It was 14 April 1912. Charles Joughin had finally fallen asleep after a hard day’s work in the ship’s kitchens. Suddenly, he was woken by a tremendous jolt. He felt the vessel shudder violently beneath him. Then, after a momentary pause, it continued moving forward.
Joughin was puzzled but not unduly alarmed. He knew that icebergs had been sighted in the water; he also knew that Captain Edward Smith had ordered a change of course, steering the Titanic onto a more southerly route in order to avoid potential disaster. Assuming that the danger had passed, Joughin tried to return to sleep. But at about 11.35 p.m., just a few minutes after the jolt, he was summoned to the bridge. Here, he was given some most unwelcome information.
Captain Smith had sent an inspection team below decks to see if anything was wrong. The men had returned with the terrible news that the ship had struck an iceberg and that the force of the blow had seriously buckled the hull. Rivets had been forced out over a length of some ninety metres and seawater was now gushing into the ship at a tremendous rate.
This news might have been expected to cause panic. Yet it didn’t. Most people believed the Titanic to be unsinkable. She had watertight compartments that could be closed in the event of disaster. This meant that even the most serious damage to the ship’s hull could be contained.
But now, in this moment of crisis, these watertight compartments were revealed to have a catastrophic design flaw. As they filled with water, so they weighed down the ship’s bow, allowing water to pour into other areas of the stricken vessel. A fourth, fifth and then a sixth compartment had already filled with water: it became obvious to Captain Smith that the Titanic was inevitably doomed to sink.
Joughin, the Titanic’s chief baker, now swung into action. He aroused his fellow chefs from their beds and began to gather all the loaves of bread they could find. They then rushed back on deck and put four loaves into each lifeboat. They already knew that there were not enough boats for all the passengers. The Titanic had 2,223 people on board, yet there were only enough lifeboats for 1,178 people.
Charles Joughin realized that he, as a member of crew, would not be given a place in a lifeboat. As the ship began listing at an alarming angle, he decided to drink himself into oblivion. He descended into his cabin, downed a huge quantity of whisky (according to one account he finished off two bottles). He then returned to the deck and, with drunken energy, began pushing women into the lifeboats.
Once this was done, he staggered along the heavily listing promenade deck, wondering how long it would take for the ship to sink. He threw overboard some fifty deckchairs, along with other seats and cushions, in the hope that people in the water might be able to use them as rafts.
It was not long before he, too, found himself in the freezing Atlantic. ‘I got onto the starboard side of the poop,’ he later recalled, ‘and found myself in the water. I do not believe my head went under the water at all. I thought I saw some wreckage.’
He swam towards this, not feeling the cold on account of all the whisky he had drunk, ‘and found a collapsible boat B with Lightoller and about twenty-five men on it’.
There was no room for Joughin. ‘I tried to get on,’ he said, ‘but was pushed off, but I hung around. I got around to the opposite side and cook Maynard, who recognized me, helped me and held on to me.’
By this time, it was a miracle Joughin was still alive. The water temperature was two degrees below freezing. Most passengers and crew who had jumped into the water had died of hypothermia within fifteen minutes.
Yet Joughin was to remain in the water for a further four hours before he was finally pulled aboard a lifeboat that came alongside collapsible boat B. Along with the other survivors, he was eventually rescued by the RMS Carpathia, which arrived at the wreck site at 4.10 a.m.
Joughin believed that his extraordinary survival was due to the vast quantity of whisky he had drunk. Not so fortunate were 1,517 of his fellow crew and passengers. They died in the water, sober and cold.
The Titanic catastrophe was not Joughin’s last shipwreck. He was on board the SS Oregon when she sank in Boston Harbour. He survived that disaster as well, although it is not known if he had once again fortified himself with a bottle or two of whisky.
This excerpt is from Fascinating Footnotes From History by Giles Milton, published by John Murray.