Chapter 4

The Search for Captain Pinkham

Just six weeks earlier, in July 1910, the United States passed the ‘radio act’, which required wireless equipment to be fitted onboard ocean going passenger vessels, of any nationality, which visited U.S. Ports.  The act did not come into force until the following year.  However, it was fortunate that, even before the 1910 act, most of the major passenger lines had already installed radio transmitters onboard their ships. A Marconi system had been installed onboard the “Devonian” and was typical of wireless transmitters of the time having a range of just 150 nautical miles with a power of 350 Watts.

The wireless operator was usually engaged in maintaining contact with the receiving stations and listening in to the incessant chatter of shore talk reaching the ship.  He would strain to pick up news from other steamers and would send out (or marconigraph as it was sometimes known) messages from the passengers.  On the 1st September 1910, less than two years after the first sea rescue aided by wireless, and six weeks after the infamous murderer, Crippen, was captured with the aid of a wireless transmission, the Captain of the “Devonian” asked the wireless operator to send out the following message

“Have picked up boat with part crew of West Point, steamer, of Liverpool.  Boat reports having last seen captain’s boat with remainder of crew in Lat. 47.08 N., Long. 42.23 W., Thursday, 6 a.m.  Have searched unsuccessfully for her.  Please keep a good look out for her.  Captain intended keeping on an eastbound track.  Steamer foundered on fire.”

This message as received by the wireless operator of the “Mauretania”, a transatlantic passenger liner of the Cunard Line, and he immediately passed it to his captain. 

The Maurentania was making its way from New York to Liverpool, a trip that would normally taker just 5 days.  She was the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic, having held the valuable Blue Riband for the crossing in the easterly direction since 1907 and in the opposite direction since 1909.  Despite the desire to reach the home port as quickly as possible, Captain Turner of the “Mauretania” immediately gave orders for a strict look-out to be kept, and guided by the information received from the “Devonian” steered a course towards the last known position of the missing boat.

The cramped quarters on the small lifeboat made Captain Pinkham’s shoulder which had been dislocated by a fall on board the steamer, worse and no one on board the boat could get much sleep. The crew had been huddled in the lifeboat for six days and were suffering severe hunger and exhaustion. Hope of a rescue had now faded and Captain Pinkham set a final, desperate course for the Portuguese islands of the Azores, which they could not have expected to reach.

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