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Sinkable Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone Book

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Sinkable Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone Read Book Online And Download

Overview: From the national bestselling author of The Food Explorer, a fascinating and rollicking plunge into the story of the world’s most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic


On a frigid April night in 1912, the world’s largest—and soon most famous—ocean liner struck an iceberg and slipped beneath the waves. She had scarcely disappeared before her new journey began, a seemingly limitless odyssey through the world’s fixation with her every tragic detail. Plans to find and raise the Titanic began almost immediately. Yet seven decades passed before it was found. Why? And of some three million shipwrecks that litter the ocean floor, why is the world still so fascinated with this one?

In Sinkable, Daniel Stone spins a fascinating tale of history, science, and obsession, uncovering the untold story of the Titanic not as a ship but as a shipwreck. He explores generations of eccentrics, like American Charles Smith, whose 1914 recovery plan using a synchronized armada of ships bearing electromagnets was complex, convincing, and utterly impossible; Jack Grimm, a Texas oil magnate who fruitlessly dropped a fortune to find the wreck after failing to find Noah’s Ark; and the British Doug Woolley, a former pantyhose factory worker who has claimed, since the 1960s, to be the true owner of the Titanic wreckage.


Sinkable Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Sinkable Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone Book





Sinkable Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone Book Read Online Chapter One


SHIPFALL


When Ok-Khun Chamnan, a diplomat from Siam on his way to Portugal, saw seawater filling the hull of the ship he was traveling on, he knew he and his fellow passengers were done for. In April of 1686, the ship, its name lost to history, sailed too close to the rocky shallows of Cape Agulhas off southern Africa. Ocean waves lifted the ship and slammed it on the rocks. The hull cracked on all sides as it was raised up and again plunked down hard. Chamnan watched the crew cut down the masts and throw the guns overboard, the resignation of a lost cause. But it was too late.

“The water [was] entering in abundance,” recalled another survivor. Water filled the first deck, followed by the gunner’s room, to the captain’s cabin, and finally to the upper decks. “Our ship at last sunk quite down into the Sea,” the survivor wrote. “It would be a hard task to represent the astonishment, terror and consternation that seiz’d upon every Heart in the Ship. Nothing now was heard but cries, sighs and groans.”

Many passengers aboard the ship died. But several lived, including Chamnan, who for the rest of his life told an embellished tale of the experience to every willing audience. Crawling over rocks and fierce seas, he would say, the survivors made it to shore, where, wet and naked, they found nothing but more rocks and rain. Wild animals nipped at their heels. They wandered for over a month, eating lizards, running from lions, and drinking from puddles. Eventually, they made it to the Dutch trading station at the Cape of Good Hope and were rescued.

This tale, one of the earliest first-person accounts of a shipwreck, was preserved for centuries because it was written down. But there’s little about this story that makes it unique. To be battered and beaten at sea on a sinking ship is a condition not special to any era. Boarding an oceangoing vessel in the seventeenth century brought the risk of danger and death, the same as it did in the century before and every one to follow. What all ships have in common, from a three-hundred-year-old merchant ship to the most modern aircraft carrier, is that, eventually, they fail.

Flooding is the most common reason ships sink. Ships float because they’re lighter than the weight of the water they displace. But violent waves and a flooded deck can shift the balance, even slightly, and make a ship that was once lighter than water suddenly heavier. Every year, as many as thirty large ships go missing at the hands of large waves, some as tall as sixty feet, to say little of the uncounted sailboats, yachts, and leisure pontoons that sink every day. Nearly all escape even a passing mention in the news. “Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again,” writes Susan Casey, a chronicler of the world’s largest waves, which, to this day, still swallow the most advanced steel vessels.

After flooding, sinkings are the frequent result of ground strikes, or, less often, collisions with other ships. For a long time, this was intentional. A ship’s design—oblong with pointed ends—was for it not only to swiftly cut through the water but also to ram other ships at their weak center. Before cannons, guns, or even catapults that were reliably accurate, naval battles were decided by the strategy of who could more quickly position their ship in an offensive position and row like hell.

