The Practically Unsinkable Republic
The Republic, originally built as Dominion Line's Columbus, was launched in 1903 to that company's specifications, making her first trip across the Atlantic in October of that year. She was transferred shortly thereafter to the White Star Line.
The safety of the Dominion Line ships has been carefully looked after in every point. They all have double bottoms and many bulkheads by which the ship is divided into watertight compartments. These would positively prevent serious results in case of collision, as by them the water which might get into the ship is restricted to the one compartment injured - and even if several of these should be filled the boat could still proceed.
The Mediterranean Illustrated
The Republic, just five years old, one of the most modern passenger liners afloat at that time, White Star Line's flagship of its Boston-Mediterranean service, was considered practically unsinkable. A ship of her size and modern-construction, with twelve watertight bulkheads, had never sunk before.
The Republic was built not only with an elaborate watertight compartment system, which generally reduces the danger of sinking in collision, but with a cellular double bottom, which makes her safer than many vessels of her time and class. She was as nearly unsinkable in theory as a vessel could be made when she was designed.
New York Evening Sun, January 23, 1909, 2:2
... She was designed as nearly unsinkable as a vessel could be made.
New York American, January 24, 1909, 4:4
… Her hull was extraordinarily strong in construction, being of the cellular double bottom type. There were eight watertight compartments, and in theory, at least, the ship was constructed so as to prove unsinkable.
New York Herald, January 24, 1909, 4:4
... When she started from New York on her fatal trip, she was considered to be practically unsinkable by collision. So numerous were her compartments, so staunchly were her subdividing bulkheads built, that any qualified expert would have confidently asserted that two of her compartments might be flooded without sending the ship to the bottom. ...
The Scientific American, February 6, 09, 110:1.
Dr. Marsh, Republic's Ship's Surgeon, described the situation as the passengers, awakened from their slumber by the collision, were called on deck:
Captain Sealby came down from the bridge upon deck and spoke to a group of passengers standing near. "I do not think the ship will sink," he told them. "She may go down to a certain point, but it is likely her watertight compartments will keep her from sinking." He was given three cheers.
N.Y. Herald, Jan. 26, 09, 4:4;
Shortly after the collision, Captain Sealby relayed the Republic's situation via the wireless to the White Star Line offices in New York.
It is declared by officers of the line in this city [New York] that there is no danger of the Republic sinking and that there will be no loss of life.
Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, January 23, 1909, 1:4
CAN FLOAT INDEFINITELY
Evening World, January 23, 1909, 2:1.
[After issuing the wireless distress signal CQD, and establishing contact with other vessels in the vicinity,] Then messages were exchanged with the shore. Capt. Sealby got into communication with the White Star offices in this city [New York] notifying his owners of the accident, but conveying the welcome news that there was no danger to life, and that his vessel would float for some time at least. . . .
NY Times, Jan. 24, 09, 1:5
At midnight last night the news was received definitely at the White Star offices in Bowling Green that the Republic, while low in the sea and with a great hole in her starboard [should be port or left] side, was in no danger of sinking.
New York Sun, January 24, 1909, 1:5.
... In the Company's office the experts got to work on the information and figured that even if six of the compartments were filled with water the vessel would still keep afloat and as the sea off Nantucket was very smooth the chances of saving her were very good indeed. ...
N. Y. Sun, January 24, 09, 3:1
"While the Republic is seriously damaged, we have every hope of saving her. According to our figures, five or even six of the Republic's water-tight compartments might be flooded and she would still remain afloat. Capt. Sealby is one of the most competent commanders on the Atlantic, and we feel sure that he will not desert his vessel until the last hope of saving her has disappeared. …"
Vice President P.A.S. Franklin, White Star Line
[In the early afternoon of January 23, 1909, White Star Line had just issued its first official statement regarding the transfer of the Republic's passengers to the Florida.] In giving out the message that the Republic was still afloat Mr. Franklin said that it was the belief of the company that, as she remained afloat so many hours after she was struck, she would be kept from going down by her watertight compartments.
NY Times, Jan. 24, 09, 3:2
P. A. S. Franklin was of the opinion late yesterday afternoon that if the Republic had been kept afloat that long she would continue to float, and it would be possible to tow her into New York. [Emphasis supplied.]
New York Herald, January 24, 1909, 4:3
Captain Sealby, with, no doubt, advice from and after consultation with the Company's officials in New York, had found his ship still afloat 24 hours after the collision; he had every confidence that his ship would remain afloat and, therefore, could be saved.
At 1:40 yesterday afternoon the line received word that the derelict destroyer Seneca had located the Republic. "United States derelict destroyer Seneca reported twenty miles from the Republic," the message read, "and hastening toward her. With the aid of the vessel and the tugs Republic will be towed to New York."
