Captain E.J. Smith - The 'Adriatic' and a History of Mishaps
After three years as Captain of the Baltic, Smith was given his second new "big ship," the Adriatic, the fourth of the "The Big Four' which was never the world's largest but instead the fastest of the four, her two quadruple expansion steam engines capable of 17 knots, and an impressive passenger capacity of 2,825.
It was aboard the Adriatic, which Smith commanded from 8th May 1907 - May 1911, that he worked with a Scotsman by the name of William Murdoch, who was serving as first officer of this ship for a very similar period of time - April 1907 - 23rd May 1911. Also during his command of Adriatic, Smith received the long service Decoration for Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve. The Royal Naval Reserve Decoration is awarded to officers with 15 or more years' service with the Royal Navy Reserve. As an honorary Commander of the Royal Navy Reserve, Retired, and because he held an official warrant (#690) this permitted him to fly the Blue Ensign ("Blue Duster" of the R.N.R) from any merchant vessel under his command.
As Smith's popularity grew, there is an increasing number of photographs showing him on duty aboard the Adriatic, including two images that show him with his officer's taking a tour of the ship, as part of an inspection. Other photographs show him posing for photographs in his summer uniform, looking at ease with the camera.
A History of Mishaps
1907 was also the year the Captain Smith made a statement that would later become often quoted, often with a sense of irony. In an interview with a New York Times reporter, in May 1907, he allegedly said the following:
When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say- uneventful. Of course there have been winter storms and gales and fog and the like, but in all my experience I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea- a brig, the crew of which was taken off in a small boat in charge of my third officer. I never saw a wreck and have never wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good material for a story. (April 16, 1912, New York Times)
Captain Smith standing aboard the RMS Adriatic (click to enlarge)
A close up of Captain Smith aboard the Adriatic (click to enlarge)
However, is this really true? The reality is that Smith had experienced several sometimes quite serious mishaps, during his career - atlhough in many cases he was not directly to blame for what happened, they did occur while he was aboard or in command:
• September 1885, as First Officer of the Republic. Collision while under control of the New York Harbour pilot with Cunard's Aurania, as two ships as they headed through Gedney’s Channel. Damage to the Aurania was minor enough that it could continue its journey, but the Republic had to undergo repairs for the next two weeks.
• January 27, 1889, while captain of the Republic, the ship ran aground off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey for five hours resulting in a furnace flue to fracture, killing three men and injuring seven. Incidentally, this is the same date as Smith's birthday.
• January 1895, Cufic, the ship’s eastbound voyage experienced severe conditions and 65 head of cattle were washed overboard.
• August 7, 1901, an electrical fire broke out in one of Majestic’s linen closets as the ship was heading to New York.
• December 1902, Germanic, when it reached New York in a heavy snowstorm the vessel plowed into a garbage scow.
• November 4, 1909, Adriatic ran into a mud bank along the Ambrose Channel at 3:00 A.M.
Now promoted to senior commander of the White Star Line, Capt. Smith received an annual salary of £1,250 per year (equivalent to about $125,000 today) plus a ₤200 bonus as long as no accidents occurred. But the ships he was to command were about to get a whole lot bigger.
Despite his position he was not imune to scrutiny. According to the Tuesday 17th August 1909 edition of the New York Times he had his cigars confiscated in an article entitled "Hold-Up and Search of Steamship Captains":
Capt. Smith of the Adriatic of the same line and the ship's surgeon, Dr. O'Loughlin, were invited to Marblehead to spend a few days. As they started ashore yesterday morning they went to the Customs Office on the pier and offered the valises they carried for inspection. Each officer was carrying a box of cigars, upon which the seals had been broken. In spite of their protests these cigars were confiscated. In the doctor's valise was a bottle of whisky. This suffered the same fate.
The following is a selection of photographs of Captain Smith aboard RMS Adriatic, on duty and socialising with passengers in his summer uniform, as taken by passengers:
In 1909 Smith was also reported to have made the following statement, about the Adriatic, although its sentiments would later be used in a different context:
‘I will not assert that she is unsinkable, but I can say confidently that, whatever the accident, this vessel would not go down before time had been given to save the life of every person on board. I will go a bit further. I will say that I cannot imagine any condition that would cause the Adriatic to founder. I cannot conceive of any fatal disaster happening to this ship. Modern shipbuilding has reduced that danger to a minimum’. (Captain Smith, quoted in 'The World’s Work', 1909 (courtesy of Dr. Paul Lee)