My Father Missed the Boat

How one family avoided the Titanic disaster

A hundred years ago, in April 1912, my grandfather, on a journey with his family of seven from India to America, switched the family's booking from the world's newest, largest, fastest ocean liner to a slower but earlier-departing ship. Among the children was my father, Robert Nesbitt, then five years old.

Many years later Dad would quip that he "missed the boat." The "boat" he missed was RMS Titanic. Having missed it, he would grow up to marry my mother, father two sons, and eventually become chief geologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I am his older son, born in 1936.

My grandfather Henry, a Presbyterian missionary, attributed the strange turn of events in 1912 to divine providence. The following year he published an account with the somber overtone of a religious tract. I could never reconcile his notion of providential selectivity with the fact that so many died on that awful night. But religion aside, all the what-ifs in Henry's story are fascinating.

The sinking of the Titanic left a stark record — 1,517 perished, 711 survived. [Various reports show minor variations in the totals.] The freezing survivors, all rescued by another British ship, the Carpathia, were scattered among the Titanic's complement of just twenty lifeboats, barely half those needed to accommodate everyone on board.

Dad would jokingly remind us boys that we owed our very existence to the fact that the doomed liner had sailed without him. Of course if he were to have been aboard it he might have been given lifeboat priority as a child and survived the sinking anyhow. Such speculation is moot and only underscores the fatefulness of what really happened.

My father was born in December 1906 in a village in northwestern India, the third of Henry's five children. In 1912 Henry was given a furlough to return with his family to his home in Boston for a few weeks. The family sailed from Karachi (then in British India) on March 15th on the first leg of a journey involving ships, trains, and horse-drawn taxis. The oldest child was 10, the youngest, 2.

A dumpy little cargo/passenger ship, the Trafford Hall, took them through the Suez Canal before stopping briefly at Cyprus, where my grandfather learned that a massive coal strike in Britain had forced the cancellation of many sailings. The family had been booked to sail from Southampton to New York on the White Star liner Majestic, departing the week after Easter, April 7th. They had plenty of time, provided the coal strike did not complicate things.

At Marseilles they debarked from the Trafford Hall and took the train to Paris, where they were advised to curtail their planned sightseeing and get to London before Good Friday, April 5th, as any Channel crossings on Friday and Saturday would be hard to come by. So on that Maundy Thursday morning they took a train to Calais and a ferry to Dover before boarding yet another train for the final leg to London.

Aboard the train a newsboy offered my grandfather a paper. He declined, as he had read the Paris edition of a New York paper that morning. But the boy was persistent, and to please him Henry relented. He soon found himself absorbed in a full-page account of the White Star Line's fantastic new steamship Titanic, whose maiden voyage was just six days away.

A single paragraph caught his eye.

Owing to the coal strike, the Majestic's sailing had been canceled, with the Thomas Cook agency reporting that White Star would transfer the Majestic's passengers to . . . the Titanic.

This was exciting news. My grandfather later wrote in his formal style: "I had often said I should make an attempt to get a passage on the largest ship, and here was the opportunity coming to hand unsought. It filled us all with a measure of pleasure."

He turned to the section in the paper listing all the scheduled passenger sailings. The Titanic was to set sail on April 10th. Only one ship was scheduled to leave before then, the Cunard Line's SS Carmania on April 6th, the day after tomorrow. Since the family had never been to London and wished to sightsee there for two or three days, the Titanic option became all the more attractive.

A hundred years ago the steamship companies, like the airlines of today, were in constant competition for passengers. The main competitors on the trans-Atlantic routes were the Cunard and White Star lines. Most bookings were accomplished through travel agencies, among which Thomas Cook led the field. In that age of snail mail the Cook agency also served to hold mail for travelers at points along the way.

Arriving at Victoria station, the family boarded a cab, stopping first at Cook's London office "at dusk of a smoky foggy day" just long enough to pick up their mail and confirm their Titanic reservations before continuing to their "boarding house" — what today would be called a B&B. In the mail was a letter written in the frail hand of Henry's octogenarian mother-in-law informing him that his father, my great-grandfather, was critically ill with pleurisy. The news, he would write, "put a new complexion on our outlook."

