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The Britannic

The Britannic
Picture from the book "Ken Marshall's art of Titanic"

The BritannicI was watching the History Channel last night. It was about the Britannic. For those who have not read my article about this ship let me give you a little background. The Britannic was the sister ship of the Titanic, built two years later and supposedly more unsinkable than the Titanic. We know what happened with the first unsinkable ship. It hit an iceberg and sank in about 3 hours. The new improved unsinkable ship hit a mine just off the island of Kea and sank in 55 minutes, a new world record for unsinkable ships. Luckily it was just being used as a hospital ship and it was on its way to pick up the wounded British soldiers from Gallipoli so only a couple dozen people died, ground into mincemeat by the propellers when the lifeboats were sucked in as the Captain made a beeline for Kea in a vain attempt to ground the rapidly sinking ship.

Britannic wreckWe have all watched the History Channel. Its one of the best things about Television, where you can be painlessly spoon-fed history and feel like you are watching an exciting drama. They sort of over do it sometimes and over-dramatise insignificant events: "Suddenly the tip shattered sending dangerous shards of lead through the tightly packed room. Miraculously nobody was injured and young Ben Franklin heaved a sigh of relief as he pulled out his pencil sharpener so he could continue his important work". (I made that one up but you get the idea right?) The Britannic was explored by Jacques Coustaeau and Peter Nicolaidis during the month of September 1976. I wrote about the National Geographic dive in September of 2003. Nobody had been down to the ship until September of 2006 which was the dive the History Channel showed last night. The ship is in about 400 feet of water which means diving it is not an easy endeavor. Divers have to go down for 5 hours and four of these hours is spent slowly returning to the surface while decompressing.

Britannic PostcardSo anyway the divers go down and its dangerous but these are divers and they love this kind of stuff and they are filming and sending back spectacular images of the outside of the ship but the whole idea of the trip (and the show) is to find out why the ship sank in just 55 minutes. You remember in the movie Titanic how the watertight compartments actually had no ceiling so once the water went to the top of one it would spill over into the next one and one after the other until the ship could do nothing but sink. Well the improvement to the Britannic is that they made the first 6 watertight compartments actually watertight by closing the top. The designers said that all 6 of these could fill with water and the ship would stay afloat. Unless of course somebody left the door open in which case they were useless. So the object of the dive was to go into the wreck and go through the first compartment and past the boilers to a small hallway and see if someone had left the door open and this would solve the mystery of the Britannic. The problem was they only had a certain number of days to do it, probably because the Greek government would only give them a certain number of days for some pointless reason. I mean if you were the Greek government and you had an incredible unexplored shipwreck in your backyard and someone wanted to go down, using their own money and equipment that you could not begin to afford, to explore and take photos, wouldn't you say sure, take all the time you need? Of course you would. But why should they have to even ask the Greek government if they can dive the Britannic. The Greek government does not own it. Its owned by Simon Mills. He should be able to go see his ship any time he wants and if he feels like staying on board the dive ship while some of his friends go down and explore they should have the right to stay as long as their air holds out.

ELOBut we are talking about Greece where nothing is simple, especially if it has to do with the Government bureaucracy and in the end that's what this show turned out to be about. After a couple days of diving were lost because of bad weather the divers go down and make their way around the boilers (the ship is laying on its side so trying to find your way around it is like the Poseidon Adventure by half). Suddenly their way is blocked by a wheelbarrow. They try to swim over it but it stirs up so much silt that they can't see a thing. Its the most dramatic part of the show with swirling silt and someone shouting "abort, abort!" into the intercom. You can just imagine what the history channel did with this part. But the divers make it to the deck of the dive boat and they are shaken but not deterred and they now know that tomorrow they will take an alternate route and avoid the wheelbarrow and discover the secret of the Britannic. Of course they cut to a commercial break and after ELO singing "Hold on Tight to Your Dreams" for Honda, and a counter attack by the local Toyota dealership and several dramatic trailers for upcoming History Channel shows, we are back in the swirling mass of silt while the announcer tells us what is happening for those tuning in late. But at last we are going to find out the mystery of the Britannic.

Indiana JonesWell, actually not. Someone from the Greek Department of Antiquities comes and tells them they are not permitted to film underwater. He does not speak English and the explorers don't have anyone who speaks Greek (bad move). End of show. You even see the director telling the cameraman to turn it off. Later they interview some of the divers and scientists and they are looking for the silver lining and redefining the success of the mission. Yes, they never solved the mystery of the Britannic but at least they know about the wheelbarrow.

So what is the moral of this story? It has to do with the Greek bureaucracy on display for all lovers of the History Channel to see. What was the point of stopping these guys from filming? There was none. There may be some vague law about needing permits to film underwater antiquities but unless the Britannic had miraculously sunk amidst the submerged ruins of ancient Atlantis, not allowing them to film was the decision of one Greek civil servant, saying no because he had the power to say no. And that is the key to understanding why Greece is the way it is. Because the only power some people have is to deny something to someone who wants it. And they use this power and they abuse this power. If Simon Mills had taken the guy aside, walked over to the Lagoudera Restaurant, bought him a couple ouzos and offered him some money to allow them to finish what they had begun then who knows how the story would have ended? That's what a Greek would have done.

Britannic locationWhen the show ended I sat in my living room in Carrboro, North Carolina thinking. The show had put everything into perspective for me. When I saw the island of Kea and the beautiful Aegean Sea I was filled with homesickness so much that I had tears in my eyes. But the final scene with all these scientists and all their millions of dollars worth of equipment standing helpless in the port being told by a Greek civil servant that it was not permitted to dive with cameras brought back every humiliating trip to the tax office, to immigration, and every lazy, chain smoking, Greek bureaucrat who tells you no because it makes things easier for them (less paperwork) and because saying no is the only power they have.

Britannic Crew in KeaIn fairness I have to add at the end of the show the Greek Government told Simon Mills and his crew that they had an open invitation to dive the Britannic any time they wanted to for as long as they wanted to. In other words "We're sorry. You should have been allowed to finish your dive but somebody in antiquities screwed up". But my advice to Simon Mills (who I actually met on Kea in 2003) is that when you do your next dive make sure that whoever gave you permission is on the island with you and outranks anyone who might possibly stop you. Also a briefcase full of cash might be useful.

For the rest of us who have to deal with the Greek bureaucracy and don't have a briefcase full of cash there is always Dorian Kokas.

PS. To the History Channel narrator: Its Kay-ah. Not key-ah. And the boat is not the Ap-a-lon. It's the A-poll-on. Like Apollo, the God for whom the ship is named. And its not the Kea Straits. Its the Cavo d Oro.

For more on Kea see and you can also read my article about the Britannic

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