On the centenary of the sinking and tremendous loss of life on RMS Titanic, many
historians, journalists, and bloggers are writing of the tragedy that befell the
liner on her maiden voyage. Rather than add to the plethora of articles on Titanic—most
of which are very good, by the way—we have decided to commemorate this milestone
anniversary by honoring the ship that rescued her surviving passengers, the Cunard
Line’s RMS Carpathia.
Birth of Carpathia
Carpathia was built in Newcastle, England in 1903. She was one of Cunard’s smaller
passenger ships, measuring 13,600 gross tons, 558 feet long, and just 64 feet wide.
Her passenger complement was 1,704, which included accommodations for 204 passengers
in first class and 1,500 in steerage. (She was later fitted for three classes, in
which third class carried the largest segment.)
Launched soon after Cunard beauties Mauretania (1907) and Lusitania (also 1907),
Carpathia was one of several Cunarders that served a more utilitarian than luxury
purpose. Her main duty was to transport passengers between Liverpool and Boston,
and she was also used to carry immigrants to the United States from the Mediterranean.
It was on one of these return trips in April 1912 that she made her great mark in
On April 11, 1912, Carpathia departed New York for what was to be a routine, seasonal
crossing to the Mediterranean. Onboard were 740 passengers (including 550 in third
class) and 325 crew. Just after midnight on her fourth night at sea, wireless operator
Harold Cottam sent a message to Titanic after noting that the latter had not responded
to a “batch of messages” from Cape Race. Carpathia then received the message that
would start a well-coordinated, heroic rescue that would put this formerly nondescript
ship into a prominent place in the history books:
“Come at once…we have struck an iceberg. It’s a CQD, old man,” followed by Titanic’s
position. This was at 12:15 am. After alerting Captain Arthur Rostron, who charted
a course for the 58-mile distance, Carpathia was on her way.
What followed was a string of commands by Captain Rostron, both preparing Carpathia
to receive passengers and providing for their comfort once they were onboard. Among
these were to prepare lifeboats, provide rope ladders, chair slings and canvas bags
(for children) to bring passengers up to the decks, and open all gangway doors. Extra
look-outs were provided in the crow’s nests. Additionally, he ordered the firing
of his ship’s rockets at 15-minute intervals to reassure the Titanic passengers who
were in the lifeboats. Power was diverted to the engines to expedite Carpathia’s
Despite her service speed of 14 knots, she raced to Titanic at a speed of 17 knots,
reaching the first lifeboats at 4:10 am, four hours after the first had been launched
and two hours after the last.
The crew was also busy readying Carpathia to receive an unknown number of Titanic’s
survivors. The three dining rooms (first-, second-, and third-class) to tend to Titanic’s
first-, second-, and third-class passengers, respectively. One doctor was stationed
in each, along with stewards and other assistants. Blankets, soup, and other supplies
were on the ready. Public rooms were prepared to serve as accommodations, as were
empty berths in third class. Other stewards were commanded to oversee Carpathia’s
passengers, keeping them out of the way while providing reassurance that all was
well with their ship. Many Carpathia passengers offered their berths to Titanic’s
By 8:50 am local time, all of Titanic’s 705 surviving passengers and crew were onboard
Carpathia, bringing the smaller ship’s human cargo to nearly 1,800. Within two hours,
Carpathia reversed course to head back to New York, arriving there the evening of
April 18, 3 days and 13 hours later to a hero’s welcome.
Carpathia met with, unfortunately, a violent end. Like other British liners, she
was pressed into war duties during World War I, during which she transported troops
from North America to Europe. She carried passengers on the return trips, although
these were greatly reduced in number due to the War. On July 17, 1918, Carpathia
was traveling from Liverpool to Boston when she was hit by two torpedoes from a German
Naval submarine. Five crewmen were killed, yet all 57 passengers and the remaining
218 crew evacuated safely. Two hours after the first impact, a third torpedo hit
the ship, sinking her within ten minutes.
In contrast to many well-known ships, however, Carpathia will not be remembered for
her final moments. Instead, she will be forever known for her role in rescuing and
comforting the survivors of the most storied ship of the twentieth century, Titanic.
Braynard, Frank O. and William H. Miller, Jr., Picture History of the Cunard Line,
1840-1990. New York: Dover, 1991.
Lord, Walter, A Night to Remember. New York: Bantam, 1956.
Meyers, L.T., The Sinking of the Titanic, Thrilling Stories of Survivors, with Photographs
& Sketches. Halifax: Nimbus, 1998. Originally published as The Sinking of the Titanic
and Great Sea Disasters. Philadelphia: C. Winston, 1912.
Miller, William H., Jr., Picture History of British Ocean Liners, 1900 to the Present.
New York: Dover, 2001.