Republic Sinking Sets Maritime History


By James Donahue


When the White Star Line’s passenger steamship Republic was fatally damaged in a collision off Nantucket Island on Jan. 23, 1909, the accident set the stage for a maritime first.


Because the ship was equipped with a brand new Marconi radio that operated off the ship’s emergency batteries, radio operator Jack Binns sent the first recorded radio call for help. In those early days the signal was C.Q.D. instead of the familiar S.O.S. used now.


That radio call brought several vessels to the rescue, including the White Star’s own Baltic and the Cunard Line’s Lucania. All but four of the Republic’s passengers, numbering more than 2,000, were consequently saved.  


An attempt to tow the listing Republic to shallow water and save it failed and the 585-foot-long vessel slipped to the bottom. At the time, it was the largest ship in history to sink. The Titanic, also a White Star ship, captured that title only five years later.


The accident was caused by thick fog and an error on the part of the skipper, Capt. William Sealby, who failed to reduce the ship’s speed to compensate. At 5:47 a.m. Sealby and the men on the bridge heard a ship’s whistle just off the port bow. The helmsman was ordered to put the wheel hard to starboard and Sealby blew signals to the other ship but it was too late.


The Republic was struck amidships by the steamer Florida. The ship backed off after dropping one of its anchors in a stateroom of the ill-fated Republic, then vanished in the fog.


The engine and boiler rooms soon flooded and the Republic quickly lost all power. Because the radio operated on emergency batteries, radio operator Binns succeeded in getting his call for help dispatched, and even used his radio to help guide the Baltic to her side in the fog.


The Republic was part of the White Star’s “secondary fleet” of smaller steamships operating on runs between Liverpool and Boston and carrying mostly immigrants to America. The vessel also made trips between New York and Mediterranean ports.


The ship had accommodations for no more than 200 first class passengers and 2,000 steerage passengers. There were no second class staterooms.


The Republic was built in 1903 by Harland & Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Dominion Line. She was launched as Columbus and ran between Liverpool and Boston.


The name was changed to Republic when the ship was sold to the White Star Line.


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