New York Sun, January 25, 1909, 2:2.
After transfer of the Republic's passengers to the Baltic,
Those of whom who were able to be up the next morning [January 24, 1909] had the mournful pleasure of seeing the crew return to their captain, who had never left the Republic, to wait until a tug should come to tow her, they hoped, as far as New York [Emphasis supplied.] , before a high sea could sink her.
[Republic passenger] Ruth Miller's Account, Pittsburgh Post, Jan. 26, 09, 2:1.
Returns to Republic
And then this morning [about 10 a.m. Jan. 24], when the Republic was still afloat, and Captain Sealby went on board with two-score volunteers of his crew, Wireless Operator Binn [sic] returned with the rest.
Boston Post, Jan. 25, 09, 4:3.
Sealby's Fight for His Ship
After the passengers had all been transferred to the Baltic, and safely transferred at that, though the odds had been all against the undertaking, and one or two persons had fallen overboard, but had been rescued, Capt. Sealby determined that the Republic was going to withstand the terrific battering she was getting from the waves and that, with care, she could be saved. He was on board again, and soon let Capt. Ranson of the Baltic know that he wanted back on board the members of the crew who had been taken to the Baltic.
The Baltic Starts Homeward.
So it was that when Capt. Sealby announced that he was all right, the Baltic got under way for New York. ...
Last of the Republic.
Back at the scene of the wreck Capt. Sealby was making good his promise to try and save his ship. With a small picked crew he was on the Republic, and the Gresham and the Furnessia had passed lines aboard in preparation for towing. The Furnessia was to act as a rudder, the lines being passed from he r bow to the stern of the Republic. The Gresham was dead ahead, trying to pull the disabled ship along. The whole intent was to get the Republic in shallow water along the Nantucket Shoals somewhere, so that if she sank something could be saved from the wreck. ...
NY Times, Jan. 26, 09, 2:1, 2
[Prior to the BALTIC's final departure, 10:45 a. m. Sunday...] Capt. Ranson reported that the Republic's engine rooms were flooded, that Hold No. 4 was full of water, that hold No. 3 was taking in the sea rapidly but that holds 1, 2, 5 and 6 were watertight. The ship appeared to be settling at that time and had a decided list to port [?]. The weather had remained favorable until that time and it seemed certain that the Republic was in no immediate danger of sinking. Before Capt. Ranson headed his ship toward this port Capt. Sealby asked that wrecking tugs be sent out to take care of his vessel, and Capt. Ranson, having communicated with his office here, informed Capt. Sealby that tugs were already on their way. ...
Officials of the White Star Line had hoped to tow the Republic into port and take her direct to Erie Basin for temporary repairs. Afterwards she was to have been taken to Newport News to be patched up.
N. Y. Sun, January 25, 09, 2:5
[Before the BALTIC bade her final departure...] Capt. Ranson held the Baltic near the Republic for two hours fearing that Capt. Sealby might need rescuing himself, but at 10 o'clock [a. m. Sunday, January 24], when Sealby seemed to think that he was safe enough and could keep his ship above water, the Baltic sounded a rousing good-by, dipped her colors and made tracks for New York. ...
Captain Sealby's last actions aboard Republic indicate his impression that she would remain afloat.
[Officer Williams, discussing his and Captain Sealby's last watch on the Republic] "You see everybody but the captain and myself had left the boat at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. About 6 o'clock I found my way below and carried up about sixteen biscuits, some marmalade, and a big hunk of plum cake. On this we had our dinner on the bridge. I also found some blankets and took them to the bridge, because we wanted to have things comfortable if she stood up all night. But that was fine plum cake."
Globe and Commercial Advertiser, January 26, 1909, 2:2
N. Y. Sun, January 26, 09, :6
[Captain K.W. Perry of the Revenue Cutter Gresham, discusses the Republic's last moments,] "The Republic's watertight compartments had done such valiant service and she had remained drifting so many hours that Capt. Sealby actually believed she would hold her head above water until we towed her to a place of safety. He decided to stand by the bridge and took his blankets up there intending to snatch a little sleep after awhile if things went right, but he never got so much as a wink. ..."
New York Evening Sun January 25, 1909, 1:3, 4:6
And when the Baltic arrived in New York, Captain Ranson said:
Evening World's Tug Gets
As the Baltic halted off Ambrose Lightship [about 1:15 a.m. January 25, 1909], the tug Dalzeline, under charter by The Evening World, which had been waiting for her off the Hook all night, raced up alongside. From the deck of the dancing tug a reporter for this paper called up through a megaphone.
