Monday, May 25, 2009

Another tragedy befalls the Britannic

The sister ship to the Titanic, RMS Britannic, had a short and sad life.

She was completed just as World War I broke out, and never sailed in passenger service. In 1915 the British Government requisitioned her for conversion to a hospital ship, and the rest of her short life was sailed as His Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) Britannic. The two photographs and artist's impression below show her after conversion.

During 1916 Britannic completed five voyages between Britain and the Middle East, ferrying wounded from the Gallipoli campaign and the fighting in what is today the area occupied by Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where British forces and their local allies engaged the Turkish Army.

At 8.12 a.m. on November 21st, 1916, while on her sixth voyage to the Middle East, Britannic hit a moored mine off the island of Kea in the Aegean Sea. She sank within an hour. Fortunately, almost everybody aboard was saved, the only casualties being from two lifeboats that were launched without orders and drifted into the huge ship's propellers. Britannic was the largest ship to be sunk in the First World War (she displaced some 53,000 tons).

The wreck of Britannic was rediscovered by French marine archaeologist Jacques Cousteau in 1975. Since then, she's become something of a Mecca for deep-diving enthusiasts. She lies at a depth of about 120 meters (about 400 feet), and is thus accessible to those using ordinary scuba gear, provided they breathe a special air mixture. She's classified as a war grave, so permission to dive on her is required from both the British and Greek Governments.

The wreck is in remarkably good condition, particularly compared to that of her sister ship, RMS Titanic. Below is shown a spiral staircase in the bow of Britannic, used by her crew to get to and from the upper deck.

Here's a side-scan sonar image of the entire wreck, as it lies on its starboard side. Click the image for a much larger view.

Today comes the sad news that a member of the latest expedition to Britannic, Mr. Carl Spencer, was killed during diving operations. He apparently contracted the so-called 'bends', or decompression sickness, and could not be revived.

It's sad that another life has been claimed over this sad wreck . . . but I guess as long as the urge to explore such pieces of maritime history continues, we'll find others taking the same risks, and sometimes paying the price for them.



Mikael said...

"She lies at a depth of about 120 meters (about 400 feet), and is thus accessible to those using ordinary scuba gear, provided they breathe a special air mixture."

Ah, it's a bit more complicated than that. Recreational diving certificates only deal with non decompression dives down to max 42 meters. To dive to 120 meters you need quite some special training, long decompression stops, and a LOT of compressed gas mixture. At 120 meters depth, you're using up the air at 13 times what it would last at the surface. It'd be very difficult just to stay down there a minute or two, you'd need gigantic tubes, because they need to last for your decompression stops too, which may be very long indeed(but at lesser depths).

That he died of decompression sickness(ie: not enough decompression stop time) kind of highlights how complicated this gets.

Decompression sickness is oversaturation of nitrogen in the bloodstream, to even dive that deep you need an air mixture with less nitrogen, replacing it with helium.

Mikael said...

To elaborate, after checking up on some decompression tables(I'm still pretty much just making an educated guess here though):
For a trimix(oxy/nitro/helium) dive to 120m, with say a bottom time of 10 minutes. Total dive time to avoid decompression sickness is somewhere around 5-6 hours.

Just the bottom time will use up about 200 bar(about what a recreational diver will have in a single big air tube), total usage for the dive probably around 1800-2000 bar. However, I'd hazard a guess that he'd carry about 400 bar down, and then be supplied with replacement bottles on his long decompression stops at 30, 20, 10m.

Anonymous said...

Can't recall her name offhand --- I could look it up and get back to you --- but believe it or not, there was a lady who was on BOTH the Britannic AND the Titanic. She was a young stewardess on the Olympic when it rammed another ship while trying to leave harbor in 1910, then (still a stewardess) survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and in 1916 was a VAD, a nurse, on the Britannic when that ship was torpedoed. The lady wasn't hurt on the Olympic; spent time freezing in Lifeboat 16 from the Titanic before being rescued; got a fractured skull and sliced-open leg from the Britannic sinking; and after all that, she STILL continued going to sea for many years, ending her 44-year career, as a stewardess, in 1952.

Anonymous said...

Found her: the lady who on the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic: Violet Jessop. Born 1887 in Argentina to English-Irish parents, moved to England at age 15 after the death of her father, first went to sea as a stewardess in 1908. Served in the VAD (as a nurse for the British army) throughout WWI, returned to sea as a stewardess after the war. Served (on land) as a translator in WWII, returned to sea again afterwards until retirement in 1952; died in England, 1971.