1 April 2009

What is the difference between HMS Beagle and RMS Titanic?

Answer: one is worth of £5 million of British public money, they other can be ignored.

HMS Beagle was an astounding success. It twice travelled to the southern hemisphere and once curcumnavigated the globe. Its passenger Charles Darwin revolutionized science, its Captain Robert FitzRoy established long range weather forecasting. This small ship single-boatedly changed world history for the better.

Titanic didn't even complete one voyage before it sank, killing 1500. It was badly designed, built and captained. Now, which ship would you think the British National Lottery's Heritage Lottery Fund would celebrate?

The world changing success that was HMS Beagle?

Or the epic, epic, epic failure, the Everest-sized mountain of stinking fecal failure, the utter collapse of design, engineering, seamanship and leadership that was the Titanic?

Which best exemplifies British maritime heritage, and is worthy of Heritage Lottery Fund money? Today we learn it is the Titanic. We (the HMS Beagle Trust) applied to the HLF some time ago and were told that they didn't fund replicas. We asked for some cash to get this project off the ground.

And yet today we learn that the HLF has dobbed £500,000 into developing the idea of a Titanic museum in Southampton. And if they do a good enough job of developing it, there's another £4.5 million on ice - sorry - to still further grow this monument and myth to all that is worst in British history.

Am I mad? Yes I am. Because part of this cash will go into a walk-on replica of the Titanic (don't do replicas, eh, HLF?). Why not just spend £44.95 on a Revell Titanic model and put in a bathtub of icecubes, it would be as instructive as putting money into this monument to failure, incompetence and death.

Now, we wish to build a seagoing modern HMS Beagle (which, despite the class's reputation egegiously failed to sink despite its Captains sailing it into the most dangerous seas in the world under sail alone). We wish to apply modern science to the work done by Darwin and Fitzroy. We wish to take young scientists aboard and inspire a new generation of scientists and sailors using Darwin and Fitzroy's examples, using modern comunications to spread our work and excitement into classrooms and labs. We wish to celebrate success, bring it bang into the 21st century and give young sailors and scientists from around the world the chance to step aboard a world-changing square rigger, feel the heave of the decks under their feet and the swell of hope and enthusiasm in their hearts.

Robert Ballard's finding the wreck of the Titanic is an event that will stay with me to my dying day. The most amazing acount was on the radio: I was there as he narrated the moments when the ROV worked its way up the debris trail, passing over pairs of shoes (all that was left of the dead), a china doll's face looking up from the seabed (causing heart attacks in the control room, you can guess why) and finally when the rusting steel wall of the Titanic reared out of the mud...it was amazing radio, a great piece of maritime exploration and archaeology.

In design terms Titanic was basically a clipper sailing ship shorn of its masts, bulked up on steroids with three engines, props and a load of coal bunged into her insides, three real and one mock funnel put on top (I've seen the plans of the old Harland and Wolff clippers, she was just that). Design fail.

The rivets they used to fix her together were brittle - too high a level of slag in the iron. The shipyard was strapped for cash at the time, way to save cash? Cut corners on materials. Build fail.

The Titanic's captain ran his ship at high speed into an area where he an accurate report and position of the very iceberg into which he steered. Now, I am a professional yacht skipper, as low on the foodchain as a professional sailor can be. However, I know that in the conditions Titanic faced that night you do not open the taps and crack on, no matter what your Company is trying to prove, you do not drive your ship fast through areas where there are icebergs. Skippering fail.

You do not let your ship leave the dock without enough lifeboats to take every man, woman and child aboard, even if a lot of them are inconveniently poor. Management fail.

You do not approve such a ship to sail with known faults and with a lack of lifeboats. Government fail.

That is the Titanic's fivefold fail (and that's before we get to the film and Celine Dion).

And as such, worthy of £500,000 of Heritage Lottery Fund development money, with another £4.5 million on the way if they exemplify the five fold fail well enough.

We need £5 million to build a new HMS Beagle, strangely the amount HLF is prepared to pledge to commemorate the honking egregious catastrophe that was the Titanic.

How did HMS Beagle succeed? Come Shakespeare, annoint my tongue and with thy golden numbers let me count the ways.

1. Didn't sink in one world circumnavigation (see 2 below), one trip to Australia, and one to South America over a 20 year sailing career. Threefold success.
2. Provided the platform from which Charles Darwin formulated the theory of Natural Selection, revolutionizing biology. Success.
3. Gave Captain Robert FitzRoy the observations and data which led him to become a great maritime meteorologist and found the - and the first - Met Office, saving thousands of sailors' lives worldwide. Success.
4. Charted huge areas of hitherto uncharted coasts and ocean saving thousands of mariners lives over the years. Success.

