The Sinking of the Titanic
What can be learned from the sinking of the Titanic?
The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana once said:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”
In this short article, the Club takes a look back one of the most notorious historical incident in maritime history, the sinking of Titanic. This casualty gives us the opportunity to examine the reported facts, to reflect and understand human error and avoid those mistakes from being repeated that others have made.
On April 10, 1912, the passenger liner Titanic (46,328 tons, White Star Line) departed Southampton for New York on its maiden voyage. At 2340 on April 14, the ship collided with an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later. More than 1,500 of the approximately 2,200 passengers and crew died, making this the worst maritime accident in the world at that time. This tragedy resulted in numerous international rules, conventions and other measures and had an enormous effect on shipping companies worldwide.
Second Officer Lightoller turned over the ship to First Officer Murdoch and told Mr. Murdoch that the ship was in a region where ice had been reported.
The lookout in the crow’s next sounded three gongs, which is a warning of a dangerous situation.
Immediately after the three gong signal, the lookout notified the bridge by telephone of an “iceberg right ahead.”
First Officer Murdoch immediately gave the order “hard a starboard” and telegraphed to the engine room “Stop. Full speed astern.” The ship's head had fallen off about two points to port and she collided with an iceberg well forward on her starboard side. Mr. Murdoch at the same time pulled the lever over which closed the watertight doors in the engine and boiler rooms.
The captain immediately went to the bridge and asked what had happened. Mr. Murdoch replied: “An iceberg, sir. I hard-a-starboarded and reversed the engines, and I was going hard a port round it but she was too close. I could not do any more. I have closed the watertight doors.”
The order was given to prepare 14 lifeboats.
Women and children were told to board the lifeboats.
First Officer Murdoch gave the order to lower boat number seven (starboard side) and the other boats were then loaded and lowered to the sea.
The Titanic sank (41° 46’ N, 50° 14’ W)
1. Weather and ice conditions
On the day of the accident, there were no clouds, no moon but many stars visible. The air temperature decreased significantly during the afternoon and declined 12 degrees Celsius during a two-hour period. At 1930, the temperature was 0.5 degrees Celsius. However, a drop in temperature is not necessarily an indication of an ice floe according to Sailing Directions (Nova Scotia (S.E. Coast) and Bay of Fundy Pilot).
At 0900 on the day of accident, the Titanic received the following message concerning ice floes from the captain of the Caronia: “Westbound steamers report bergs, growlers and field ice in 42° N from 49° to 51° W.” In addition, the following wireless message was received from the Baltic at 1342: “Have had moderate, variable winds and clear, fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athenai reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in lat. 41° 51' N, long. 49° 52' W. Wish you and Titanic all success.” Titanic subsequently received a number of similar reports from other ships concerning field ice, but not one of these reports was sent to the bridge.
After 2000, the Titanic’s wireless operator (sent from the Marconi company mainly to send and receive telegrams for passengers) was busy sending passengers’ messages via the Cape Race wireless station. This operator may have put these reports from other ships aside because he was unable to realize the urgency of these messages.
Table 1 shows the locations of ice floes (including icebergs) on April 14 at 50° W on April 14 during the 23-year period from 1998 to 2021. This table demonstrates that there are big variations in how far south ice floes go every year. Ice floes reached the location of the Titanic accident (41° N to 42° N) in seven of these 23 years. Clearly, caution is always required when navigating in this area.
Table 1: Occurrence of ice floes on April 14 between 1998 and 2021 (23 years)2
Diagram 1 shows the location where the Titanic sank and the location of ice floes (including icebergs) on April 14, 2021. Although ice floes moved south as far as 48° N in 2021, the Titanic collided with an iceberg much farther south at 41° 46' N.
Diagram 1:Location of Titanic accident and ice floes on April 14, 20213
2. Distance from the iceberg
Between the time the iceberg was first discovered and the collision, the Titanic had turned about two points (22.5°) to port. Numerous subsequent experiments revealed that a change of course of two points to port after the helm had been put hard to starboard at the Titanic’s speed of about 22 knots when the accident occurred would have required about 37 seconds. During that time, the ship would have traveled 466 yards (426 meters). Adding the few seconds needed to give the order to change course, the iceberg was sighted at about 500 yards (457 meters) from the Titanic’s bridge or crow’s nest.
Seeing obstacles at night was extremely difficult because there was no radar. Furthermore, even after the discovery of an obstacle, a ship traveling at the high speed of 22 knots would very likely be unable to avoid a collision if the distance is less than 500 meters. Safety probably requires navigation using the same methods as when encountering fog, such as by reducing speed.
3. Other problems
This section briefly examines the numerous problems identified by this tragedy. There are countermeasures for all of these problems in the SOLAS Convention.
(1) Watertight compartments
Five of the Titanic’s watertight compartments flooded after the collision with the iceberg. Then, as the bow began to sink, many of the aft watertight compartments flooded and the ship sank. The reason was that the watertight compartment bulkheads did not reach the watertight deck, which allowed water to go over the compartment bulkheads and flood adjacent compartments.
(Reference) SOLAS Convention Chapter II-1 Regulation 10 Construction of watertight bulkheads
(2) Lifeboat inadequacy
The Titanic had 20 lifeboats, including folding boats, with a total capacity of 1,187 people. When the ship hit the iceberg, there were about 2,200 people on board. As a result, there was space on lifeboats for only about half of these people. The regulations of that era regarded lifeboats more as tender boats (boats used to take passengers to shore) and were not intended to provide enough capacity for everyone on a ship.
