by John Maxtone-Graham

In Liverpool and Southampton alike, there used to be a common superstition among crew families that a picture falling from the wall indicated that a ship would be lost at sea.

C. L. Daughtrey, the daughter of an Olympic crewman who was bitterly disappointed at not having been being assigned to Titanic, recalls that at her house, on April 14th, 1912, a picture fell. Her mother remarked, almost as a conditioned reflex, "Goodness, a ship will go down tomorrow." Needless to say, many of her father's friends' lives were lost in the disaster the omen presaged.

That picture fell eighty- three years ago. This spring, one fell at my house, one of five long French Line cutaway's that are hung high up in my drawing room around the picture-molding. It was a handsome color cutaway of the French Line's Ile de France about five feet long. Together with four similar companion pieces, it had been included over the past years as part of two exhibitions, Hommage au Normandie and Ships of State.

I can only assume that the repetitive process of hanging and rehanging the cutaway, at the exhibitions and back on my walls, had loosened one of the screweyes securing the picture wire to the rear of the frame; in any event, that was what failed, catastrophically.

Mary and I heard the most appalling crash. We raced upstairs to find Ile de France's frame hanging vertically and miraculously from one end of its picture wire. The lower end of the frame, in scything down from the horizontal, had spared a framed Hermes scarf from the France but destroyed two of a collection of historic Holland America Line souvenir plates arranged on the wall below. Also shattered was a handsome Tiffany crystal covered vase which Cunard had been kind enough to present to me when I served as master of ceremonies at the shipboard press conference celebrating QE2's successful resumption of normality following her 1994 year-end renovation. Final casualty was one of a pair of extremely pretty little Limoges dishes from Paris that I had given Mary for Christmas the year before.

Remarkably, the villain of the piece, the long Ile de France cutaway, was, save for its extracted screweye, completely undamaged; the glass was intact and gilt frame unscarred.

I rehung it recently, not before, as readers can see from the accompanying photograph, restaging the incident midway through without all the broken pieces of china and glass. In fact, the frame had ended up suspended by almost the entire long picture wire, sweeping the glass and china off the sideboard below.

Now it is back in place and I have made a point of examining carefully all four remaining cutaway wires and screweyes to avoid further breakage elsewhere.

Naturally, the ancient superstition came to mind at once and although, over the succeeding months, no ship was actually lost, an eerie series of misfortunes befell a variety of vessels all over the world.

En route home from Bermuda to Boston, Royal Majesty ran aground on a Nantucket Sound sandbar and had to be hauled off by half a dozen tugs during the next high tide.

Carnival's Celebration suffered a crippling electrical fire in an engine room switchboard, effectively disabling the vessel and necessitating, after three sticky days, the mid-ocean transfer of 2500 passengers to the rescue ship Ecstasy.

The Mississippi's largest steamboat, brand-new American Queen, came to grief on a river sandbank when the Army Corps of Engineers inadvertently lowered the river level without advising shipping. She remained high and dry for several days.

Star Princess sliced two gashes in her hull when she ran over Poundstone Rock in pilotage waters while cruising along the Alaskan coast. Once she had been anchored 14 miles to the north of Juneau in Auke Bay, her passengers had to be disembarked and flown home.

Also in Alaskan waters later over the summer, Regent Star suffered an engine room fire. All her passengers had to be transferred to nearby Rotterdam.

Once again, thank heavens, no ship and no lives were lost. But this past spring and summer certainly proved an unfortunate season for various passenger vessels.

What about Maxtone-Graham's falling cutaway? Was it mere co-incidence? Maybe. Perhaps there is something to be said for traditional sailors' superstitions.


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