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The headland of Cape Race juts out into the Atlantic like a determined chin. Giant waves hurl themselves at its black volcanic sides, spraying water hundreds of feet in the air. A stocky, red-topped lighthouse stoically rotates its lamp, showing a subtle glimmer in the daylight. It is a scene of desolate beauty, a green-topped spit of land standing fast against the shearing ocean winds.

This cape on the far southeastern edge of Newfoundland is a forgotten corner of the world, home to just two lighthouse keepers and an itinerant family of harbour seals. Yet less than 100 years ago, this was one of the most important places in the Western world, where the famous Cape Race telegraph station relayed breaking news and messages between Europe and New York via an ingenious system of undersea cables. It was a vital hub of communications in an age when the staccato bleeping of Morse code was the very cutting edge of technology.

On the evening of 14 April 1912, the station received a radio transmission that would, for a short time, make Cape Race a household name. It was 10.25pm, and the message was ‘CQD MGY’.

The international distress call of CQD was, at the time, being phased out in favour of the new SOS, but the radio operators at Cape Race knew its significance. A ship was in serious trouble out on the frigid North Atlantic waters, and there was no mistaking which one – MGY was the unique call sign of the magnificent RMS Titanic.

John Myrick’s finger taps out Morse code with extraordinary accuracy and speed. A 73-year-old former radio operator, he’s holed up in the cosy, red-painted Cape Race radio hut, which no longer houses a relay station but is now a small museum devoted to the history of telegraphy.

‘It was a closely guarded secret at the time, but it’s become generally known that my great uncle Jim was the one who received the Titanic distress call,’ says John. ‘He was an apprentice operator and he rushed out to get the officer in charge. Afterwards, he was sworn to secrecy and could never tell that he had been left alone there even for a moment. He was 14 years old.’

Despite the furious work of the radio operators, the Titanic’s situation was hopeless. Several ships steamed to its rescue but the nearest, the Carpathia, did not arrive for more than four hours. By that time, the world’s largest and most luxurious liner had sunk into the freezing water, taking with it the lives of those who could not fit into its few lifeboats – 1,517 passengers and crew.

The tragic sinking has resonated down the years, but while the Titanic was the most famous vessel to founder off the Newfoundland coast, this area – with its sharp rocks, treacherous icebergs and heavy seas that can tear a ship apart – is known as ‘the Graveyard of the Atlantic’. Thousands of sunken vessels litter the seabeds of the whole region, stretching across to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – evidence of an extraordinary history of maritime disasters, filled with tales of brave fishermen, wily smugglers and bloodstained privateers.

John drives west from Cape Race on the rough unpaved road that runs along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula – a series of rocky bluffs interspersed with sheltered coves, each with a cluster of fine white houses. These are old fishing villages, where settlers were once drawn to the stupendous shoals of fish that lived off the coast – cod so thick in the water that, in the words of the explorer John Cabot in 1496, one could ‘walk across their backs’. Generations of enthusiastic overfishing have seen these stocks critically reduced, but back in the 16th and 17th centuries, rich fishing vessels plied these waters, attracting the attention of prize-hungry buccaneers.

Trepassey is now a quiet seaside town where holidaymakers come to paddle in the dark aquamarine water, and it’s unlikely that those walking along its black, stony foreshore would know of its place in pirating lore. In 1729, the dread pirate Black Bart, known for his natty clothes and plumed scarlet hat, arrived in the bay here, plundering and burning 21 merchant ships in the village harbour before setting sail for the West Indies.

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