Evening World, January 25, 1909, 5:3;
[Delayed because of the fog,] There is some doubt whether the Gaspee [one of four tugs dispatched by White Star Line to assist Republic] will be able to get to the Republic, but as the disabled steamer was being towed along the sea side of Long Island very slowly there was a possibility that the Gaspee would overtake the Republic before she gets to the Narrows, the entrance to New York Harbor. [Emphasis supplied.]
Providence Journal (RI), Jan. 25, 09, 2:5.
At 8:15 p.m. on January 24, 1909, just minutes after the Republic had actually plunged beneath the waves, an as yet uninformed White Star Line issued the following statement to the press:
The Merritt-Chapman Wrecking Company has sent down two large wrecking tugs to meet the Republic and to tow her to Erie Basin for temporary repairs. Thereafter she will be taken to the Government [!?] dry dock at Newport News for permanent repairs.
New York Times, Jan. 25, 1909, 2
Until the word came from Capt. Sealby himself [received by White Star Line at 10:31 p.m. January 24, 1909, that the Republic had sunk] the steamship people believed that the Republic could be brought here in tow or beached. Bulletins which they received yesterday afternoon and last night said that the Republic's engine rooms were flooded, that one hold was full of water and another filling, but that she could keep afloat. Sealby's messages to his office indicated that he believed his ship could stay on top of the water.
New York Sun, January 25, 1909, 1:6.
Sealby's Refusal of Assistance
Captain Sealby's and White Star Line's knowledge of salvage law, and their informed belief that the Republic would remain afloat, that additional salvage tugs had already been dispatched to assist, that arrangements had been made to have her towed to Erie Basin for temporary repair (then from there she was to be taken to Newport News, Virginia, for permanent repair) - and the fact that the Republic did, indeed, sink while under tow - all account for Captain Sealby's continued refusal to accept, other than from vessels who could not claim a salvage award, the assistance of vessels who had arrived on the scene. Sealby accepted assistance from only the US Government's Revenue Cutters (who had a duty to assist), White Star Line's Baltic (the company could always assist itself) and Anchor Line's Furnessia.1
Two of Them Have A theory
THINK CAPT. SEALBY ERRED
Say He Prefered to Wait for His Own
Shortly after the steamships that stood by the Republic reached their piers yesterday their wireless operators hurried to the offices of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company at 27 William Street and there made their official reports of the stirring events of the last three days. Among them were the operators of the New York, the Lucania, and the Furnessia. The first two unhesitantly asserted that the Republic could have been saved had Capt. Sealby accepted the proffers of aid made to him by the Captains of the ships that surrounded him. He refused the help proffered, they said, and thus the precious time left in which to save the stricken ship slipped by. Then when the tugs sent by the White Star Line arrived it was too late.
NY Times, Jan. 26, 09, 4:5
… On coming near the Republic [at approximately 8 p.m. January 23, 1909] Capt. Fenlon sent a boat in charge of the chief officer alongside the White Star boat with offers of assistance.
New York Evening Sun, January 27, 1909, 1:5
Developments last night indicated that the Republic could have been saved if the captain had accepted the offer of the captain of the Standard Oil Trust's steamer City of Everett.
New York American, January 28, 1909, 3:1
Merritt & Chapman Salvage Tug Relief 2
Sealby's Refusal of a Tow.
The unwritten law in the marine world that the Captain is the supreme commander of his vessel when she is at sea will not be modified by the fact that the wireless system keeps him in almost constant touch with his owners ashore. For this reason it is probable that Capt. Sealby's refusal to allow the City of Everett to tow him will not be questioned. His first duty was to insure the safety of his passengers, and this he had fulfilled when they were put aboard the damaged Florida. He had the right to use his own judgment afterward, and in refusing a tow he had the knowledge that the company had sent out to help him the wrecking steamer Relief, the Government cutters, and several sea-going tugs. . . .
NY Times, Jan. 28, 09, 2:3
Capt. Sealby may have had an additional reason to refuse all offers of assistance other than from those parties who could not claim a salvage award. Under the terms of White Star Line's Bill of Lading, under which White Star Line accepted and transported cargo:
In case of salvage services rendered to aforesaid merchandise or treasure [Yes, it really says that!] during the voyage by a vessel of the same line, such salvage services shall be paid for as fully as if such salving vessel or vessels belonged to strangers. ... General Average payable according to York-Antwerp Rules. . . .
NARA, RG 143, 105669.
By waiting for Company vessels, Capt. Sealby would have saved White Star line the expense of paying third parties their salvage claims, and, under the terms of its Bills of Lading, White Star line may have been able to acquire additional revenues from those who shipped cargo aboard Republic to, at least, offset its expenses. Under the salvage concept of General Average - also a term within White Star line's Bill of Lading - the cargo owners would have been required to contribute their proportionate share of the salvage expenses as the value of their cargo bears to the total value of the salvaged vessel and cargo.3
Sealby Stayed with His Ship to the Last.