For every ship that hits an iceberg or strikes another vessel, there are thousands more that run into rocks or get moored irreversibly in mud. Some reef systems are especially punishing, like the Seven Stones Reef off the west coast of England, or the Kenn Reefs east of Australia, or the rocky straits of Lombok and Makassar in Southeast Asia. Each has claimed thousands of ships, and because they sit in shallow reef systems, they’re especially popular among wreck divers.

The damage can be mutual. Trying to measure how many ships scrape the ocean bottom is like asking how many cars tap bumpers while parallel parking. Unless the damage is severe, the only witnesses are fish and whales, who must have their own feelings about ship strikes. Usually it’s not the well-known reefs that are the most dangerous but the rocky outcrops in unassuming waters that prey on unsuspecting ships. In the span of eight days in August of 2010, a cargo vessel and two container ships all ran aground in the coastal waters of India, causing two hundred containers to fall into the sea and creating an oil spill visible for miles. Even a ship with a delicate name like Belle Rose can be ruthless. In 2016, an error blamed on the crew caused the destruction of seven acres of coral reef off Malapascua Island in the central Philippines, the world’s top habitat for thresher sharks.

Then there are the wrecks caused by imbalance, a dull demise but still deeply frightening because of its suddenness. All floating objects have what’s known as a metacenter, which can be pictured as a vertical line drawn upward through the center of the ship. The metacenter indicates a ship’s center of gravity, which shifts with every wave. Container ships have to factor imbalance into how they’re loaded and how they move. Stacking containers too high increases a ship’s side profile, a measure known as its windage, which can be like driving a semitruck through a windy canyon. Pushed too far by a monstrous swell or a gust, the ship topples over. Accidents of imbalance can be embarrassing for captains because they’re often caused by poor loading or shoddy engineering. It took Sweden more than three hundred years to laugh about its most famous wreck, the Vasa. The ship was so asymmetrically designed that a gust of wind during its maiden voyage in 1628 caused a list to one side, which filled the lower gunports with water, which was all it took to sink the Vasa.

One of the most bizarre phenomena is when an ordinary-looking ship sinks for no reason. This is sometimes the result of liquefaction, a process that occurs when solid cargo turns to liquid due to the vibration of the engine. You might imagine carrying a bucket of mud that jiggles as water rises up, and how you’d be knocked off-balance by the sloshing. Landlubber truckers are familiar with this principle. Carrying solids is easy, but if they break suddenly while moving a dozen tons of oil or glue, it’ll slosh forward and yank the truck back. It’s worse for ships, which get pulled in all directions. In May of 2005, the Hui Long, a midsize cargo vessel in benign conditions off the coast of Sumatra, was carrying fine-grained minerals and began to list without warning as the cargo began to shift. Within thirty minutes, the list was so steep the captain gave orders to abandon ship.

People are the dominant reason ships sink. The weird world of shipwrecks is filled with tales of overzealous captains, unrealistic schedules, hubris in the face of dangerous weather, and weary crews. One bad decision begets another, and eventually the lower decks are taking on water. That’s usually the beginning of the end, as it was on April 15, 1912. One shipwreck among millions, plucked from a slow recession into obscurity and instead transformed into a cultural symbol that became, through the lens of time, a turning point in history.


 

 

People who study shipwrecks for a living are often tired of talking about the Titanic. It was interesting, they’ll grant, and some famous people died. But there’s little about the fate of the most domineering ship of twentieth-century folklore to warrant its disproportional place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Large ships had failed before, many from collisions with icebergs. In 1854, the SS City of Glasgow disappeared on its way from Liverpool to Philadelphia, along with four hundred eighty people. The SS Naronic, en route from Liverpool to New York in 1893, also vanished, with seventy-four aboard. Not only was the Naronic’s fate met with apathy, it was also a complete mystery until messages were later found floating in bottles, apparently written by passengers who blamed their disappearance on an iceberg strike. Icebergs were such a common scourge of the North Atlantic that by 1912, most experts were relieved that collisions with icebergs appeared to have declined. Prior decades saw as many as seven strikes each month; by 1910, there were only about four per year.

A high death toll wasn’t it, either. Other wrecks had drawn greater losses of life, like the Chinese junk ship Tek Sing, whose sixteen hundred passengers were killed in 1822 when it ran aground in the South China Sea, or the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, which sank in 1917 after an explosion so fierce in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, that falling debris killed more than two thousand people on shore.

