What is it with billionaires and replica ships? Yesterday, one of Australia’s more eccentric billionaires, Clive Palmer, announced that he plans to build a replica of the Titanic. This one, he says, won’t sink.
In 1988, another Australian billionaire (pro tem), Alan Bond, built a replica of HMS Endeavour, to celebrate the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia. When Endeavour II sailed (towed, actually) up the Brisbane River, I was in the flotilla of small ships that followed in her wake.
The ship itself was fascinating. Inside, you had a clear sense of how tiny the original Endeavour was. Cook, a tall man, slept on the floor, diagonally from corner to corner of his cabin, because the cabin’s length was less than his. Banks and Solander shared a larger, lighter cabin that they also used as their workroom. When I visited, it was decorated with banksias and other botanical specimens.
Replica vessels can be fascinating, but they can also be a valuable source of new information. The doyen of such maritime experiments is Tim Severin, who has made a career out of building and sailing ancient boats, using a volunteer crew, and writing about the voyages afterwards.
There’s a logical fallacy involved: just because you can sail a curragh from Ireland across the Atlantic – or a raft from South America across the Pacific – doesn’t mean that it has happened before. It is not historical evidence, and there’s a great difference between sailing into the unknown, and sailing across an ocean when you already know what’s on the other side. But good writers, like Tim Severin and Thor Heyerdahl, make us want it to be true.
Just as a historian learns a lot from walking the landscape, so a maritime historian can learn a lot by building a boat and sailing in it. There’s a fascinating point in The Jason Voyage, for instance, where Severin and his crew are struggling to row their galley into the Black Sea, and realize that the current runs strongly against them – just as it did in Jason’s original voyage:
The little galley crept up the European shore, the crew still rowing easily to save their strength before the next ordeal. I saw the millrace at Bebek point from at least half a mile away. The water was shooting round the corner in a seething mass where a rocky spur thrust out into the current flow. Whirlpools gyrated away from the edge of the race; blobs of foam dipped and spun in the hurrying current. As we drew nearer I called a warning to the crew; ‘Thirty yards to go to the race ! … Twenty .. start building up boat speed !’ … Just in front of me Mark began to say ‘Couldn’t we stay on this side ? Perhaps get round the point inside the current, and ..’ But before he finished his sentence Argo’s bow hit the race and I heard his startled gasp. It was like steering failure in a moving car . Argo simply went out of control.
Severin’s ships were modest affairs. There have been larger replicas, such as the ships that were built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage of 1492. Usually, though, only an Alan Bond or a Clive Palmer has the spare change to waste spend on larger projects.
Which brings us back to Palmer’s plans to raise the Titanic. Clive, we are so over the Titanic. The wreck has been found, filmed, examined, to the point where I suspect there is not much more to learn. We know all about the dodgy rivets, and why it took on water, and I take it you won’t be repeating these mistakes, because otherwise you’ll find it hard to get paying passengers.
The Titanic is interesting now for its social stories: the 3 separate classes, the racism, the fact that radio was used to raise the alarm, and that people could read about the shipwreck, in their newspapers, as the drama was playing out. The ship itself doesn’t matter any more.
Clive Palmer has made his fortune selling coal to China, and he prides himself on his good relations with Chinese entrepreneurs and the Chinese government (the two categories overlap). He says that Titanic II will be built in China.
Clive, may I respectfully suggest that, if you really want to waste spend money on a maritime replica, you go for broke (metaphorically speaking, of course). Nobody to my knowledge has yet reproduced one of the mighty Treasure Ships of Admiral Zheng He’s fleet.
These ships were amazing. During the early 15th century, they sailed across the Indian Ocean, visiting the Persian Gulf, East Africa and India. Built of bamboo, they were virtually unsinkable and could stay at sea almost indefinitely, because they collected and stored rainwater, and grew their own vegetables (so that their sailors, unlike European sailors of the time, didn’t suffer from scurvy). We could learn a lot about the technology of Chinese ship building, and I’m sure your Chinese associates would appreciate the gracious gesture.
Now that it’s available in 3D, we don’t need another Titanic – but build one of Zheng He’s treasure ships, and the name of Clive Palmer could be forever associated with a national treasure.