Noon was rapidly approaching when the Trinity House pilot, George Bowyer, came aboard and had the pilot’s flag hoisted at the foremast. Bowyer had been the pilot at Southampton Harbour for nearly forty years, the latest of a long line of Bowyers who had been harbor pilots at Southampton since the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The ship’s whistle gave a series of short sharp blasts, a warning for the visitors, friends of passengers, and assorted vendors and reporters to begin making their way ashore. One by one the gangways were pulled away as the harbor tugs began moving into position. Just as the last gangway was being lowered, a half dozen stokers, who had slipped ashore earlier to pay one last visit to a nearby pub, came rushing up, trying to get back aboard. The Titanic’s Master-at-Arms barred the way, turning them back, and the stokers missed the boat, so to speak.
At noon exactly, one long, deep-throated blast from the Titanic’s whistles signaled the nearby tugs to stand by. “Make fast the tugs!” George Bowyer’s booming voice rang out across the bridge. There was a jangle of ringing bells as the brass engine room telegraph rang down to signal “Slow Ahead,” and the water at the stern of the ship began to churn as the three great screws began to turn.
Pilot Bowyer quickly checked to make sure that all the ship’s officers were properly stationed: Chief Officer Wilde in the fo’c's’le (forecastle) head in charge of moorings, with Second Officer Lightoller assisting him as well as seeing to the forward spring lines; First Officer Murdoch aft at the auxiliary bridge on the poop deck, in charge of the moorings there, assisted by Third Officer Pitman; standing beside Murdoch was Fourth Officer Boxhall, who would be passing the telegraph orders down to the engine room, while at the same time recording all movements in the log; Fifth Officer Lowe was on the bridge with Pilot Bowyer, manning the telephones; Sixth Officer Moody was supervising the removal of the last gangway. As soon as that gangway was clear, Pilot Bowyer began to call out a rapid series of orders: “Let go the stern ropes!…Let go your head rope!…Let go your after spring!…Tow her off aft!…Let go your for’ard spring!” The tugs began to pull the ship away from the side of the dock, and the passengers and crowd watching on the quay gave a cheer as slowly, almost imperceptibly, a gap began to open up between the Titanic and the side of the quay. Bowyer called for the after tug to let go, and the huge liner moved forward into the River Test.
In the First Class Dining Saloon the ship’s orchestra played an air from the musical “The Chocolate Soldier,” while Pilot Bowyer gradually worked the ship up to a speed of six knots as she moved down the channel. The immense bulk of the liner displaced an incredible volume of water in the narrow channel, creating a powerful suction in her wake. As she approached the entrance to the channel, the Titanic drew abreast of the small American liner New York, which was moored side by side to the White Star’s Oceanic. Both ships had been immobilized by the coal strike, and neither had steam up. As the Titanic passed, the suction of her wake drew the two smaller vessels away from the dock where they were tied up. The strain on the six lines mooring the New York to the Oceanic grew too great, and with a series of loud cracks they parted in rapid succession as the New York was pulled helplessly toward the Titanic. For a moment a nasty collision seemed inevitable as the stern of the New York swung to within three or four feet of the bigger liner’s hull.
Quick thinking on the part of Captain Gale of the tug Vulcan and prompt action on the Titanic’s bridge by Captain Smith averted an accident. The Vulcan quickly passed a line to the stern of the New York, and, throwing its engines full astern, managed to slow the wayward liner and drag her away from the Titanic. At the same time, Captain Smith ordered “Half Astern” on the engines, the sudden wash thrown up along the Titanic’s side by the huge propellers providing the extra thrust needed to push the New York away. As soon as she was clear Smith brought the Titanic’s engines to a halt. The danger wasn’t over yet, for the New York, still without power, was now drifting down the narrow space between the motionless Titanic and the Oceanic. Other tugs rushed to aid the struggling Vulcan, and in a little less than forty-five minutes the New York was being nudged safely back alongside the Oceanic. (Later a barge that had sunk in that same channel was found to have been dragged nearly a half milesome 800 yards underwater by the suction of the Titanic’s wake.)
None of the three ships was damaged, but during the time it took to get the New York securely moored, and before the Titanic resumed her passage down the channel, Captain Smith ordered a quick inspection of the ship.
Finally the Titanic was clear of the docks and steaming down the Southampton Water at half speed. Soon she came up to Calshot Spit, where she slowed to make the difficult turn to starboard into the Thorn Channel. A few minutes later came the sharp right-angled turn to port around the West Bramble buoy, leading into the deep-water channel that flowed past the Cowes Roads, Spithead, and the Nab. As the Titanic passed the Royal Yacht Squadron at West Cowes, passengers and crew noticed crowds lining the promenade to catch a glimpse of the beautiful new White Star liner, while sitting out in the Solent roads in a small open boat, a local pharmacist and amateur maritime photographer named Frank Beken waited patiently for the great ship to pass. Camera at the ready, he was to take some of the most memorable photographs of the Titanic ever made. Captain Smith recognized the young man from previous encounters in the Solent Roads, and he knew Beken’s work, so with a smile gave four blasts on the Titanic’s whistle in a salute. It was a moment that Beken would never forget.
Sweeping past Spithead, the Titanic dipped her colors to the squadron of destroyers anchored there, then steamed past Ryde, past the Lloyd’s lightship, past Selsey Bill, and on to the Nab lightship. At the lightship the Titanic stopped to drop Pilot Bowyer, then turned toward the English Channel and the open sea.