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On March 20, 1873, the SS Atlantic set sail from Liverpool on her 19th voyage. Bound for New York, the ship was only the second commissioned by the British White Star Line, which would later go on to commission the much more famous Titanic.
The coal steamer faced a strong headwind on its entire passage across the Atlantic, so the captain, worried about fuel reserves, decided to stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for more coal. Doing so would prove to be a fatal decision.
In the early morning hours of April 1, the SS Atlantic had drifted off-course by nearly 12 miles. Instead of approaching the safety of Halifax’s harbor, it was approaching the rocky Canadian coast. The crew was unaware. Only one officer awake that morning had sailed into Halifax before, and even the captain (who was currently asleep) had never been to the city or its harbor. The officer with knowledge of the Nova Scotian coast tried to sound the alarm about the rocky shoals ahead, but no one listened until it was too late.
Shortly after 3 am, the SS Atlantic ran aground on low-lying rocks. Vicious waves began to batter it, soon flipping it on its side. Water rushed through the boat, trapping whole families who banged futilely on the windows separating them from the cluster of passengers and crew who had managed to make it onto the ship’s hull, where they stood in the freezing mists.
Eventually, a crew member swam to a nearby rock to attach a rope between the sinking ship and stone. Several passengers attempted the crossing, but many lost their grip and were washed out into the raging Atlantic. In all, 535 people died, including every single woman on board, while just 371 survived. Only one survivor was a child, a 12-year-old boy named John Hindley.
It’s likely you’ve never heard of the SS Atlantic. It was, for a time, the deadliest shipwreck in the North Atlantic, supplanted in 1898 by the sinking of the French ship SS La Bourgogne. It would remain the deadliest shipwreck for the White Star Line for almost exactly 39 years, until the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, taking the Atlantic’s place as a heavily mythologized disaster at sea that said something fundamental about humanity.
But I have been haunted by the SS Atlantic since I first learned of it a few days ago while watching a real-time simulation of its sinking on YouTube. I have learned a lot from Shipwreck YouTube, including many sad tales of disasters that have faded from the pages of history books. But I’ve also learned how easy it is to think you know where you’re going, only to learn there are rocks in the dark, waiting to sink you.
Shipwreck YouTube is terrifying but also oddly soothing
Shipwreck YouTube is a surprisingly robust community, and it’s more than just videos of computer-animated ships sinking. This guy, for instance, is carving out a niche as someone who argues with people that their theories about how the Titanic sank are wrong. (It turns out there are still some questions about exactly what happened when the ship went down, a thing you might only know if you hang out on Shipwreck YouTube.) And there are the requisite videos of visits to the wreckage of famous ships in their watery graves, as well as documentaries about the horrible ends of these ships and their passengers.
But for me, there’s nothing quite like watching a computer-animated ship break apart and disappear into the sea. I’ve been watching these meticulously detailed re-creations for years, particularly when my anxiety spikes or I just need to hide out from the world for a bit. I cannot tell you how often I’ve watched this simulation of the Titanic’s sinking. And a friend recently pointed me to this even better Titanic simulation, which features all of the telegraphs sent during the ship’s final hours.
Watching these videos is both terrifying and oddly soothing. The ocean, even when merciless, has a calming quality to it, and the computerized versions of these ships have no people on board. They are ghostly vessels, cruising through the night, destined to meet with disaster, over and over again. To watch the Titanic take on water and slowly disappear into the ocean’s depths for the dozenth time is to hope against hope that this time, it might slide by the iceberg and continue on to New York. It never does.
One thing I’ve learned from Shipwreck YouTube is just how atypical the Titanic’s sinking — probably the one shipwreck that most people know the details of — ended up being. Since it lasted just over two-and-a-half hours, the slow destruction of the ship allowed for copious human dramas both real and fictional to play out during that time frame.
But most shipwrecks are brutal. Like the Atlantic’s, they happen quickly and out of nowhere. One night, you are looking in vain for the safety of the lighthouse at Halifax Harbor, only to find yourself tossed among the rocks. Or one afternoon you might be cruising into your final port, only to be ripped apart by a torpedo that wasn’t supposed to be able to hit a vessel as swift-moving as yours. Just 18 minutes later, you could find yourself beneath the waves, the decision to book passage on the Lusitania (the ship whose sinking by a German U-boat was an early precursor to America’s entry into World War I) ultimately a fatal one.
Perhaps that’s why I often self-soothe with these seemingly ghoulish videos of ships in the dark, unaware the end is coming. Anxiety can rush in out of nowhere, swamping what limited defenses you have and forcing you into a defensive crouch. A perfectly normal day can become a horrific one in a split second, and even if you emerge on the other side in a lifeboat, you’re going to carry those events with you for the rest of your life. Survival is just survival. Living afterward is the tricky part.
I am unlikely to become a ship captain at this point in my life, and sea travel in the year 2020 is safer than ever. (If you don’t believe me, check out all of these YouTube videos of ships in massive storms, implacably floating along.) But there are times when I feel a great kinship with those massive, ghostly, simulated vessels, dreamed up in a computer somewhere. I might make it into harbor today, but every moment we’re alive, there are icebergs in the dark.