(Reference) The SOLAS Convention requires a sufficient number of lifeboats for everyone on a ship, mandates holding lifeboat drills at sea, and has other provisions, as is well known.
(3) Wireless operator (Radio Officer)
As was explained earlier, the Titanic’s wireless operator was an employee of the Marconi company, not the White Star Line. Wireless messages were regarded as a means of sending and receiving telegrams for passengers rather than as an important method for assisting with safe navigation. Consequently, there were no nighttime wireless operations.
(Reference) The SOLAS Convention established in 1914 included the following provision.
“Ships must have a Morse code wireless communication system and must have radio officer for 24-hour monitoring of the 500kHz ship accident frequency.”
1) Helm orders
When the bridge received the message of an “iceberg right ahead” from the lookout at 2200 on April 14, First Officer Murdoch immediately ordered “hard a-starboard.” The intent was to change course to port in order to pass the left side of the iceberg. This scene has been depicted in many movies, causing people to wonder why the starboard order was given to change direction to port
Until almost 1920, orders on ships were regarded as being the same as for the tiller (helm) of a yacht or other small ship. Therefore, starboard meant moving the tiller to the right, which moves the rudder blade to the left and thus the ship as well to the left (indirect sense). As steam-powered ships became larger, the rudder is instead operated by gears, chains and other indirect systems rather than a direct link between the tiller (ship’s wheel) and rudder. With this indirect system, the ship’s wheel is turned in the direction of the desired heading and there was a contradiction with the previously used system of helm orders.
As a result, helm orders are given for the movement of the rudder, not the tiller. Due to this change, there was a movement toward giving helm orders for the direction in which the ship is intended to go (direct method). At the SOLAS conference in 1929, helm orders were unified by the following article.
Article 41. Helm Orders.
The Contracting Governments agree that after midnight on the 30th June 1931, helm or steering orders, i.e., orders to the steersmen, shall on all their ships be given in the direct sense, e.g., when the ship is going ahead on order containing the word “starboard” or “right” or any equivalent of “starboard” or “right” shall only be used when it is intended, on ships as at present generally constructed and arranged, that the wheel, the rudder-blade and the head of the ship, shall all move to the right.
2) Women and children first
Passengers were instructed to allow women and children to board the lifeboats first. At the investigation following the accident, Second Officer Lightoller made the following statement: I asked him should we put the women and children in, and the Commander said “Yes, put the women and children in and lower away.”
First class passenger Mrs. Lucian P. Smith made the following statement at this investigation (some sections omitted): Captain Smith was standing with a megaphone on deck. (omission) He shouted again through his megaphone “Women and children first.”
The Titanic used the policy of women and children first, which is an expression widely used when there is an accident involving a ship. In the shipping sector, this is regarded as an implicit guideline.
Table 2 shows that very few male passengers boarded lifeboats on the starboard side of the Titanic. Nine starboard lifeboats were used and there were no male passengers in five of these boats. Some people believe the cause is that second officer Lightoller may have misunderstood the phrase "women and children first" as "women and children only". As a result, some lifeboats departed with no men even though there was still room for more people.
A total of 854 people left the Titanic on lifeboats:
- Male crew: 107
- Male passengers: 43
- Women and children: 704
The capacity of all lifeboats was 1,187 people, which means there was space to save more than 300 others.
Table 2: Composition of Titanic survivors
A fictional evacuation scene in the movie “Titanic” 4 included the following exchange between the second officer and captain.
Second Officer Lightoller:
“Hadn’t we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?”
“Women and children first.”
(Explanation to passengers at the port lifeboats)
Second Officer Lightoller:
“For the time being, I require only women and children.”
Conclusions of the investigation committee
Official investigations were conducted in the United States and United Kingdom. The final British report concluded that “the loss of the said ship was due to collision with an iceberg, brought about by the excessive speed at which the ship was being navigated.”
Although the committee members submitted their own recommendations with minor differences, the investigation resulted in the following primary recommendations.
- Passenger ships should have enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew.
- Lifeboat drills must be conducted thoroughly and with a sufficient frequency.
- A wireless operator must be on duty 24 hours.
- Ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean should use a more southerly route.
- Improvements are needed for making ships watertight and enabling ships to restore stability.
Lessons from this accident
Today, the environment concerning maritime safety due to the SOLAS Convention and many other conventions and rules is very different from the regulatory climate in 1912. However, the Titanic tragedy still provides many valuable lessons for operators of ships today. Two important lessons are as follows.
1) Establish and execute a navigation plan
There are four steps for the preparation of a navigation plan.
The key points concerning the Titanic are most likely the assessment concerning icebergs during the appraisal stage and the determination of a plan based on that assessment. The navigation plan must include a response (including a safe speed) in the event an iceberg or ice floe is encountered and a procedure for revising the navigation plan.
2) Compliance with the Act on COLREGs
Two major causes of this tragedy were an inappropriate lookout and excessive speed. Provisions concerning these two causes are in Article 5 (Lookout) and Article 6 (Safe speed) of the COLREGs. Compliance with these provisions involving the lookout and speed are essential for safe navigation and will undoubtedly continue to be extremely important.
1Titanic Inquiry Report
2North American Ice Service
3Information prepared by the author using North American Ice Service data
4The movie “Titanic” (1997, Paramount Pictures Corporation and others)