He raced back to the Cook agency, hoping to compare the arrival times in New York of the Titanic and the Carmania. The clerks were closing their desks and putting on their coats to begin their holiday weekend. One of them paused long enough to answer his questions. The Carmania, scheduled to arrive in New York on the 14th, was fully booked. There was no point in trying to get on it. Furthermore the office would be closed the next day, Good Friday, so the family had best keep its reservations on the Titanic, which, though still six days from departure, with its much faster speed would dock in New York scarcely 48 hours after the Carmania.

Back at their boarding house that evening Henry discussed the dilemma with my grandmother and two other women who had traveled with the group all the way from India. One of them urged Henry not to pursue the matter any further. The magnificent new liner was the only way to go.

But on Friday morning, still fretting about his father's condition, Henry returned to the Cook office two miles away in the hope that somebody might answer a knock on the door. Sure enough, "there was one clerk on duty making up work in arrears." The man was very interested in Henry's problem, and contrary to the information of the night before was confident that he could book the entire party on the Carmania.

There was just one hitch. Since Cunard's offices were closed today, the booking would have to be accomplished tomorrow, Saturday. Cook would be open for business at 9:30 a.m. At 4 p.m. the Carmania was to depart from Liverpool, 175 miles away. But not to worry, there was a special train departing at noon that would get everyone to the ship on time.

At this point the story starts to play out in my mind like one of those silent black-and-white movies of that generation. The characters rush across the screen like waddling penguins. Hurry back to boarding house. Cram sightseeing into whatever was left of Friday. Westminster, St. Paul's, London Bridge, the Tower. British Museum closed. Long faces all around.

Up at crack of dawn Saturday. Prepare family for hasty departure. On Cook's doorstep at 9:30 sharp. Pace till nearly 10 before same clerk shows up. Brit says, "Ah, there you are. Now we'll see what can be done." (Subtitled dialogue appears on screen as cinema organ plays "Rule, Britannia") Clerk phones Cunard. No one there yet. Henry paces. Cunard finally answers. "What class of passage, sir?" "Second," he replies. Sorry, no berths left, says Cunard. Clerk implores, "There is an illness at home calling them to hasten." (Violin plays "Hearts and Flowers.") Henry consents to first class B grade cabin with second class dining table. Laborious pen-and-ink ticket creation ensues while Henry stews. Escapes with tickets to street as clock ticks toward eleven.

Hails two cabs sufficient for party and its baggage, orders them to get him to boarding house "with all expedition." Horses cover two miles in record time. At house Henry yanks door open and summons family with single shout. They come "tumbling down with boxes and bags." Landlady is paid bill on sidewalk.

At station the "special" is waiting. Family piles aboard. Train puffs and chugs directly to Liverpool wharf, four hours nonstop. Carmania's boilers are already fired up. One gang plank is still out. Whistle blows as passengers pile out and sprint for ship. Family gets aboard in nick of time. Porters bring up rear, hauling unsorted steamer trunks and leather baggage. Coal smoke from ship's twin stacks fades toward horizon. In white letters The End appears over calm gray sea in lower half of frame.

Of course the end was yet to come.

Of the period April 7 — 10, my grandfather would write only that they "sailed on without unusual incident till Thursday" [the 11th]. Meanwhile at noon on the 10th, from its deep-water dock in the sparkling new port of Southampton, the Titanic got under way with much fanfare, sailing first to Cherbourg to pick up French passengers, then to Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, on the 11th, where exactly seven passengers debarked and seven others boarded. At 1:30 p.m. the huge liner weighed anchor for the last time.

