Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic

Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic

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

Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic

by Daniel Stone


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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.
    Along the way, Sinkable takes readers through the two miles of ocean water in which the Titanic sank, showing how the ship broke apart and why, and delves into the odd history of our understanding of such depths. Author Daniel Stone studies the landscape of the seabed, which in the Titanic’s day was thought to be as smooth and featureless as a bathtub. He interviews scientists to understand the decades of rust and decomposition that are slowly but surely consuming the ship. (It is expected to disappear entirely within a few decades!) He even journeys over the Atlantic, during a global pandemic, to track down the elusive Doug Woolley. And Stone turns inward, looking at his own dark obsession with both the Titanic and shipwrecks in general, and why he spends hours watching ships sink on YouTube.
    Brimming with humor, curiosity and wit, Sinkable follows in the tradition of Susan Orlean and Bill Bryson, offering up a page-turning work of personal journalism and an immensely entertaining romp through the deep sea and the nature of obsession.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593329375
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/16/2022
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 257,483
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Daniel Stone is a writer on science, history, and the environment, as well as the author of the national bestselling The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. He's a former staff writer for National Geographic and a former White House correspondent for Newsweek. He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife and two sons, one of whom is a dog.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


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 their story. 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 nauseum. "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 were 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 phenomena, 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. 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.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Prologue 1

1 Shipfall 5

2 The Death and Birth of Great Ships 25

3 The Movement from Order to Chaos 45

4 Merely a Matter of Magnets 71

5 Lungs the Size of Acorns 91

6 I Regard the Titanic as Mine 107

7 Bathtub Experiments 129

8 Take All the Bodies and Treat Them with Respect 155

9 People Think Sinking Ships Is Easy 177

10 A Heifer Corralled in a Box Canyon 195

11 All These Moths Drawn to the Same Flame 223

12 Man Is Never Lost at Sea 241

13 A Reddish Stain in the Mud 261

Acknowledgments 277

Notes 281

Index 309

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