In the early hours of April 15th, 1912, over the course of 2 hours and 40 minutes, the RMS Titanic sunk. It’s believed that upwards of 1500 people died in the accident, however, amongst the survivors was one Charles Joughin.
He was the head baker on the Titanic, but his real claim to fame is the story of how he survived the shipwreck. You see, even though Joughin was asleep when the ship hit the iceberg, in the succeeding hours he managed to order his bakers to bring bread to the lifeboats, have a drink, help women and children into lifeboats (at times by force, as they were scared to leave the Titanic), and throw roughly 50 deck chairs into the water to act as flotation devices before riding the topmost part of the ship into the water as it sank.
Joughin proceeded to tread water for about two hours before encountering a lifeboat, and eventually being rescued by the RMS Carpathia. He is believed to be the very last survivor to leave the ship, and he claimed that his head barely even got wet. When he was rescued his only medical complaint was swollen feet.
While various sourced debate the level to which Joughin was inebriated, it can be certain that he had at least some alcohol in his system when he entered the Atlantic Ocean. This fact may have simultaneously helped and hindered his survival.
Alcohol increases the risk of hypothermia in a few ways. It causes vasodilation, which results in increased blood flow to the skin leading to heat loss. It also disrupts the normal temperature regulation processes of the human body and inhibits the decision-making skills necessary to save oneself.
However, when humans fall into cold water they rarely die of hypothermia. In reality, they seldom live long enough to see their core body temperatures drop to critical levels, succumbing first to drowning or cardiac arrest. This is due to something called the cold shock response.
When a person enters water colder than 15 ˚C, they inhale involuntarily and begin to breathe very rapidly, which can quickly lead to drowning if water enters the mouth. As well, the cold water triggers constriction of the blood vessels, leading to increases in blood pressure, and in some people, cardiac arrest. These effects subside within several minutes, only to be replaced by the effects of cold incapacitation. The most debilitating of which is the body’s shutting down of peripheral muscles to preserve heat for the core. As more time is spent in the water exhaustion becomes a pressing issue, although less so if you’re lucky enough to have a flotation device, as Joughin did.
It’s possible that his blood alcohol content helped him to stay calm and avoid the cold shock response. However, despite many fanciful tales, given that Joughin had only, “a drop of liqueur,” by his own words, it seems likely that his blood alcohol content had little to do with his survival. It seems most likely that Joaghin was lucky, and possibly that he spent less time in the water than he estimates.
It’s never a good idea to mix drinking or doing drugs with boating, particularly if you’re boating over dangerous waters. While Charles Joughin’s story of survival is impressive, it should serve as a warning to you. He was quite lucky; that doesn’t mean you will be.