Solidly built, slightly above medium height, handsome in an patriarchal sort of way, in both appearance and experience Edward John Smith was the prototypical steamship captain. His neatly trimmed white beard, coupled with his clear eyes gave him a somewhat stern countenance, an impression immediately dispelled by his gentle speaking voice and urbane manners. Respectfully and affectionately known as “E. J.” by passengers and crew alike, he was a natural leader, radiating a reassuring combination of authority, confidence, and good humor.
Captain Smith had, like most of his officers and most skippers on the North Atlantic, gone to sea as an apprentice at the age of twelve, signing on as a cabin boy on a square-rigged ship. After getting his Master’s certificate he signed on with the White Star Line at the age of twenty-seven, and his career had been an uninterrupted series of successes ever since. The captain of a passenger vessel on the North Atlantic run was expected to mingle socially with the First Class passengers, and Smith’s dignified manner and warm personality made him instantly popular on White Star ships. Some passengers thought so much of him that they booked crossings only on ships he commanded. White Star rewarded him for generating such a loyal following by giving him command of most of their new ships, so that a maiden voyage with Captain Smith in command became something of a tradition for the line.
He also was much admired among professional circles for his seamanship. “It was an education,” Lightoller would later recall, “to see him con his own ship up the intricate channels entering New York at full speed. One particularly bad corner, known as the Southwest Spit, used to make us fairly flush with pride as he swung her round, judging his distances to a nicety; she was heeling over to the helm with only a matter of feet to spare between each end of the ship and the banks.” Despite such spectacular ship handling, Smith’s career was remarkable for its near-total absence of any accidents or incidents–its contrast to Lightoller’s catalogue of experiences, for example, was remarkable. In 1907 after he brought the brand new Adriatic to New York on her maiden voyage, he granted a request by New York papers for an interview. When asked about his career at sea, he responded:
“When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience of nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about…I never saw a wreck and never been wrecked, nor have I been in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort….”
At the same time Smith was asked about the safety of the ships he commanded. He gave his answer with absolute assurance: “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
Only one blemish marked Captain Smith’s otherwise spotless record: in February 1912 he had been in command of the Olympic when she was involved in a controversial collision with the Royal Navy’s cruiser H.M.S. Hawke.
Although an Admiralty inquiry found that the 45,000-ton Olympic had pulled the 7,000-ton Hawke into the liner’s wake, forcing the cruiser into the liner’s stern quarter, the White Star Line rejected the inquiry’s finding as self-serving and rewarded Smith with the command of the new Titanic. He was now fifty-nine years old, commodore of the White Star Line, and he had decided it was enough. After forty-five years at sea, thirty-two of them with the White Star Line, once he took the Titanic to New York and brought her back he would retire. It seemed to be, by anybody’s reckoning, a fitting climax to a brilliant career, commanding the largest, safest, most elegant ship afloat.