Captain Turner was equally reassuring, pointing to the ship's 24-knot cruising speed. Cunard officials informed the press that the Lusitania was virtually unsinkable, what with her double bottom and her many compartments with their remotely controlled doors.
When the liner at last steamed down the Hudson she carried some 2,000 people and an indifferent cargo, of which half (including 4,200 cases of ammunition) was destined for Allied military use. If there was other military contraband aboard it was not listed. In any case, the presence of American neutrals on board was certainly considered—by the neutrals themselves, at least—to be a deterrent to U-boat attack.
There were no incidents in the long reaches of the open Atlantic. As the ship approached the war zone around the British Isles, Turner had the lifeboats swung outboard. There was one boat drill.
Whether or not Turner knew that 23 ships had been sunk in the war zone since he left New York no one can say. Certainly he was aware of submarine activity ahead. And he was aware of the Admiralty rules for passing through the danger area: make landfalls at night, if possible; stay well clear of headlands, travel at full speed and zigzag. Yet Captain Turner made his landfall at midday, steamed directly toward the dominant headland of the coast, reduced speed sharply and made no precautionary course changes. Having picked up the Kinsale Light and thus fixed his position for all practical purposes, he ordered that the ship be turned to run parallel with the coast so that an even more precise fix could be obtained by noting the moment at which the light would come abeam.
Says Bestic: "It never came abeam."
With the Lusitania committed to an unvarying speed and heading, Schwieger was presented with a submariner's dream come true. He computed his shot and fired "a clean bow shot from 700 meters.... Torpedo hits starboard side right behind bridge.... An unusually great detonation followed.... A second explosion must have taken place...."
Bestic stepped out of his cabin to hear a woman saying, "That isn't a torpedo, is it?" He saw the foaming wake and gripped the rail. Planks, boats, soot and water burst upward and the ship shook with the explosion. And he thought, "How undignified would the lovely Lusitania appear limping into port. The order for boat stations seemed premature. Might put the wind up the passengers." He hurried to his station on the port side, but so swiftly did the huge vessel list to starboard that he was able to get no more than one boat away.
From Galley Head, keeper Duffy heard five explosions. He made nothing of this fact, but it was to become a crucial one in later investigations, suggesting as it did that the disastrous consequences of the torpedoing were caused by a heavy cargo of contraband explosives. Then, as he watched, smoke and steam burst up from the liner's stacks. He telegraphed Dublin: I SEE LUSITANIA SOUTHEAST SEVEN MILES ATTACKED BY SUBMARINE LYING ON BEAM ENDS.
On the Old Head of Kinsale, Murphy, too, heard several explosions and "looked west and saw a large steamer apparently all right." He went on whitewashing.
On the Lusitania the Marconi operator repeated his message: "Come at once. Big list. Ten miles south of Old Head of Kinsale."