When it comes to explaining the Titanic’s enlarged relevance, there are the nebulous explanations about human confidence, about a symbol of a new era and the embodiment of modernism, a boat against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past. The satirical newspaper The Onion put a fine point on it in a retro edition headline, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg.” These theories carry water, but they also too easily dismiss the fact that the Titanic didn’t become an instant metaphor or a cultural realignment in its day. It was a tragedy, one of many in an uncertain era, that happened to kill mostly rich people.

The Titanic’s quick growth into a news story big enough that it warranted The New York Times renting out an entire floor of a hotel to cover the sinking was based on one particular and often overlooked fact. It wasn’t that fifteen hundred people died, but that seven hundred people lived. Had every last soul been dragged to the bottom of the Atlantic, it would’ve joined the voluminous annals of devastating maritime tragedies. Memorials would’ve been held, insurance checks would have been paid, and the world would’ve moved on. But a tragedy with hundreds of survivors meant there would be hundreds of gripping accounts of the ship’s final moments, the wrestling and jockeying, the rescued and the abandoned, the brave and the weak. There were many—and at times conflicting—tales of valor, cowardice, fear, triumph, and horror for the public to adjudicate. History, after all, isn’t told by the dead.

What’s more, on account of women and children being granted the limited spots to escape, many of the survivors were young, and their youth ensured decades of tellings and retellings of their stories. Eva Hart was seven in 1912 when she stepped off the Titanic into a lifeboat with her mother. She realized years later that the barely three-day experience during her childhood would be the seminal moment of her life. Like many survivors, she struggled to shed her association with the disaster, which had killed her father, as the centerpiece of her identity, and when she realized no amount of changing the subject or politely declining to answer the same questions again and again would be sufficient, she embraced the role. She spoke out against the “ridiculous” shortage of lifeboats and, decades later, about the “greed” of the vultures who wanted to salvage the wreck site. Throughout her life she monetized her tragedy in speeches and a book and transformed into an Oprah-like figure who turned her early-life trauma into a message of resilience, perseverance, and hope.

Other survivors dwelled in primal human emotions, even among people who had already heard the story ad nauseam. “The agony of that night can never be told,” Charlotte Collyer, a thirty-year-old wife and mother, would write in a letter to her mother after she survived. And yet, she would also tell people, “I shall never forget the terrible beauty” of the Titanic in its final moments as she watched its famous twenty-three-degree tilt and its ferocious snap. The searing memories of such horror were too complex for a person to process in a single lifetime, and this mix of confusion, pain, and awe was like a flame. No one could look away. Who said what, who argued with whom, and all the while, what the band was playing. The details have been turned over and over, and for some reason, even when you know how the story ends, it never gets old. (This may also explain the phenomenon, unique in 1997, when moviegoers went to see James Cameron’s film multiple times in theaters, never able to get enough.)

The most compelling explanation for the Titanic’s outsize cultural staying power is the simplest. And in the case of a century-old shipwreck among thousands of other deadly boating accidents, the rationale seems to come down to something timeless: good storytelling.

Isolate all the components that the Titanic shared with other ships and other disasters—iceberg strike, loss of life, human overconfidence—and what’s left are the same components that make any story in any era worth hearing: high stakes, an intricate but linear narrative arc, emotional turns of tragedy and triumph, and a dollop of suspense, even still, about what exactly happened. Taken together, it’s little wonder why anyone who touches the Titanic risks getting caught up in its endless current. Like barnacles on a hull, some people just want to be near it.


 

 

How can you be sure about the way a ship sank? You can study the accounts of witnesses or simulate the conditions of a ship in a storm. Many passenger ships now have voyage data recorders, the equivalent to the black boxes in airplanes, which record a vessel’s final gasping hours. But get past the what that caused a vessel to sink and it becomes a marvel to study how ships sink. How they fall through the water, the twists and pirouettes, the grace followed usually by a crash.

