Trailering The TitanicBy Pat Piper
Published: Fall 2012
Photos by Ted Jackson, The Times-Picayune and Mark Koch
Look what happens with too much time and eBay
Mark Koch is pulling his boat on a Pennsylvania expressway en route to his brother's house in Troy, New York, and talking on his cellphone. For what must be the fifth time that day, the passenger in a car next to him flashes a "thumbs up" hand signal after taking a photograph. Koch is unfazed. "I'm getting 'that look,’" he says as he waves back.
"That look" is the result of people suddenly seeing a 40:1 scale model of the Titanic traveling on a trailer along a Pennsylvania road. Some yell out to "watch out for icebergs," truckers beep their horns, and others just stare open-mouthed as they pass in the left lane. That look has shown up in every state Mark and the Titanic have traveled through.
From the Department of How It Happened
After Hurricane Katrina had screamed through the Gulf of Mexico in 2007, knocking out 46 oil rig platforms and damaging others, Koch found himself aboard the 416-foot Normand Clipper, a sub-sea construction vessel designed to make repairs to oil rigs using divers and a pair of ROVs (remote-operated vehicles). A professional diver, Mark was stationed on the vessel for months at a time and would search the Internet during down time to satisfy a hobby of boat collecting. This included a pair of lifeboats from the Andrea Doria that sank in 1956, both of which he found on eBay. Then came the day, after his team had completed a dive out in the Gulf, when he clicked on eBay and saw a photograph of a 23-foot model of the Titanic, complete with trailer, and powered by a 25-hp Johnson outboard.
"I thought about it for less than an hour," Mark remembers, and then adds that after he made the deal, he didn't tell his girlfriend Rachael ... well, not right away. "I waited until I got home," which means until he finished his work onboard the ship, came ashore and returned home to Metairie, Louisiana, where he had once entertained the idea of a maritime museum in nearby Lafitte. With this new acquisition, a museum was still the plan. The problem was, he had this job that kept him on a ship hovering over damaged oil rigs for weeks at a time.
The seller was in Philadelphia, so Koch used some vacation time to drive north and collect his new potential exhibit. While he was feeling pretty good about the acquisition, he was feeling ecstatic after pulling it all of one block on the way home.
"I pulled up to the first stoplight, looking at the ship in my rearview mirror, and then looked over to my left side. There was a car with four faces in it smiling, and that's pretty much all I needed. I knew from that point on, the trip back to Louisiana was going to be good."
So much for positive thinking. Hitting rush hour in the southbound lanes of the Washington area Beltway, prior to crossing the Potomac River, Mark became aware of another car pulling up alongside. This time there was no thumbs up. Instead, a thumb was pointing to the trailer. He pulled off and saw that a bolt had come loose on the trailer frame, placing his cargo dangerously close to the pavement. It took half an hour, but he put a replacement on and made it home to Louisiana. As he worked, radio traffic reports had started mentioning callers who claimed they could see the Titanic pulled over in Maryland. Just another rush hour in Washington, D.C.
One of his first trips was to Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. As it happened on the highway, the look was evident at the boat ramp, with a few people offering to handle a line, which he readily accepted. Entry to the helm is from the bow and he quickly saw there was room for three adults, though it would be crowded. This time, Mark was on his own and he fired up the outboard and was off. A short time into the maiden voyage, he realized a tight turn could be made by leaning in the direction he wanted the boat to go, as well as turning the outboard's tiller, and by the time he returned to the dock, the Titanic was as maneuverable as most boats he had handled. To add to the feeling of I've Done The Right Thing, he noticed how the outboard exhaust actually went out the rear funnel of his new ship. This is a good thing when you realize the rear funnel on the actual Titanic was fake and only put in place because designers thought it looked nice.
Coming into the launch ramp, Mark opened a hatch to get a better view and heard some anxious sounds from people on a nearby dock. "I told you someone is in there," one voice said. "You’re still going to tell me this is a remote-control boat?" He waved and was again offered assistance in handling a dock line. Think about it: How many folks can tell their kids they docked the Titanic today?
This year, Mark had plans to bring the Titanic to Mystic Seaport, more so to have discussions with craftsmen in nearby Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to restore the 26-foot Andrea Doria lifeboat Number 1 that he still owns. When he arrived at Mystic, however, there wasn't an available slip for the Titanic because of a long-standing catboat convention. It's always something.
The Titanic is staying in the northern part of the country until hurricane season concludes in New Orleans. But, when it does make a return, Koch hopes to venture out again on Lake Pontchartrain and is hopeful that traffic on the causeway won’t be disrupted as it was the last time he went for a boat ride. Back then, people stopped their cars on the causeway, thinking just for a split second the fabled ship had come back after 100 years.
If the Titanic or any other boat needs help, Captain Shane O'Neal is ready to assist. He's opened TowBoatUS Lafitte along the Gulf Coast. He's available 24 hours/day at 423-326-9768. Details at www.BoatUS.com/Lafitte