On This Day

26 February


1914 Royal & United States Mail Steamer ‘Britannic’ - Britain’s largest liner

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The ill-fated 48,158-ton passenger ship Britannic (Yard No. 433) was launched at 11.20am today for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. (White Star Line). ‘In the romance of modern shipbuilding achievements, the names of the White Star Line and Harland & Wolff are written in letters of gold’ wrote a commentator after the launch of Britannic, Britain's largest liner.

The citizens of Belfast honoured the great occasion by turning out in their thousands to witness the launch and despite the damp and overcast skies the general atmosphere was described as one of ‘joy and warm and sincere congratulations to owners and builders’ as the last of the mighty ‘Olympic’ class went down the ways.The launch was conducted on simple lines, there was no christening ceremony and no bottle of the finest Champagne smashed on her bows; one yardman summed up the occasion: ‘We just builds ‘em and shoves ‘em in.’ Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland & Wolff, attended every detail of the launch, assisted by Robert Keith, Head Foreman Shipwright and in overall charge of all launches at the yard.
(See: Titanic Stories - the man who launched Titanic)

The two men moved briskly about the yard, and only minutes before Britannic was on the move, his Lordship emerged from the labyrinth of woodwork beneath her keel, ‘where the master-mind of the greatest shipbuilder of his day had been considering some apparently little thing, but which, nevertheless, had an important bearing on the successful completion of the launch.’

Prompt to time Britannic began to move, for several seconds the motion was barely perceptible, but gradually she gathered speed and from the moment the hydraulic trigger at her bow was released 81 seconds elapsed before she was safely afloat on the waters of the Victoria Channel to the sounds of cheers from the assembled crowds and the shrill blasts of ships sirens in the harbour.

The launching weight of Britannic was recorded at 24,800 tons - a new Queen’s Island record.
After the terrible tragedy which befell Titanic the choice of name for the new liner was an obvious one. Popular myth has it that ‘Gigantic’ was the name chosen, but after the loss of Titanic it was decided to change the name because of its similarity to her unfortunate sister.

No official record mentions the name Gigantic, either in White Star or contemporary Harland & Wolff records, but most importantly the name does not fit in with the nomenclature, or naming policy of the Company. The name was simply an invention of the press and looking back to several other White Star giants, the press, for example, christened Oceanic (Yard No. 317) ‘Gigantic’ before the official announcement of her name.

Britannic was a lucky name for White Star. The first vessel to carry that name was Yard No. 83 of 5,004-tons, launched 40 years before in February 1874. The first Britannic set many speed records and earned the reputation as one of the finest liners on the North Atlantic. It was specially stipulated by the White Star Line that Britannic (I), when sold in 1903, should be broken up; the Managers felt that so illustrious a career should not be tarnished by an extended but less honourable period of existence.
See Ship Fact File - Britannic (II)

WATCH: Pathe newsreel footage of Britannic's launch


1903 Columbus - accident at launch

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The 15,378-ton passenger ship Columbus (Yard No. 345) was launched today from the south yard for Richard Mills & Co., Liverpool (Dominion Line). Columbus’ launch was an inauspicious one. As the vessel left the slips she deviated from her course going straight across the channel, her rudder striking the Barrow passenger steamer City of Belfast on the starboard side, which in turn was driven against a Fleetwood mail steamer. The wind was blowing strongly at the time and the drag chains failed to pull Columbus up as quickly as anticipated. Little damage was caused, beyond the scrapping of plates.
In October of the same year she was renamed Republic and a month later sold to the White Star Line.

Republic spent most of her career sailing on the Company’s Liverpool-Boston service and in the winter months sailing to the Mediterranean out of New York with large numbers of American tourists. On 23 January 1909, en route from New York to Naples, via Madeira, Republic came into collision off Nantucket about 175 miles from the Ambrose Light with the Lloyd Italiano liner Florida inbound for New York.

There was dense fog at the time and both ships were proceeding slowly. Florida struck Republic on the port side aft of amidship flooding the engine room. For the first time in a major incident at sea, at 6am, the wireless signal CQD (CQ meaning ‘attention all stations’ and D for ‘danger’) was broadcast. The Marconi station at Siasconsett relayed the message to the White Star liner Baltic (Yard No. 352) which, at 6.02am turned and sped to the rescue.

Republic’s passengers and crew, apart from a skeleton crew of 47, had been transferred to Florida, whose bows were stove in but was otherwise watertight. At the time the rules governing the number of lifeboats on a vessel related to the tonnage and not the actual number of passengers a vessel could carry lifeboats were looked upon as a means to transfer passengers from one vessel to another, rather than the last place of safety.

In the case of the abandonment of Republic the system worked perfectly and all the passengers and crew were transferred to Florida without incident. Other ships were called up by wireless and Furnessia (Anchor), La Lorraine (French Line), Lucania (Cunard) and New York (American Line) all rushed to the last recorded position of Republic. US Coast Guard vessels put out from New York.

On the arrival of Baltic, still in dense fog, she took off all of Florida’s 900 passengers and those from Republic, again using the ships lifeboats to ferry between both liners. A line from the US Coast Guard Revenue Cutter Gresham was put aboard Republic which was lying dead in the water without lights and listing to port.

Furnessia also put a line on the stern to help steerage, this was handed over at daybreak on 24 January to the US Coast Guard’s Seneca. The two Coast Guard cutters attempted to tow Republic into shallow waters where she could be beached but at 8.05pm Republic suddenly started to settle and before the skeleton crew could be taken off she sank rapidly by the stern; Captain Inman Sealby and his remaining crew had to be rescued from the sea. Republic sank in 38 fathoms of water off Martha’s Vineyard Island. A total of six lives were lost by the collision.

In 1909 Republic was the largest liner yet lost at sea. The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, owners of Republic filed a claim in the United States District Court against the owners of Florida for $1m for the ship and $500,000 for her cargo. The claim was later settled with the owners of Florida being forced to sell their vessel for about $40,000 which was paid in compensation.

The value of wireless was proved beyond doubt to have saved many lives and Jack Binns, Marconi Wireless Officer onboard Republic, hailed a hero; Marconi’s share price soared and every steamship line was convinced of the value of wireless. However, the most significant change to safety of life at sea concerned the lessons Harland & Wolff learnt from the disaster. On the busy shipping lanes, particularly across the Atlantic, collisions between vessels in fog were common. Harland & Wolff in future designed and built large passenger vessels to their ‘special specifications’ to withstand the impact of another vessel at the point between two of the largest compartments in a vessel. This worst case scenario, where the engine and boiler rooms would flood out of control and disable the onboard pumps, would not longer pose a treat to the safety of a vessel.

In future all their large passenger liners were designed with this protective measure and one which was incorporated into the design of the ‘Olympic’ class liners. The ‘special specifications’ however, did not allow for a vessel to remain afloat if more than two of the largest compartments were to flood as was the case in the Titanic disaster.
In a twist of fate on 12 December 1917 Florida, the cause of Republic’s loss, was also lost through collision.
See Ship Files - Republic


1925 Shallow draft vessel

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The 2,372-ton shallow-draft tanker Inverlago (Yard No. 699) was launched today for the Lago shipping Company. A sistership, Punta Benitez (Yard No. 832), was launched on 21 February 1928.


1959 Ulster Star

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The 10,413-ton refrigerated cargo ship Ulster Star (Yard No. 1568) was launched today for Blue Star Line Limited, London.