Every ship can sail thousands of times and carry millions of people. But when it sinks, it sinks only once. There’s worldwide certainty about what caused the Titanic to sink. But then what? Did it twist and then turn, or turn first? How did it land on the seafloor, and at what speed? It’s reasonable to wonder if it matters. It sank, people died, it’s gone. But studying what shipbuilders refer to as “shipfall” informs how future ships might be better built and how to fortify them from the sort of destruction that struck the most famous one.

There are many theories about how the Titanic sank, how it fell through the various ocean layers known as the water column and crashed violently into the deep-ocean seabed. One of the most advanced theories, based on computer modeling and nautical forensics by National Geographic and a handful of scientists, holds that the Titanic began its fall slowly before picking up violent speed and pressure as it fell. The calculations are based on simple physics equations of mass, ocean current, and distance. Plug them into modeling software and the Titanic takes on a clumsy elegance. When the Titanic ripped in two, the bow swung down, held to the stern by a thin layer of steel the way two halves of a cut tree still hold fibers that are hard to break. That lasted mere seconds before the rupture was complete.

For barely a moment—and for the last time—the ship traveled through the thin layer of water, from zero to six hundred feet, known as the surface ocean. Had a passenger taken a deep breath, he might have survived this depth and the growing clamp of pressure. But no one survived what came next.

The bow, the pointed front of the ship, entered a free fall, its sharpest edge steering straight for the ocean bottom. Above ground, this would be known as planing, when a bird stiffens its wings and glides with no effort. Underwater, though, it’s just falling, sinking, or, put scientifically, succumbing to the laws of density and gravity. Even in water, this happened fast. As a ship, the Titanic was designed for a maximum surface speed of twenty-one knots, or twenty-four miles per hour. As a newborn shipwreck, it amassed greater power, accelerating to a terminal thirty miles per hour, while nearly three hundred pounds per square inch of pressure crushed every possible air pocket in the couch cushions, the wine bottles, and the narrow space between a painting and its glass. The most that early-twentieth-century scientists knew about pressure at these depths had been learned by lowering a length of rope a mile deep. When it was pulled back to the boat, the end that had touched bottom was half as thick as when it started.

The Titanic’s stern, meanwhile, lagged behind. It received a forceful bob upward when the bow severed its hold, but this trajectory was brief. Barely a minute after the bow started downward, the stern began its own undersea journey with a vertical lean and a slow succumbing from the surface. It fell slower, dragged by the angle at which it fell, blunt end first. Bigger air pockets in the stern, occupied by first-class cabins, smoke rooms, and the grand staircase, gave way to an implosion so forceful it was supposedly heard by survivors floating hundreds of feet above.

Had it been daytime instead of night, sunlight would’ve illuminated everything to this point. The first thousand feet of water, known as the epipelagic zone, from the Greek words for the top of the sea, is home to almost all fish, kelp, reefs, and marine animals known to science, all of which benefit from the warmth and photosynthesis of the sun. Only one time has a human swum below this zone and lived to tell about it, an Egyptian army officer named Ahmed Gabr. In 2014, Gabr scuba dove a fifth of a mile, a journey that took him twelve minutes down and fifteen hours up to decompress. At his deepest, Gabr withstood more than four hundred forty pounds on every square inch of his body, making him feel extremely heavy and cold. That was the worst part. The best part, he said, was on the way up, when a baby oceanic whitetip shark hung out with him for six hours.

Even on the brightest day, water below six hundred feet turns black. And from here, both halves of the ship fell with accelerating speed as all the handrails, the lampposts, the mast, and any fastened debris were pulled violently off. Below six hundred feet, the ship entered the twilight zone, a three-thousand-foot stretch of the water column sparsely populated with weak gelatinous fish that tend to eat whatever detritus falls from above or is buoyant enough to float up from below. There would be fewer of them as the ship entered lower depths, known as the midnight zone, or as the Greeks called it, the bathypelagic, from the word for deep.

Despite its lack of hospitality for human life, the midnight zone is quite pretty. The fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and jellyfish that survive this deep find their way in the darkness by creating their own light using chemical bioluminescence. Their sprinklings of color, most of it blue, help attract prey. Swimming too far at these depths is energetically expensive, so some fish in the midnight zone evolved other qualities to make life easier, like red bodies that in the absence of red light give them a noir effect of invisibility to predators. Other fish called tubeshoulders release clouds of luminescent fluid to lure smaller organisms. Once they’re close, they bite with backward-pointing teeth—an evolutionary quirk designed to minimize effort in a part of the ocean that’s hard enough to begin with.