5. Damn, that little HMS Beagle, the coffin brig, the half tide rock, the 'not a particular ship', she worked. She crossed oceans, clawed off lee shores, sailed into harbours (no engines, sails only), lived through hurricanes, pitched in rough anchorages and survived knockdowns. Epic success.

So the Heritage Lottery Fund you fund? The bust. The design that failed the 500 odd from Southampton who died in that wreck, the other 1000 whose bodies drifted down through that cold two miles of sea and whose tanned shoes are all that remain. Celebrate!

The shoddy build that guaranteed their deaths. Commemorate!

The seamanship from the 'Millionaire's Captain' which drove that ill-found boat into that iceberg. Day skipper exam fail. £5 million public money fireworks!

What are you saying, just what are you damn well saying? Let the Brits design, build and sail your boat and we give you a myth, 1500 dead and a load of decaying rusticles on the Atlantic floor?

Or let the Brits design, build and sail a boat and we will sail it safely round the world which it will change? And you ignore it. Other countries with more paltry maritime histories have rebuilt and celebrated ships which did less.

HLF, which ship ever did more to add to the sum of human knowledge? Damn you in your offices, with your po-faced asservation that you don't find replicas. That Orkney Yawl? You funded that. This walkaboard Titanic failure. You're funding that.

You know where Titanic's wreck is? We know where Beagle remains are.
You have lots of letters? We have Beagle's logs, Darwin and Fitzroy's accounts of the voyage.
You have artefects? So do we (but not looted from graves: graves that the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff sought to distance themselves from. Contrast their evasions to Captain FitzRoy's logged lament for the death of young Musters. Oh, do you not know about that because Leonardo di Caprio did not ham up his death on the silver screen?). Darwin's thousands of specimens, Beagle timbers, microscopes, slides. Oh, and the theory of evolution. And the Met Office. And we have Darwin's words: "The voyage of the Beagle has been the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career."

HMS Beagle - a replica of which could even now be rising from a slipway with your help in this year, the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth - is a monument to success. Every time a biology student learns something new, a biology undergraduate nods in appreciation, a Ph.D. is conferred, a discovery is made, it is a peon to Darwin and to that little ship he sailed on.

Every gritty eyed time a sailor listens to the shipping forecast at 5.45 am, looks at a synoptic chart, makes a decision to sail, to stay in harbour or to reef a sail, it is FitzRoy and the Beagle that echoes down the years and across the waves. A cause for celebration. You said no. The new Beagle was not worth your money.

Yet the old Titanic is. Shame on you HLF. Burn your papers, cram the ashes in your mouths, then spit on your useless desks and smear the results on the doors of Whitehall and the history books of the nation. You celebrate failure.

(Please excuse any typos and slight incoherences in this piece. I am very cross. In fact I am as mad as a wet hen.)


Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Please tell me that this is an April Fools Joke!

SouthernFriedScientist said...

Things like this remind me of the great Onion headline "World's largest metaphor sinks!"

Peter Mc said...

Mike: sadly not.

SFS: I'd rather Titanic was a metaphor for brilliant marine engineering. Sadly, we did just what the Onion said. And there was no need for it.

Propter Doc said...

I heard this on the news last night and thought it was absolutely rediculous. Ghoulish, actually.

I find it perverse that something with the potential to inspire and educate loses out to some Hollywood-hyped failure and mass grave.

Karen James said...

You, sir, have taken my anger, my frustration, my indignation, and formed it into just the scathing retort that I wish I could have penned had I not been too busy rending my garments and pulling my hair out. For this, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Karen James said...

Thank you all for your comments so far. The UK-based among you may wish to phone up HLF and/or DCMS (which has responsibility for National Lottery Policy) and tell them what you think about how they've decided to spend their money (I won't say your money because my understanding is that these are national lottery earnings, i.e. a tax on only those residents who are statistically ignorant).

Richard Carter, FCD said...

What that man said, exactly. To think my hard-earned lottery losings are going to a celebration of British failure. To quote the great man, it makes one's blood boil!

Bob O'Hara said...

I can only agree. Useless lottery, I guess they care nothing for our culture.

scicurious said...

This is a GREAT retort, and a very well-justified one. I'm so glad you're bringing attention to this. Unfortunately, I'm also entirely sure that the money is going into the Titanic purely because of the vast loads of tourist money to be made. Britain will be the poorer for it.