Although the Baltic's Capt. Ranson provides a romanticized explanation, below, for why Capt. Sealby stayed with his ship at all times while she remained afloat, and only left her as she sank beneath him, Capt. Sealby's reasons for staying at his post were probably more practical: 1. he didn't believe his ship would sink; and, 2. if he had left the ship while afloat, someone might have boarded her, saved her, and, as a result, claimed her under salvage law as a salvage prize.
You may ask why Captain Sealby felt that he must stick by his ship even at great personal risk. It is true that he and his second officer were the only ones on board when the Republic finally foundered, and were thrown into the sea and rescued with some difficulty on account of the darkness. They ran this risk, not in the least to indulge in pyrotechnics, for Captain Sealby is not that kind of man, but for two very good reasons. First, it is a tradition of the sea that a Captain must stick to his ship until the last hope is gone, and that he must be the last one to leave her. In the second place, if he should abandon his ship even with the conviction that she was hopelessly lost, and then some other vessel or seamen should come along and save her, his own judgment could very easily be questioned, and his reputation as a resourceful and trustworthy commander would be irretrievably ruined. . . .
THE TRIUMPH OF WIRELESS, by Capt. Ranson
But, The Republic Ultimately Foundered, and
… Underwriters who discussed the disaster yesterday put some of the blame for the loss of the steamship on the wrecking companies. The wrecking tug Relief was in this harbor, but her captain declined to go to sea in such a thick fog. Had the Relief been able to get to the Republic with her powerful pumps it is thought she could have kept the vessel afloat.
Boston Evening Transcript, January 26, 1909, 3:4.
WHITE STAR LINE WILL
Special Dispatch to the EVENING NEWS.
Newark [NJ] Evening News, Jan. 25, 09, 3:2,3.
BLAMES TUGS FOR SHIP'S LOSS
David Lindsey, general passenger agent of the White Star line, said yesterday that every effort was made Saturday night to get tugs from Boston and other places along the shore line to go out in the fog to the aid of the Republic. The tugs would not venture out, he said, and he declares that if they had gone the Republic would have been towed into more shallow water and eventually saved.
N.Y. Herald, Jan. 25, 09. 4:2.
The sinking of the Republic made useless the voyage of four large tugs which had started for the Republic, the Underwriter from Boston, the John Scully and the Gaspee from Providence, and the Relief from New York.
New York Sun, Jan. 25, 1909, 1:6; and
It was stated at the White Star Line offices to-day that the Republic would be a total loss. Had the weather been clear Saturday two wrecking tugs sent out would have been able to reach the wrecked ship and kept her from going down, but the fog which delayed the rescuers doomed the big steamer.
Brooklyn Times, January 25, 1909, 1:1
Fog Blamed for Loss of Ship.
The fog which was the cause of the accident yesterday morning was to blame for the loss of their ship, the White Star people were certain. Had it lifted so the tugs hustled out to sea could have got to the side of the Republic they could have kept it above water.
New York Sun, Jan. 25, 09, 1:6; and
Indeed, the Republic's demise came as a surprise to most.
DELAY OF WRECKING TUGS.
Fog and Other Drawbacks Prevented
The question having arisen as to why assistance did not reach the White Star liner Republic in time to keep her from sinking, investigation yesterday brought out the fact that only an unfortunate combination of circumstances, in which the dense fog of Saturday and Sunday played a prominent part, prevented her from being brought safely into port.
Thought Republic Would Not Sink.
NY Times, Jan 27, 09, 2:5
Even the crew of the Gresham were surprised at her sudden loss.
WOODS HOLE, Mass. Monday. - The revenue cutter Gresham, Captain Perry, which had been in constant attention on the steamship Republic, which sank last night in Nantucket Sound, arrived in this harbor at eleven o'clock to-day. The crew of the Gresham, though tired out, told of the thrilling experiences in succoring the passengers and crew of the ill fated steamship.
Evening Telegram, January 25, 1909, 3:6 & 7
Now, we can turn our attention to the rescue, or loss, of the Republic's cargos.
1The Furnessia assisted under orders from Anchor Line, her company owners. NY Sun, Jan.25, 09, 2:5 (quotation at bottom of next page). We believe that White Star Line had contracted with Anchor Line for assistance. In any event, Anchor Line did not file a salvage claim, nor would they have had a valid claim against White Star Line once the Republic became a total loss. See: Self Insured Without Recourse, where we discuss a shipowner's maximum liability permitted under 1909 law.