Into this otherworldly constellation rushed the broken bow of a ship falling pointed-side down and then stabilizing to be right-side up. Engineers have since chalked up the Titanic’s changing position to drag; the smooth underside of a ship will cut through the water faster than its textured top, not to mention air bubbles, desperate at this punishing depth to escape the wreck through the easiest path possible, which was the top.

The stern, meanwhile, followed the bow quickly. First it imploded, and then it fell into a spiral, a bit like a helicopter blade, as the air bubbles acted as propulsive jets that pushed the structure around and around. Eventually it stabilized, having ejected most of the remaining air. Then it fell right-side up.

The best possible position for a ship to fall through the water is flat, identical to its above-water position. This maximizes the surface area of the vessel when it strikes the bottom, which minimizes to every extent possible the explosion expected if a vessel strikes the floor like a missile. There are humanitarian reasons to optimize shipfall, as well as financial ones. A vessel largely intact underwater makes it easier to extract dead bodies, treasure, or valuable equipment, like a voyage data recorder. More than one hundred years after the Titanic sank, scientists still believed it was possible to excavate the ship’s famous telegraph, which begged for help from nearby ships.

The way a ship falls is also crucial to knowing how it lies, and where it lies helps determine how to explore it. Anyone who clung to the ship or was trapped inside one of its crevices was dead before it reached the seabed. But if there was even one sentient cell left, its final trauma would have been the ground strike followed by three other powerful forces. The first was the ship “breaking its back,” a technical term for when the long steel plates that made up the ship’s keel and deck panels received a forceful concussion, the same way the steel in a crashing car buckles on impact.

A moment later, the ground strike caused the second force, an enormous burst of water pushed violently from inside the wreck outward. Researchers found in 2012 that this outburst was enough to blow off the ship’s front hatch cover, a manhole-size piece of metal held down by more than a dozen large bolts. Even at twelve thousand feet, a hydraulic burst would feel to a human like sitting under Niagara Falls.

The final insult, after the iceberg, the implosions, the ground concussions, and the hydraulic outbursts, was a powerful jet stream of water that struck the ship from above. This phenomenon is known as the downblast effect and occurs when something sinking pulls the water behind it, filling in the momentarily empty space it leaves in its wake. The downblast effect helps explain the myth of suction, the mistaken notion that one must swim away from a sinking ship to avoid being pulled down with it. It’s a notoriously hard thing to test, but when the suction effect has been observed, it’s only when large wrecks have started sinking at high speed, putting in motion the water column behind them.

Again, why does this matter? You might think differently if you’re ever on a sinking ship. There’s little scientific consensus about what you should do, so generally, do whatever will save or prolong your life. But captains and lifeguards tend to agree that the best thing you can do if your boat is sinking is to stay on the endangered boat as long as possible. Climb to high ground if you can, and even higher ground after that. If you’re within sight of land or another ship, take off your clothes for the same reason that no Olympic swimmer ever won a race wearing waterlogged blue jeans. And then, once you touch water, start swimming toward a lifeboat or a piece of debris. Try not to be directly above the ship after it’s underwater, since it will probably be releasing air bubbles, which make the water less dense, and thus make it harder to swim. But if you are above the ship as it sinks underwater and all else fails, take the biggest breath you can, push off the boat, and kick up with everything you’ve got.


