In myth and song, the sinking of the Titanic lingers as a metaphor for the end of the Edwardian age and for the dangers of mankind’s blind faith in technology. More importantly, perhaps, the Titanic disaster survives as a symbol of a party that had gone heinously wrong.
Like any great party, the Titanic had at least one hardcore drinker who refused to go down without a fight, who kept drinking long after the party was over, and survived well into the morning.
The Titanic, like many modern cruise ships, was designed to be a floating party boat. The ship boasted numerous lounges and smoking rooms on all levels, like a giant house party where one drunken room leads to another. A glance at the provision list provides ample evidence this was a ship designed for serious trans-Atlantic drinking. The 1200 adult passengers along for the planned one-week maiden voyage could look forward to 1500 bottles of wine, 15,000 champagne glasses, 20,000 bottles of beer and stout, and at least 850 bottles of spirits. The cargo manifest reveals further reserves of 17 cases of cognac, 70 cases of wine and 191 cases of liquor. This, of course, doesn’t include the passengers’ personal stocks.
Perhaps the first to sense that the Titanic disaster would serve as a reflection of the hubris of the times was survivor Lawrence Beesley, who recorded the first-ever Titanic joke, a quip made by a card player in the second-class smoking room just moments after the ship struck the iceberg. The player pointed to his glass of whiskey and instructed a steward: “Just run along the deck and see if any ice has come aboard: I would like some for this.”
Another legend, perhaps apocryphal, has millionaire John Jacob Astor looking into his whiskey in the first class lounge and quipping, “I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.”
The Titanic did sink, of course, its stern tilted to the sky like an upturned bottle drained into the sink by an angry wife, and the great party of the Industrial Age came to an end.
But at least one passenger famously drank his way through the crisis and lived to tell about it. The drinking heroics of Chief Baker Charles Joughin are familiar, at least superficially, to viewers of James Cameron’s little-seen 1997 film. In the film, a jovial and rotund Joughin nips from a flask with one hand as he hugs the railing of the sinking vertical stern with the other. He exchanges a glance with Rose (Kate Winslet) as the ship goes down, and viewers laugh nervously at the character’s bemused, quiet demeanor in the face of the panic swirling around him. “Who could drink at a time like that?” the laughter seemed to say.
Drunks undoubtedly viewed the scene with a different perspective. The Joughin character survives because he keeps his cool while warming his insides with whiskey. He’s not so much trying to survive the disaster as he is trying to survive until his next drink. The next nip is the most important thing, and sometimes such a single-minded focus can work to one’s advantage. Drunks often possess a fatalistic instinct that serves them well in such dire circumstances. Ship sinking? No kidding. Why does that not surprise me?
In the seminal history A Night to Remember, author Walter Lord recounts in detail how the real Joughin managed to survive longer than any other in the frigid Atlantic that night. Lord, who pulled much of his information from the official British Inquiry, writes that Joughin survived “thanks to a remarkable combination of initiative, luck, and alcohol.” While modern cynics might prefer to say that Joughin survived in spite of the whiskey coursing through his veins, Lord correctly recognizes the man’s drinking as the key elements to his success.
In Lord’s account, Joughin spent the first half-hour after the Titanic hit the iceberg directing his staff to carry bread and other foodstuffs to the boat decks to provision the lifeboats, a detail usually omitted by filmmakers more interested in the comical aspects of Joughin’s drinking. After selflessly insuring the survivors would not go hungry, Joughin retired to his cabin and saluted his good deeds with whiskey and brandy. This gave him the strength and calm nerves to eventually brave out of his cabin up to the boat deck, where he helped women and children into lifeboats, using a little force when necessary to be sure the ladies caught their ride.
Joughin declined to board a lifeboat himself, claiming he was not much of a seaman, and instead elected to wander among the sinking staircases drinking whiskey until he again hunkered down in his cabin to await his fate.
After another half-hour of quiet fortification, Joughin ventured out of his cabin again. He swaggered to the top decks and busied himself with the task of hurling deck chairs into the water in the hopes of giving drowning passengers something to hold onto.
As the ship began its final plunge into the icy depths, Joughin struggled among throngs of drowning passengers, battling crashing dishes and furniture all around him.
Lord praises Joughin’s ability to maintain his balance and composure amidst this chaos, claiming that among the other passengers thrown about the ship, “only Joughin kept his balance.” He was, as Lord writes, “alert but relaxed, his equilibrium was marvelous.” Joughin himself claimed that he stepped off the sinking stern without so much as getting his head wet.
After Titanic submerged beneath the surface of the icy Atlantic, Joughin managed to survive some three hours (though some question that time) in the water before climbing aboard the upturned collapsible lifeboat B after initially being pushed off by survivors on that boat.
Joughin’s survival story defies modern medical experts, and thus proves more compelling for its sense of defiant, drinking-in-spite-of-it-all courage. While medical experts agree that alcohol does nothing to protect the body from cold weather—and may in fact give imbibers a false sense of warmth because of the flow of blood to the skin’s surface—Charles Joughin’s lengthy water survival has not been otherwise explained. Alcohol may not have helped him survive physically, but perhaps it allowed him to remain relatively calm and collected in the midst of chaos.
As a historical person, Joughin alone shares the sinking stern with Jack and Rose. This seems appropriate, as his quiet yet determined heroism has gone so unrecognized over the years. While he did not go down with the ship, or pray solemnly with other doomed passengers, he kept drinking and kept his composure. Like many high-functioning drunks, Joughin helped to keep others alive even as he knew he was dying. He wanted to keep partying, but he also wanted to make sure the party kept going on.
Get D. Brian Anderson and Bill Furlow’s Titanic Joke Book right here.