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The Britannic

The Britannic

They say there is a ghost that walks the coast road between the port of Korissia and the small beach at Galiaskari on the island of Kea. The ghost is a woman who carries a lantern and appears to be looking for something or someone. They say the ghost appeared not long after Tuesday November 21 1916. That was the day when the Britannic, larger and considered even more unsinkable than her famous sister ship the Titanic, exploded and sank just outside the harbor. To this day the Britannic is the world's biggest sunken ocean liner. At the time she was doing service as a hospital ship in the Gallipoli campaign and in fact had never been used as an ocean-liner.

The BritannicThe straits between the island of Kea and the mainland are known for having some of the roughest seas in the Aegean. But on this day the sea was calm and the skies clear. Just like the night a few years before when the Titanic went down, it was not the type of weather you expected a large ship to sink. Especially an un-sinkable or an even-more unsinkable ship. But sink she did in just 55 minutes!

Aboard the Britannic was Violett Jessup who had survived the Titanic tragedy and the descriptions of the disaster from her book Titanic Survivor-The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess give a first-hand account of the disaster.

On that morning the nurses and crew had just finished breakfast when they felt the explosion. Within minutes the Britannic was sinking. The improvements that had been made to the ship's design after the Titanic disaster should have kept her afloat, but the flooding of the bulkheads caused the sea to rush in through the portholes, left open by the nurses to air out the interior of the ship. Captain Bartlett knew the Britannic was doomed and tried to beach her on the island of Kea just three miles away. But when two lifeboats drifted into the ship's propellers and were chopped to pieces with many casualties he turned off the ship's engines and gave up his plan to reach the island. At 9:07 the Britannic sank. There were 30 fatalities out of a total of 1036 people and had the ship been returning with casualties rather than going to pick them up there would certainly have been many, many more. Of the survivors many were picked up by the fishermen of Kea who were the first on the scene and others by British ships in the area. Of the dead most were left at sea and only five were buried including Sergeant W Sharpe whose grave is on the island. The survivors who were taken in by local people were later picked up by the rescue ships and brought to Pireaus. According to locals the building on the beach in Korissia which is now the primary school was where they treated the injured.

How the Britannic sank has been a mystery. Some believe it was torpedoed by a German sub and others that it hit a mine. Unfortunately the dives to explore the sunken ship, which was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1975, have not given enough evidence.

BritannicIn September 2003 the dive ship Loyal Watcher sailed down from the Arctic Circle by way of Plymouth, England and met a crew from BBC Television and National Geographic as well as Simon Mills, the owner of the wreck, for another dive. The ship was explored, photographed and filmed. From my window in Ioulida I watched the Loyal Watcher go out every day to a spot above the wreck where she dropped her marker balloons and sailed around them endlessly in slow circles. Talk around Kea was that there was a plan to bring the Britannic to the surface and tow her to the shallow water of Vourkari. This would be quite a tourist attraction as the big liner is relatively intact except for the bow which is almost entirely separated from the rest of the ship. However the cost of this endeavor is astronomical and the legalities of it make it difficult as well. Even if the ship itself can't be raised there are artifacts around the island as well as those on the vessel which could be brought to the surface and placed in a Britannic Memorial Museum with photos and perhaps live cameras showing videos from the wreck. Maybe a small submarine can do tours of the ship as well. Food for thought, but why not?

In the meantime there will be other visits and exploration of the Britannic, which has slowly but surely been capturing the attention of the public through Simon Mills book Hostage To Fortune and a made-for-TV movie called Britannic. As a matter of interest in 1976 a survivor of the Britannic, Sheila Mitchel, then 86 years old, was brought to the site by Jacques Cousteau and Diver Peter Nicholaidis to take part and witness the exploration of the Britannic. Sound familiar? Go rent a copy of Titanic.

Are there many remnants of the Britannic on the island of Kea? Some relatives of ours had deck chairs which had washed ashore but they eventually disintegrated. I saw a chest of drawers in a house somewhere but I don't remember where. Supposedly the grave of Sergeant W Sharpe is here but I have yet to find someone who knows where it is. There is an old man who was seven years old when the ship sank but I have never met him or seen him. But not far from the building where they treated the survivors is a small bar, that has a view out of the bay in the general direction of the wreck, called Britannic. OK it's not exactly a museum. But it's a beginning.

And the ghost who walks along the shore? Maybe when the museum is built and the story of the Britannic can be seen by all she will be able to rest.

Click on photos to enlarge

Location of the Britannic

Steve Wright, Captain of the
dive ship Loyal Watcher

BBC and National Geographic Crew and divers prepare for first day of exploration

After getting permission from the Greek authorities the Loyal Watcher leaves the dock...

...sails into the bay...

...passing the lighthouse and out into the Cavo d Oro

Returning from the dive

Britannic Bar in Korissia

Bureau from the Britannic Greece Travel Banner

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