My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Monday, April 9, 2012

Titanic or Mayflower - Which Ship Would You Take?

RMS Titanic and Mayflower
Think fast!  If you were given the choice of crossing the Atlantic on the RMS Titanic or on the Mayflower, which would you choose?  People whom I have asked give me that ‘Duh’ look, and say, “Mayflower, of course!”  However, I am not so sure.

Let’s compare the two ships.  My photo montage may not be entirely to scale, but given the perspective, it is not far off.  Titanic measured 882’ at the waterline, with a weight of 46,328 tons.  A plan of Mayflower does not exist, but contemporary ships of her size (a mere 180 tons) measured only 90-100’ in length (and less at the waterline).  Mayflower was a merchant ship, so she was armed with 12 cannons to fight off pirates, and she was powered by a half-dozen sails carried on three masts and the bowsprit.  Titanic was unarmed, and was powered with three coal-burning engines which produced 76,000 horsepower.

Titanic 1st class lounge
Titanic is rightly famed for its luxurious accommodations.  There were separate dining rooms and cabins for first-class, second-class, and third-class, or steerage.  First class passengers could also enjoy lounges, smoking rooms, gymnasiums, and a Turkish bath.

Titanic 3rd class quarters
Even Titanic’s third-class quarters shared with strangers were luxurious compared with the accommodations on Mayflower.  That ship had been built to carry wine between Bordeaux and England.  It had quarters on the upper deck for the captain and crew.  A lower, entirely enclosed deck could carry cargo, and in 1620 it carried 102 passengers from England to the New World.  The lowest deck held the Separatists’ belongings and food.

Mayflower Compact
This painting depicts the Separatists (better known as Pilgrims) signing their compact, and it depicts Mayflower’s quarters as more spacious than they actually were.  While Titanic’s passengers could stroll on the open deck or in enclosed promenades, Mayflower’s passengers mostly stayed below decks.  There were no windows; only hatches which would have been covered during foul weather.  The deck was only 5’ 5” tall, so most of the men would have had to stoop.  There were no private cabins – if a family wanted privacy, they had to hang blankets from the beams.

Titanic 1st class menu
Who ate better?  Titanic’s passengers, hands down.  Even steerage had better food than Mayflower’s hardtack, salt pork, dried beef, Holland cheese, wheat, peas, oil, and butter.  Their water and beer were stored in wooden casks for months, and soon became foul.  Children on the ship tapped bits of hardtack on the table and guessed which piece might start moving first, impelled by alarmed weevils.

Titanic's lifeboats
Titanic is infamous for its inadequate lifeboats.  There was space for 1178 passengers – half of the persons on board.  However, Mayflower had but two auxiliary boats.  It had a long boat, to assist the ship with anchoring, and also a shallop.  That single-masted boat, which could be rowed, was meant to help the colonists in explorations, and might have carried one-two dozen people.  However, if the Mayflower had sunk, so would the shallop, because it was dismantled and stowed below deck.

If you get seasick, you would have preferred Titanic’s schedule.  It left England on April 10th, and if all had gone well, it would have arrived at New York on the 15thMayflower departed on September 6th, and did not arrive at Cape Cod until November 11th (both dates Old Calendar).

Neither trip was trouble-free from the start.  Titanic set out from Southampton with a fire smoldering in one of its coal bunkers.  Such fires were not uncommon, but it has been theorized that its heat contributed to the damage caused by striking the iceberg by making the ship’s iron more brittle.

Mayflower was supposed to cross with a smaller ship, the Speedwell.  They set out from England on August 5th, but had to turn back when Speedwell began leaking dangerously.  Mayflower was also leaky, but one of the main crossbeams caused the most alarm when it cracked during a storm.  The Separatists had a large iron screw in their belongings, used it to jack the beam back into place, then propped it with a post.

