I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Did whisky save the life of Charles Joughin, a baker who got hammered before plunging into the icy water of the Atlantic as the RMS Titanic sank?
Titanic Hits an Iceberg
When the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg, plates and rivets on her starboard side were ripped apart. This caused seawater to flood in and begin the process of sinking the vessel.
Head baker Charles Joughin was in his cabin when word of the collision reached him shortly after 23.40 p.m. Immediately, he mustered his crew to provision the lifeboats with bread and biscuits.
Then, he organized the loading of the lifeboats and refused his own place in one because he felt it would set a bad example. His work done, he returned to his cabin and began attacking a bottle of whisky he had hidden there against company regulations. There’s no sense in wasting good liquor. Joughin admitted he had a drink or two but always claimed he was not drunk.
After an hour of drinking he made his way up to the deck and started throwing chairs into the water for people to use as flotation devices. Then, he climbed to the stern of the sinking ship. As the Titanic slid below the waves at 2.20 a.m., Joughin went down with it as if on an escalator. When he reached the water, he calmly stepped off. He later said he didn’t think he even got his hair wet.
Cold Water Immersion: The Sequence of Events
The temperature of the Atlantic water in April 1912 was -2 Celsius. Plunging into water that cold creates a chain of events that usually leads to death within 30 minutes or sooner.
- Stage one is cold shock. Titanic’s second officer, Charles Lightoller experienced this as the vessel sank. He described the experience as “like a thousand knives being driven into one’s body.” The shock causes involuntary gasping and hyperventilation, which is really bad news if the head is underwater; that means drowning and skipping the next three stages. Also, many people panic and that is their undoing; remaining calm allows for assessment of the situation and decision making.
- Cold incapacitation is the second stage and it can kick in after just five minutes; the cold robs the body of strength. Arms and legs can lose between 60 percent and 80 percent of their ability to move because the blood flow to the extremities is reduced in order to preserve vital, core organs. Even people with above average strength lack the power to pull themselves out of the water. Within 30 minutes, the swimmer will lose the strength to even keep their head above water.
- Those who make it past 30 minutes must deal with hypothermia, which is when the body’s core temperature drops to below 35 degrees Celsius (95 F). By the time the body reaches 30 C, the pulse becomes weak or even non-existent and unconsciousness and death follow quickly.
- A fourth stage is called post-rescue collapse. In the last stages of death in cold water, the body is flooded with stress hormones. Those lucky enough to be rescued sometimes relax, the stress hormones quieten down, causing blood pressure to drop and muscles to fail. This might lead to cardiac arrest in extreme cases.
The Toll of Cold Water
It’s estimated about 1,500 passengers and crew were in the water after the Titanic sank. Within 15 to 30 minutes almost all of them were dead, but not Charles Joughin.
He had cinched his life-jacket tight and started paddling and treading water. After two hours, he spotted an upturned life boat with about 20 people standing on it. Charles Lightoller was in command and he was directing the passengers to sway left and right to accommodate the ocean swell. But, there was no room for Joughin.
He clung onto the boat for a while and, as daylight approached, a lifeboat from the RMS Carpathia arrived on scene, and Charles Joughin was saved.
But, how did he survive in ice-cold water that killed everyone else?
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Charles Joughin’s Survival Technique
Being full of booze, Joughin should have died quicker than a sober person. The medical texts say that alcohol causes a decrease in body temperature and impairs the ability to stay warm.
But, drinking a bottle of whisky also causes relaxation, so when Joughin stepped off the Titanic he didn’t tense up and panic. This is likely what saved him.
Gordon Giesbrecht is an expert on hypothermia. He told Postmedia “In an [emergency room], cold patients who are really drunk can walk in and they’re conscious at a temperature that they shouldn’t be.”
Another hypothermia expert is Stephen Cheung of Canada’s Brock University. He thinks Joughin’s drinking spree helped to “increase or bolster his courage.
“It would also decrease his feeling of cold, so he may have indeed been more fearless and not feeling as cold and therefore as panicked,”
This hypothesis is backed up by a University of Illinois study. After looking at more than 190,000 trauma patients, Lee Friedman concluded that “After an injury, if you are intoxicated there seems to be a pretty substantial protective effect.”
Of course, it’s often the intoxication that got the person injured in the first place, but that’s another story.
Charles Joughin’s Later Life
After recuperating from his ordeal, Charles Joughin went back to sea.
In September 1916, he was aboard the SS Congress carrying passengers along the Pacific coast. On 14th September, she caught fire about 30 miles off Crescent City in Northern California. The captain was able to steer the ship to the shoreline where he beached her. All passengers and crew were saved.
He continued to serve aboard passenger vessels as a baker until 1944 when he retired. He died in 1956 at the age of 78.
- Actors playing Charles Joughin appear in two of the movies depicting the sinking of the Titanic―A Night to Remember (1958) and Titanic (1997).
- The Titanic sank at 2.20 a.m. April 15, 1912. At that precise moment, the White Star Line, which owned the liner, stopped paying her crew.
- Titanic’s fourth funnel was fake; it was added for aesthetic reasons and was not connected to any boilers.
- “How a Baker Survived the Titanic Sinking by Getting Really Drunk.” Tristin Hopper, Postmedia News, April 15, 2019.
- “4 Stages of Cold Water Immersion.” Beyond Cold Water Boot Camp, undated.
- “The Badass Story of Charles Joughin, The Chief Baker of the Titanic.” Pen Cooper, History Daily, October 19, 2016.
- “The Amazing Story of Titanic Survivor Charles Joughin.” Titanic Universe, undated.
- “Drunks More Likely to Survive Injuries, Study Suggests.” Eli MacKinnon, LiveScience, November 21, 2012.
- “Mr. Charles John Joughin.” Encyclopedia Titanica, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on February 23, 2020:
So now we know we should pack a bottle if we are planning a cruise. It sounds like he was a person worth saving, due to his actions at the beginning of the ordeal and his willingness to go back to sea.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 24, 2020:
Yes Kari. I always thought a sinking ship would drag down anybody near it, but it seems not to be the case. There was a quote somewhere in which Charles Joughin was surprised that he wasn't sucked down.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 24, 2020:
I have known people "protected" from injury by their drunk state. The worst was a friend who was passed-out drunk when the driver crashed into a tree, breaking the driver's neck. My friend did not even suffer a scratch.
I always assumed that the pull of the large object falling in the water would drag someone down after it. But, I just looked it up and found out the suction force was probably negligible. Thanks to you I learned something.