling my four older techy children, three of the four said they’d have no qualms about descending. They’d have total confidence in the technology and the fact that someone else happily up on the sun (or moon) lit surface is controlling their descent.


Back in the ‘90s my journalist husband attended a session at C-CORE where local media got to ask questions of Russian scientists concerning the submarine dives to the site. One Newfoundland journalist asked: “Are you squat when you’re in the sub?”


“No, you’re more in a lying position,” answered the scientist. Great, not only is there a potential language barrier between you and the controllers, but you’re crammed in a tiny ball of steel with two other people for half a day.


“But what about doing your pee?” I asked my children.


“I’m sure they give you a diaper,” said one.


Like I said, there’s no way you’d get me to the bottom of St. John’s harbour let alone down to a dark underwater gravesite. But hey, I can sign on to the expedition minus the dive option for $19,000. This includes an airplane trip to Halifax to see the wooden deckchair at the Maritime museum and Fairview Lawn Cemetery with its Titanic graves including the one of J Dawson, the inspiration for James Cameron’s Jack Dawson in his movie Titanic. The only difference is the real J Dawson was actually an Englishman named James who worked in the engine room, rather than a poker-playing American named Jack, who won his ticket on Titanic minutes before the ship set sail. When I went there back when the movie came out, people had left their movie stubs on the grave.


The diveless tour option also includes a helicopter tour of iceberg alley, a Titanic-themed dinner at Atlantica restaurant in Portugal Cove, and a driving tour of Cape Race, the site of the original Marconi Wireless Station where the CQD distress signal from Titanic was received.


You don’t have to pay $19,000 to take part in the activities commemorating Titanic. But before you drive two hours south of St. John’s on April 14, please know that Cape Race will be a busy place with slews of international journalists and that you’d be best to book in advance for any of the activities (http://www.receivingtitanic.com/) or else you might have a car load of disappointed children. If you do decide to drive without reserving, please check in at the Edge of Avalon Interpretation Centre in Portugal Cove South (709-438-1100) before attempting to the trip to the light house in your own vehicle. The road to Cape Race is 19 kilometres of unforgiving dirt, and the bridges are to be navigated slowly and with respect. I once ripped the transmission out of my van while guiding four well-heeled Americans interested in Titanic. Luckily aforementioned light keepers helped procure a tow truck for the van and a lift for the Americans where they enjoyed supper in the Trepassey Motel. But that’s another story.


We have done the trip as a family and it was fantastic. And on the hundredth anniversary of Titanic sinking there are a lot of cool things happening, like the re-enactment of the wireless messages being relayed back and forth. After the wireless operator at Cape Race received the iceberg warning from the ship, Californian, the operator relayed the message to Titanic, whose wireless operators were busy firing messages from well-healed passengers to waiting loved ones in new York.


“Shut up, shut up, I’m working Cape Race,” came the reply. Their response sounds a bit shocking today. In fact I may have got a cake of Sunlight soap rubbed on my tongue had I said the same thing as a child. But it may have just been the way wireless operators communicated with each other when they wanted to keep lines clear. After all, the operator on Titanic had received ice warnings earlier and communicated them to the bridge. It’s interested that both the wireless operators on land and those on board Titanic were all employed by the Marconi company. For four days after the sinking the wireless operators at Cape Race worked day and night relaying messages between relatives of those on board Titanic trying to see if their loved ones survived and ships involved in the rescue effort.

The replica of the Marconi Wireless Station at Cape Race, which has been christened the Myrick Wireless Interpretation Centre, to honour the Myrick family of light keepers and wireless operators who worked Cape Race from1874 until 2007, is definitely worth a visit. On April 10 at noon interpreters will unveil a new permanent Titanic exhibit that explains Cape Race’s role in the rescue efforts following the sinking.


On Saturday April 14 there’s a brunch at the Portugal Cove South Community Centre at noon. Then at 5:30 there’s an ecumenical service at Holy Redeemer Church in Trepassey, followed by supper and entertainment including a new song by Ron Hynes, explaining Cape Race’s Titanic connection. Jim Payne and Fergus O’Byrne will also perform and a lecture will be given by Alfred McLaren, a past president of the Explorers’ Club in New York and 2012 recipient of the Explorer’s Award for, among other things, sneakily mapping the freezing bottom of the Russian Sea during the Cold War. Undetected by the Russians. Quite the feat. Remember Bob Bartlett of Brigus was the ninth person ever to receive the award back in 1927.


Like any big disaster, Titanic’s sinking changed the way the world viewed safety procedures. It made people realize nothing is unsinkable, as we well know with the Ocean Ranger. The sinking of Titanic brought regulations concerning lifeboats, dedicated communications rooms, automatic danger alerts, changes to hull design and also the International Ice Patrol (IIP), which will be dedicating a Titanic Centennial memorial wreath on Friday, the 13th at 11 am at St. Nicholas’ Anglican Church on St. Nicholas Lane in Torbay.


Admiralty House Museum in Mount Pearl is also participating in the 100th anniversary commemorations with a 24-hour wireless extravaganza on April 15 and 16 in when radio amateurs hope to communicate with their counterparts in Belfast where Titanic was built as well as many other sites in Europe and Australia. This museum, built in 1914 by the Marconi Telegraph Company as a secret wireless station for the British navy, is one of my favourite anywhere. It has a replica wireless room and a comprehensive display of the history of communications that rivals the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck.


Finally you can head to the mall to watch James Cameron’s brilliant blockbuster movie reissued in 3D. As for me, I dusted off the two-tape boxed VHS set and watched the movie which I think was well deserving of its 11 Academy Awards. The fact James Cameron used an unreliable narrator to tell the Titanic story in a fresh light was brilliant. Kate Winslett’s character of Rose Dawson, a 101-year-old lady who survived the sinking, is touching and thought-provoking. And Leonardo DiCaprio who plays the fictitious Jack Dawson offers some inspirational lines in the movie. “Each day is a gift. Make it count.”


As for me, I’m off to visit The Rooms to see a life jacket, recovered from Steward James McGrady, whose body was the only one picked up by a Newfoundland vessel involved in the search effort.


Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

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