That morning in the shipping lane about 400 miles south of Newfoundland, the Carmania had without notice slowed to half-speed. Henry, finding the air on deck chilly and foggy, went back to his cabin for an overcoat. By the time he returned, the Carmania had fully stopped. He knew right away they were in an ice field. An "enormous berg," at least what he could see of it, was "at ship's length off our port bow." With his bulky camera he snapped its picture. (Weeks later he would mail the photo to Captain Daniel Dow of the Carmania, who after some delay would reply to him that, while he could not say with certainty that the iceberg was the same one that sank the Titanic, their position on the morning of the 11th corresponded precisely with the scene of the Titanic's sinking three days later.)

As the mist lifted, the Carmania began to maneuver slowly through the ice field, where "we saw a number of small sail craft interned . . . as there was no wind to move them." By sunset the sky was clear, and "by a large circular movement we were just getting out of the icefield."

In a 1982 footnote to my grandfather's account, my father wrote of his own wide-eyed impression as a five-year-old boy: "I can still recall the eerie sensation of drift ice chinking and clanging as [the ship] either stopped momentarily or proceeded slowly and cautiously on a perfectly still sea."

They sailed on, reaching New York on the evening of Sunday, April 14th. The family debated waiting till the next day, but decided to take the next train to Boston, arriving home at midnight. "Our coming," Henry wrote, "caused Father to be delirious so it would have been better to have waited for the day." (My great-grandfather would linger for exactly two more months, expiring on June 14, 1912.)

Early Monday morning my grandmother brought upstairs the Boston paper with its immense headlines: TITANIC FOUNDERS IN MID OCEAN — WRECKED BY ICEBERG — OVER 1,600 DROWNED.

The details of the sinking have been chronicled in many books and movies. My father's favorites were Walter Lord's narrative, A Night to Remember, and Hanson Baldwin's briefer account, The Titanic Is Unsinkable.

As for my grandfather's story, his own intuition comes across as more powerful than the providential deliverance to which he attributed the chain of events.

Henry had been intuitively leery of the Titanic even before reading the newspaper on the Dover-to-London train. Despite his early excitement at the prospect of sailing on the new ship, his account is full of innuendo showing a bias favoring Cunard over White Star. The news of his father's illness was simply the spur he needed to pursue the Carmania alternative.

Between the lines is a tale of two captains. There is no better example of the foolhardiness of the Titanic's Captain Smith than the comparison with the Carmania's Captain Dow, who had so carefully maneuvered through the same ice field three days before the disaster.

On the fateful night of the 14th another ship, the SS Californian, herself mired in the ice, radioed the Titanic: "Say, old man, we are stuck here, surrounded by ice." The Titanic's wireless operator — preoccupied with receiving personal messages relayed by a station in Newfoundland — replied "Shut up, shut up; keep out. I am talking to Cape Race. You are jamming my signals."

Moments later, the big ship, forging ahead at its top speed of 21 knots, collided with the iceberg. Henry's intuition proved to be uncannily correct.

Speculation as to whether my father and his siblings would have survived if they had been on the Titanic is heightened by an official accounting in which men, women, and children were counted separately and further separated according to passenger class. Although we have no record of which cabin Henry and his family were assigned on the Titanic (it would have corresponded with their canceled booking on the Majestic) we can assume from their Carmania booking that it was probably second class. Contrary to perception the Titanic had quite a few vacant cabins when it left Southampton.

It turned out that the only category of Titanic passengers with a one-hundred-percent survival rate were the children in second class. All 24 of them ended up in lifeboats and were rescued. In first class one of six children died, as did 52 of the 79 children in third class.

So let us assume that my father, his brother, and three sisters had joined the 24 second class children in lifeboats who were rescued. What then? Back home they would be assigned to guardians, most likely relatives. Almost certainly my father would not have ended up at the small church-related college in Ohio where he met my mother. And I would not be here to write all this.

So my father was right, no matter what the speculation.

As a sad footnote to the story, in November 1913 my father's older sister Mary died at the age of 8. By then Henry had returned with his family to his mission in India's Punjab province, now part of Pakistan. Cholera, an ever-present threat, claimed Mary.

Her tiny grave is in the mission cemetery in Sialkot. My grandfather died in 1947, my father in 1990.


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