 

 

Women and children were supposed to be rescued first. And for the most part with the Titanic, they were; 70 percent of women and children made it off the ship alive. But this was a historical anomaly, because for almost all other sinking ships, women and children go last, if they’re rescued at all. In 2012, two Swedish researchers studied eighteen maritime disasters involving fifteen thousand people of more than thirty nationalities over three centuries and found that not only are men’s survival rates twice as high as women’s, but that children fare worst of all—just 15 percent tend to make it off alive. What’s more, while the notion of a captain “going down with the ship” was true in the case of the Titanic, it’s far from historical reality for almost all other shipwrecks. Captains and crew survive at significantly higher rates than passengers, a disparity likely explained by the fact that professional seafarers have more advanced survival skills and knowledge of a ship’s layout, but also an indictment that they don’t stay to help once it’s every person for themselves. The myth of women and children first was a creation of the British elite, who used it for centuries as an argument against women’s suffrage. Why do women need to vote, they claimed with straight faces, when even when facing death, men will put the interests of women first? The argument largely worked. Sixteen years and hundreds more shipwrecks occurred, ones where women’s lives weren’t prioritized or even assisted at all, before women in England were granted the same voting rights as men.

To survive the Titanic was better than the alternative that befell more than fifteen hundred passengers. But it was still no picnic. First there was the cold and the wind, and then the sight of horror unfolding in front of the survivors. The men rowing each lifeboat rowed harder and harder, as though trying to escape the looming fog of disaster while scanning the horizon for any sign of other boats. There were also the arguments: Should each lifeboat return to the site to pick up more people in the water? Lifeboat number one, commonly known as the captain’s boat and with a capacity of forty, left the ship with only twelve. A fireman named Charles Hendrickson was one of the twelve and spent years after the disaster claiming that he was the only one on the lifeboat to propose going back to rescue more people still clamoring in the water. He was savagely overruled, he claimed, which brought shame upon the other eleven. The story was exaggerated and later refuted by an investigation by the British Board of Trade. But the damage had been done in the press, and one of the eleven, a fashion designer named Lucy Duff-Gordon, lived the rest of her life trying to salvage her and her husband’s reputations as heartless cowards.

Help arrived on account of telegraph messages that grew increasingly frantic as the waterline rose. The first call was “CQD,” which had evolved from the earlier radio call CQ to precede messages to everyone in range. But in the early years of the century, the British code CQD conflicted with the American distress code of NC and the German code of SOE. The Italians, meanwhile, used SSSDDD. None of these letters meant anything or were acronyms for longer phrases. And neither did the eventual international replacement, which had been decided at the urgent 1906 International Radio Telegraphic Conference that agreed a standard was needed. From then on, ships in distress would use SOS, chosen for its distinct mix of short and long bursts, and not to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” or any other convenient phrases retroactively attributed to the call.

The death toll would have been higher if not for the telegraph. The technology had its limits—just three hundred miles in daylight and a little more than double at night thanks to radiation changes in the atmosphere—but to anyone who had started their life in the previous century, this was no less exciting than teleporting one’s own body to a faraway ship. Prior to this, the best way two ships could communicate was by colored flags or bursts of light, but even the clearest visual cues were quickly obscured by the curvature of the earth. The giddiness over the telegraph led it to be quickly trivialized. The way the system worked, with a telegraph blast from one ship received by all passing boats, was most useful for matters of safety and navigation. But for the rest of the time, first-class passengers were permitted to use the system to send greetings to all passing boats, and they did so with messages as simple as “Hello!” and “Good day!” No one had yet figured out a separation of channels that might divide superficial small talk from operational guidance.

In the days after the disaster, more limits were put on the telegraph based on how it performed in a crisis. The breaking-news announcement that would wash over the entire world started as a ship-to-ship game of telephone that was predictably distorted by the time word arrived in New York. The Carpathia, traveling from New York to modern-day Croatia before rerouting to the wreck site, had sent the first reports of the Titanic in danger before its officers knew just how devastating its predicament was. The message was picked up by radio operators on ships as far as five hundred miles away, who had no idea in the early hours of April 15 whether the Titanic sustained minor damage and was being towed to port, as Carpathia had initially reported, or if something much worse had happened.

Meanwhile, the stunted telegraph messages began to build a wave that would crest over the entire world. In the Associated Press offices in New York, a city editor named Charles Crane sat with his feet on his desk reading a novel by H. G. Wells when a colleague bolted into the newsroom waving a wire message that read, “Reported Titanic struck iceberg.” That was correct, but almost everything that came next wasn’t. Almost all newspapers reported an erroneous account of the event, from word that the ship had survived and was on its way to Halifax to reports that everyone on board was presumed dead.

