Is Liquid Courage enough to Survive?

How Alcohol Helped a Man Survive the RMS Titanic

Illustration by Maria Nobrega

Illustration by Maria Nobrega

Recently, a video on the popular app TikTok by the user @Raf_Avila has been gaining popularity. In the video, the user informs the audience about how in the 1997 film Titanic, the drunken baker was actually a real survivor of the sink, who withstood the cold waters due to his high blood-alcohol levels. But who truly was this man, and how he was able to accomplish such an impressive feat?

108 years ago, on April 15th, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank during her maiden voyage headed to New York City. The ship was the most luxurious of its time, described as a “floating mansion”. To accompany this opulence, a state-of-the-art kitchen was included and 113 people were hired as part of the cooking staff. 33-year-old Charles Joughin was chief baker, with 13 others working under him. During the incident, Mr. Joughin was lying in his bunk and said he felt the shock immediately. He got up to follow general orders, which told him to take any surplus food into the life-boats. After following orders, Joughin went back into his bunk for a drink, the first of many that night. 

Charles Joughin and his men were highly unsung heroes during the sinking of the ship; they gathered women and children, forcibly taking them to the top deck and putting them in lifeboats. Joughin even went as far as refusing his spot on a lifeboat. Apart from that, he was also famously seen chucking foldable chairs overboard to be used as floatation devices. 

When going into the pantry for a drink of water, Joughin heard the boat buckle. He kept out of the large crowd of people and sometime before falling into the water, went back into his room for another drink of spirits, what he claims was a “tumbler half-full” of liquor. Most surprisingly, Joughin is said to have taken his time with the drink, enjoying it until frigid water began filling his cabin. When the ship split in two, Joughin simply rode it like an elevator into the water by holding onto a rail, which would’ve been the topmost part of the ship at that moment. During an interview, Charles mentions: “I do not believe my head went under the water at all. It may have been wetted, but no more.” Joughin is said to have treaded freezing water for hours until he finally found a collapsible boat to hold on to. 

Now comes the most interesting part of the story: how alcohol saved Charles Joughin from death by hypothermia. This is  a paradox as scientists seem to agree that alcohol will generally increase someone’s chance of contracting hypothermia. In simple terms, when a low to moderate dose of alcohol has been consumed, it brings heat away from the body’s vital organs and to the surface, thus making the subject more susceptible to the cold.

In Joughin’s case, he had to drink enough to the point where the -2°C was enough to endure, reversing the effects of the alcohol he consumed. Unlike the baker, most Titanic victims began to panic once they fell into the ocean, which only made death come faster. A mix between his personality and the effects of the alcohol allowed Charles to remain calm and make it through the first few minutes of contact with the water —often referred to as “cold shock”. Although alcohol might have made him feel calmer in such a chaotic situation, a professor at Brock University claims that drinking would’ve also increased his feeling of cold. This means that he would’ve had to endure more pain than the average distressed person, a fact that makes Charles Joughin seem even more impressive. This feat is not exclusive to the Titanic’s drunken baker; a study at a hospital in Illinois revealed that “in an ER, cold patients that are really drunk can walk in and they’re conscious at a temperature that they shouldn’t be.”

The lesson in this story lies in the fact that what truly saved Charles Joughin was staying calm and dry for as long as possible, giving him enough time to create a strategy to survive, something his “liquid courage” may have helped him do. Joughin went on to live a long life (for the time’s standards), dying at the age of 78 in 1956. 

This isn’t to say that getting drunk in a crisis is the smartest idea… Joughin’s story is a rare one.

To see more about the Titanic’s drunken baker, look no farther than season 2, episode 2 of Drunk History, Veronica Hinke’s non-fiction book: The Last Night on the Titanic: Unsinkable Drinking, Dining, and Style, and, of course, TikTok.


Sources: TikTok, Wikipedia, Titanic Inquiry Project, The Vintage News, US National Library of Medicine, National Post