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Ralph White's Titanic Adventure : A Visit With a Member of the Woods Hole Expedition

October 27, 1985|PAUL CIOTTI

It's a Saturday morning in mid-September, and Ralph White is so gleeful about his secret he can barely stay in his seat. Just two days earlier he had returned from a two-month voyage aboard the Woods Hole oceanographic research vessel Knorr, where he was one of two photographers on a French-American expedition to find the wreckage of the Titanic. When the Titanic sank in the frigid North Atlantic 73 years ago, more than 1,500 people lost their lives. It's the most famous shipwreck in history. And White, as he explains, is one of only four people in the world who knows its precise position.

"Where's that?" he's asked.

"I cannot divulge the exact location of the ship."

"Why can't you?"

Because, White explains, if he does, everyone and his brother will be out there trying to bring something up before the Woods Hole group can mount a return expedition next spring. "Can you imagine," White asks, "what the wheel from the Titanic would go for?"

White's name is Ralph Bradshaw White, but his friends call him R. B. ("I always wanted a nickname like Rock or something," he says. And Bradshaw was "too effeminate"). He lives with his second wife, Astrid, in a log-cabin condominium complex in the hills above Silver Lake. On his front door is a yellow-and-black decal showing a head-on view of a gun muzzle; an accompanying message warns potential intruders that the occupant is more than able to defend himself and that nothing inside "is worth risking your life for."

In White's living room, a harpoon hangs by the stairwell. There's a Walther semi-automatic pistol on top of his three-screen TV, and on the walls are batches of photographs of and by White, parachuting insignia (he's made 2,992 jumps), medals, maps, expedition flags and a world map with perhaps 150 pins showing everywhere he's been.

"You're quite a collector," he's told.

"No, these are all awards I've been given," White says.

"But you've got all these flags with signatures."

"I'm a sentimental fool."

White is a trim 44 years old, combs his hair across his forehead and has a penetrating laugh. On this occasion he's wearing khaki shorts, an expedition T-shirt, a gold bracelet, a shark's tooth around his neck and, on his belt, a stainless-steel folding knife.

If anyone asks about it, he whips it out of the sheath with one hand, and then, flicking and twisting his wrist, opens the blade and locks the handle. The knife, White explains, is a Filipino balisong and the only knife "you can open or close with one hand." White was a knife-fighting instructor in the Marine Corps. "But that," he says, "is a whole different story."

Despite the impressive success of the Woods Hole expedition, it was not without its detractors. And some other Titanic hunters complained that the group had an unfair advantage in that the Navy provided the grant to develop the deep-ocean photographic equipment used to find the Titanic and allowed military personnel to help in the search.

"The controversy will rage on: Why was it done, and why was it done on the Titanic?" White says. "And the point is, it was done. The equipment did work. The Titanic was found." Although it's true that there were a few Navy people on board, they were there to observe the sea trials of the new equipment, not to find the shipwreck. "We had to test something in deep water. What finer test than to go out and find the Titanic?"

Besides, White says, it wasn't as though they came into the area, lowered their camera array and found the ship on the first try. The ship was resting on the ocean bottom in 13,000 feet of water. It took two hours just to lower the camera gear. At that depth, the water was pitch-black and an icy 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pressure was 5,800 pounds per square inch. Once, their research ship got blown 20 miles off course by Hurricane Bob; another time, it was caught in a gale.

Furthermore, they had no guarantee that the Titanic was either detectable or still in one piece. In 1926, 14 years after the Titanic sank, an earthquake ripped through the area. If the Titanic had been in its path, it might have been buried under a mud mountain or else tumbled along the bottom so many times that it would have been nothing more than twisted scrap.

"We got real scared the day before we found it," White says. "We had covered a lot of ocean. Three-quarters of our search area had been searched with nothing to show for it." Once the allotted search time was up, they would have to go back whether they'd found it or not.

When their camera array did pick up the Titanic early in the morning of Sept. 1, White was in his bunk, off watch. "Someone came running down and said, 'We're starting to pick up something that could be the debris field.' Within 30 seconds of the time I got there, we passed over the boiler." Shortly after that they picked up the Titanic on sonar, 200 to 300 yards away. "We found the boiler at 1:04:53 a.m., and we found the ship at 1:40. I didn't get the seconds."

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