Monday 18 February 2019

The lucky man who jumped ship at Queenstown

JOHN Coffey was ranked as one of the luckiest men in the world in April 1912.

The 23-year-old had signed on as a stoker or a boiler-room fireman on RMS Titanic and was scheduled to complete a return crossing of the Atlantic on the White Star flagship's maiden voyage.

It was backbreaking work, shovelling coal into the huge boilers that powered the giant cruise ship -- and, for the privilege, stokers earned around St£5 per month.

Most experts were predicting that Titanic would set a new record for the Atlantic crossing -- and White Star had ensured there was an ample recruitment of stokers for the maiden voyage.

But Coffey -- a native of Cobh, Co Cork -- had different plans.

He had been a stoker on the liner RMS Olympic, and had apparently completed his service only to find himself returned to Southampton in the UK.

The young man wanted to get back home to Cobh (then known as Queenstown) to visit his family, and the Titanic's maiden voyage schedule immediately appealed to him.

The White Star flagship's last port of call was to be Cobh -- and Coffey set his plans in motion.

He signed on for the Titanic but when the liner steamed into Cork harbour, Coffey made sure that his shift was finished before the service tenders approached.

Because of her size, Titanic was too big to berth directly by the quayside in Cobh -- so all passenger embarkations and mail deliveries had to be undertaken by smaller ships or tenders.

One of the last tenders to leave Titanic brought sacks of mail -- and the young man had carefully hidden himself under the hessian sacks.

When the tender reached the quayside in Cobh, Coffey grabbed his opportunity and crept ashore undetected.

Minutes later, he was reunited with his family and catching up on local news as the Titanic left the harbour and continued her voyage into history.

Coffey was still in Cobh when news broke that the Titanic, having struck an iceberg, had sunk with the loss of almost 1,500 passengers and crew.

In the following weeks, the young man's incredible escape made world headlines -- but with a slight twist.

John Coffey explained that he had decided to get off Titanic because he had a strange foreboding about the ship and its voyage, not because he wanted to spend time at home.

It didn't end the young man's seafaring career -- and a few months later he had signed on RMS Mauretania.

Ironically, Mauretania -- launched in 1906 -- had been a flagship for White Star's main rival, Cunard, and for 22 years held the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing.

Mauretania's sister ship, Lusitania, was torpedoed and sank off the Old Head of Kinsale during World War One.

The bodies of many of the victims recovered from the sea were buried in John Coffey's native Cobh, in the Old Church Cemetery in May 1915.

Irish Independent Supplement

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