Moneybox

The Man Who Insists He’s Building Titanic II Explains Himself

The Titanic II, fading away like a dream.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by F.G.O. Stuart/Wikipedia and -slav-/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The sequel had better be better than the original.

In a flurry of announcements this fall, Australian mining magnate Clive Palmer claimed to have revived his plan to replicate the world’s most infamous ship, and send the Titanic II into passenger service along its original route between Southhampton, England, and New York City—and then onto a circumnavigation of the globe.

“At a time when the world’s in conflict, the Titanic represents Jack and Rose, Romeo and Juliet,” Palmer told me over the phone from Australia, conflating the star-crossed romances of the title characters in James Cameron’s Titanic (Jack drowns after the Titanic hits an iceberg) with those of Shakespeare’s tragedy (Romeo dies by poison; Juliet stabs herself). “We know how to make war; we have to make peace,” he mused. “That’s part of our motivation for making the ship.”

On Monday, Palmer announced the project’s European headquarters would be in Paris to avoid complications from Brexit. The previous week, he appointed a European director—the unfortunately named Clive Mensink—to handle staffing, operations, and construction.

Smooth sailing ahead? Not quite.

The same media-industry incentives that brought you news of the Hyperloop, China’s levitating bus, and Bill Gates’ smart city in Arizona have produced a raft of stories to the effect that the Titanic II will sail the ocean blue as soon as 2022. It’s that media frenzy, as much as any internal plan of action, that gives Palmer the confidence this project can succeed. The people want the Titanic II—almost as much as he does. “You’ll see a lot of guys my age buying, building, and sailing boats,” he said. “I’m building a bigger boat, because I’ve got a bigger budget.”

Small caveat: Palmer isn’t actually building anything. He first announced the Titanic II in 2012, to set sail in 2016. Constructing the replica, he told an Australian magazine that year, was a response to a request from Chinese shipbuilders looking to break into the cruise market. “I said, ‘Let’s build the Titanic!’ It will be great, it will show off the competitiveness of Chinese shipbuilders.” (He also loves the movie.) In April 2012, Palmer got Deltamarin, a real Finnish ship-design company, and CSC Jinling Shipyard, a Chinese state-owned shipbuilder, to sign a memorandum of understanding and “conduct preliminary technical studies.” In 2014, he extended the deadline to 2018. In 2015, workers at CSC Jinling told the Australian that basically nothing was happening. The agreement with Jinling is off.

But Palmer still has the designs—as well as 3,000-odd Titanic-themed sets of cutlery and flatware.

What has he been doing all this time as the world awaited, then forgot, then remembered the Titanic II? On the positive side, Palmer formed a political party named after himself and was elected to Australian Parliament, where he rarely appeared during a term that ended in 2016. He is back in politics again now, running candidates under the slogan “Make Australia Great.”

But in other ways, it’s been a tough few years. At a coastal resort he bought, Palmer pledged but failed to build the world’s largest animatronic dinosaur park, before finally letting the property slip into abandonment. (Palmer says the property is merely closed to the public, and that he uses it like Donald Trump uses Mar-a-Lago.) As one of his companies, Mineralogy, fought with Chinese mining interests in court, another called Queensland Nickel went under, with creditors and former employees owed more than $200 million. Palmer tumbled down and then off Forbes’ list of the 50 wealthiest Australians, and then some.

Things are looking up, Palmer says. His Chinese partners (“bastards” and “mongrels,” he once called them, when he was an MP) had run off with some of the money earmarked for the Titanic II. But a recent court decision in his favor meant that money was coming back his way—and renewed his dedication to rebuilding the great doomed ship.

It’s not clear whether this effort will be undertaken with more serious intent than the 2012 edition, in which nearly no one involved seemed to be working on the boat full time. The design consultants, Steve Hall and Daniel Klistorner, were not cruise industry vets—but had recently co-authored a pair of books on the original boat’s interiors, Titanic: The Ship Magnificent (Volumes I and II). The project’s global marketing director, James McDonald, would soon become Palmer’s chief of staff when he entered Parliament but doesn’t list his position at Blue Star Line on his LinkedIn profile. John Eaton was the director of events for Titanic II and boasts that he created more than $500 million in media coverage for the ship’s launch events, one of which was held on the USS Intrepid in New York. But he was simultaneously the general manager for Palmer Coolum Resort on Australia’s Sunshine Coast—the mothballed, mosquito-ridden property where the Titanic dining sets are stored.

But so what, Palmer said. Mineralogy is his company and he can redirect revenues—and his employees—how he likes. The collapse of Queensland Nickel sent its only registered director, Palmer’s nephew Clive Mensink, overseas—he has been hanging out in Bulgaria and has a warrant for his arrest extant in Australia after he didn’t show up in court for a public investigation of the company’s demise. (“It’s just like a parking ticket, really,” Palmer said.) Now the fugitive Mensink is in charge of staffing, operations, and construction of the Titanic II.

As with the previous attempt to resurrect the North Atlantic’s greatest shipwreck, this one may come down to money. It can cost a billion dollars or more to build a state-of-the-art cruise ship, far more than Palmer is getting from his lawsuits against the Chinese mining consort. “We’re not ready for the commercial part of the project,” Palmer concedes. “But we’ve been inundated by people wanting to do some commercial deals.” With the attention he’s had, why not?