Titanic enjoyed a smooth crossing until it met the icepack.  Storms were much more of a problem for Mayflower, and the small ship was forced to secure its hatches, furl its sails, and drift before the furious winds.  One of her passengers fell overboard.  John Tilley managed to catch hold of a halyard and was dragged along by the ship, sometimes “sundry fathoms under water” before he was saved in a rescue even more dramatic than Rose Bukater’s attempted suicide in James Cameron’s film, “Titanic.”   An unnamed Mayflower seaman, who had mocked seasick passengers and was noted for his profanity, died of disease.  William Bradford said “his curses light on his own head” by the “just hand of God.”  A passenger also died just before landing.

Times-Dispatch headline
I imagine that by now you are thinking, ‘But Titanic sank – you would have to be crazy to sail on that ship!’  You are right – 2223 people set sail on Titanic, but only 705 of them made it safely to shore.  That makes for a mortality rate of 68.3%

Mayflower memorial
Mayflower set out with 102 passengers, and its crew is estimated at 25-30.  It arrived in Plymouth with only 2 persons having died, which gives that crossing a very favorable death rate of 1.5%.  However, half of the crew died before sailing back to England in the spring, and 50 of the passengers died of disease and starvation.  49.2% of Mayflower’s passengers and crew did not survive the crossing for long.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth
Very little was written by Bradford about  how Mayflower’s passengers lived during the crossing.  He did note that when they arrived, there were no inns “to refresh their weather-beaten bodies” so the Separatists were forced to remain on board the tiny ship until March.  The whole country, whichever way they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) “represented a wild and savage hue.”  Disease and hunger were already stalking the Separatists, and desperation is palpable in Bradford’s writing.

So, if I was offered a luxurious 5-day cruise, ending with 50% chance of finding a seat on a lifeboat or a quick death, I just might take it.  After all, Mayflower’s passengers endured two months in a wet and dark cargo hold.  When they arrived in Plymouth Bay, they passed another four months in that same cold, cramped hold, stalked by disease.  They ate food stored in wooden casks for months, whatever their hunters could catch, and corn scavenged from Indian graves.  Dorothy Bradford, wife of the governor, fell overboard in Plymouth harbor and drowned.  It is possible that, like Rose of “Titanic” fame, Dorothy could not bear the hardships which lay ahead, and succeeded in killing herself.

However, though the Separatists suffered for 6 months, relief ships arrived in 1621, and with the Wampanoags’ aid, they learned how to thrive in their new home.  And today some 35,000,000 people are estimated to have a Pilgrim in their ancestry.  Though it was difficult from beginning to end, Mayflower’s trip was a resounding success.

Which ship would I take?  As a woman, I would have had a decent chance of surviving Titanic, especially if I had the means to go first class.  97% of them, and 86% of second class survived.  Even steerage women had a decent chance, with a 49% survival rate.  Men did not do so well, with 34%, 8%, and 13% surviving respectively.  Nearly all first and second class children survived, but only 1/3 children in steerage made it onto the lifeboats.

As a woman, I also had a fairly good chance of surviving Mayflower’s slow-motion disaster.  Out of 75 men, 50 died in the first 6 months.  There were 29 women, and 16 died.  At a nearly 50% death rate for Mayflower's women, I’d have a slightly better chance of surviving aboard Titanic.  On the way, I'd have some fine meals on that lovely ship.  Should I lose the dash for the lifeboats, they say that hypothermia is a pleasant way to go.  I'll count the stars until I fall asleep.

And now, which ship would you take?

For information on Titanic’s demographics:

Photo credits: - Titanic parlor, 3rd class quarters, ship's boats


  1. What a timely piece, Jo Ann. Thanks for the fascinating comparisons. For many Americans, even the ones who aren't among the 35 million Mayflower descendants, the Mayflower experience would have been similar to the voyages of many of our ancestors who came over in the 1630s on ships of 300 or 400 tons. But with the cannon and shot stored to defend from Dutch, French, and Spanish pirates, there would have been little room to move around, and no escape from passengers plagued by disease and sea-sickness. I say, God bless British Airways!

  2. Mary Barrett Dyer and Herodias Long could tell us tales of their crossings.

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  4. yo my class if ur reading this yo


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