Like any breaking-news story, the coverage followed a well-worn formula. First, there was the pinning down of details of what happened, who was affected, and when. Then there were the human-interest stories about the lives lost and the final moments of those swallowed by the sea. And then, predictably, the finger-pointing.

No one—not the reporters covering the story, not the White Star Line executives who would soon be answering for their mistakes, and not the survivors on the Carpathia or the crowds of rubberneckers and looky-loos who met them in New York—could imagine the oversize, century-long legacy awaiting the Titanic. The coal workers, department store managers, and housewives who read about all of it in the newspapers never realized that the events of that moment and their place in the story would reverberate for decades.

Lost in the fervor of the human element of the story, however, was the central character in the whole tragedy. In those early days when the ship was settling into its underwater tomb, the mangled mess of steel and wood creaked with the current and shuffled until it became snagged on something and was sucked into the mud. Resigned to its fate, the Titanic released the final bubbles of air still locked inside. And when the last one rose up and popped on the surface, the ship was dead and its spirit lay dormant, waiting for the day it’d be seized by a new generation.


 

 

He’s probably still alive,” my wife said one sunny day in the fall of 2019. She had grown tired of me talking about Doug Woolley and his endless contradictions. He was a man savvy but unsuccessful, widely known but with no credentials, full of promise but with little to show for it. He was also an anomaly to track down: everywhere in old clippings and yet nowhere to be found. If he had disappeared, even evidence of his disappearance had vanished, leaving me lying awake at night wondering if Woolley ever existed at all.

I knew he had. I assumed that Woolley had met the fate of almost every other wreck hunter from the early era of wreck hunting, the mid-twentieth century, when bursts in technology and the end of World War II opened the oceans to those hungry to explore. Many didn’t even need to leave home, just to revel in the rush of headlines announcing that someone on a boat somewhere had found something. A new species of whale, a new undersea volcano, or, best of all, an old ship from the Romans, the Vikings, or a Spanish galleon filled with gold. And, of course, any news about the most famous wreck of all. Obsession has been known to eat a man alive, so having seen no trace of Woolley for the past decade, I came to the natural conclusion that if he didn’t finish his quest, then his quest finished him.

And then I caught a lead. While digging one day through a newspaper archive, I found an old article from 1998 that announced Woolley had written a short autobiography called One Man’s Dream. Like everything in his life, Woolley produced, edited, and marketed the book himself with hardly any help and no experience in book publishing. And like everything else I knew about Woolley, he had better luck than one would expect. At the bottom of the article, he asked the newspaper to include his home address and urged readers to send him a check for £10 if they wanted a copy. That was the only way he marketed the book.

I looked up the address and saw there was a store next door that sold auto parts. I called the store and asked a thoroughly confused British auto mechanic if an old man named Doug Woolley still lived nearby.

“You mean the ship guy?” he said in a thick accent.

I was quiet a moment and said I’d been trying to get in touch with him and could he deliver a message?

“Call me back tomorrow,” he said.

When I did, I got another guy on the phone, and he offered to go to Woolley’s apartment and knock on the door. He had some success locating Woolley because he told me to call another guy, who told me to call another guy. Five people later I was texting with a guy named Gary, who identified himself as Woolley’s “associate.” Going through so many layers seemed like what you’d expect if you wanted to speak to the pope. It reminded me of an old trick a friend of mine once used to secure a dinner reservation: he called a restaurant pretending to be his own assistant.

“We’ve looked into you,” Gary told me the first time we talked. “Doug wants to meet you. Can you come to London?”

As a reporter, I had interviewed politicians and actors. I had investigated sensitive criminal cases and once even met a source in a garage. But something about this made me feel nervous, even intimidated. Doug Woolley had gatekeepers, many layers of them, and I was invited behind the curtain. Was this the seasoned technique of a man building mystery and intrigue with sleight of hand and perceived exclusivity? Or were all these people the infrastructure of an older person who needed extra help?

I booked a flight to the UK. Weeks later, I would realize that my timing had been extremely lucky, both in the trajectory of Woolley’s long and roundabout life and amid the world heading into a public health crisis. Even stranger, I would discover that not only was I looking for Woolley, but in a way, he was looking for me, too.


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