Britannic: bringing it back to life

Olympic, Titanic and Britannic have all been surrounded in controversy and mystery since the day they were built, which is one of the reasons Simon Mills bought the Britannic shipwreck and plans to take people out to see it; E&T explores.

The fascination with the Titanic and the controversy and myths surrounding this vessel and her sister ships still remains today. All three of the White Star Line's Olympic-class passenger liners met with accidents soon after they were built.

Britannic, which was launched in 1914, had been redesigned to correct the defects that had played such a crucial role in the sinking of the Titanic. She never saw service as a liner and was instead commissioned by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the First World War. Britannic was used to ferry the wounded from the Gallipoli campaign and other fronts in the Middle East. She was on her sixth outward voyage when disaster struck on 21 November 1916 and the vessel sank off Kea, an island near Athens. 

Simon Mills, a British marine historian, bought the Britannic in 1996 and through the Britannic SA and its British parent company the Britannic Foundation, has plans to build a hotel, conference centre and technical diving school and museum with exhibits from the wreck in the Lavrio and Kea area. However, the worldwide recession has had an impact and Mills told E&T; "Whether we can stick to our original schedule remains to be seen - maybe the economy needs a little time to recover."

Britannic SA is also in the final stages of signing an agreement to purchase a tourist submarine that will visit the wreck three times a day.

When it comes to what you would see from a submarine, Mills says: "With Britannic you are basically looking at an intact Titanic. "When you look at Titanic it is pitch black - it is also in two pieces separated by a couple of thousand yards.

"When you look at Britannic she is totally intact and the water is unbelievably clear, which means you have about 40m of visibility because it is close enough to the surface to be well lit during daytime."

There is also the possibility to use ROVs to look inside. "It is not difficult to penetrate Britannic at all - in fact it is accessible to divers although it is a technical dive and there are certain limitations," he explains. A diver is only able to spend about 30 or 40 minutes on the wreck and then has to spend four or five hours decompressing before coming back to the surface.

"The advantage of ROVs of course is that once they are down there they can stay down there for as long as you like - there is no limitation," he says. "The Britannic is both deep enough and shallow enough to use all forms of technology to explore it."

Telepresence

Dr Robert Ballard is interested in using Britannic as a prototype project for his telepresence idea for Titanic (see feature on p42). "The first time I heard Bob speaking about telepresence was way back in 1995 when he was doing a dive on Britannic. The concept of telepresence is an interesting one but the Titanic is 700km out in the North Atlantic and so far down - so that particular wreck represents a real challenge.

"The concept of underwater cameras these days is not quite as far-fetched as it might have been ten years ago and it is actually happening - not just on wrecks but all over the world."

Britannic myth

"It is a bit of a myth in the Titanic world that Britannic was gutted before she was converted to a hospital ship and sent out into service," says Mills. Britannic was incomplete, so there are certain areas not finished, but there are areas already completed, all panelled out and very luxurious. Some of the first class areas and dining rooms were all completed. To say that all the luxury items were landed is not true.

"The White Star Line would have left an awful lot of furniture onboard. A lot of the first-class stuff would have been landed of course, as there is no place for first class fittings on a warship. However, she still carried thousands of standard White Star cot beds and the usual White Star china and glassware etc.

"Further into the hull itself we have started to come across better-preserved areas. Divers in 2006 started looking into some of the windows on the B deck and were looking into some of the cabins and seeing well-preserved wooden beds and chests of drawers.

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