What Sank The Titanic?

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

On the night of April 11, 1912, a mighty ocean liner steamed straight into an iceberg in the icy north Atlantic. Passengers were thrown from their chairs and rushed in terror to the decks. Although her bow was badly buckled, however, no one was hurt, and the ship limped onwards, to reach New York in safety.

The clue there is in the date, for the ship in question was a French liner, the Niagara. It was three nights later that the Titanic met her fate near the same spot.

So why did the Titanic, despite warnings of ice ahead, hit an iceberg herself, and why did she fail to survive the collision? The basic answer is clear: she was going too fast. The conclusion of the official British inquiry remains self-evident. However far away the iceberg was when the lookouts saw it – their testimony was evasive to say the least – there was too little time to avoid it.

It’s often suggested that Captain Smith was trying to set some sort of speed record. He could never have captured the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing; the Titanic simply wasn’t built to outpace sleek rivals like Cunard’s Mauretania. Smith knew however that for the Titanic to arrive ahead of schedule would attract favourable publicity, and the presence on board of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay may well have spurred him on. In fact, though, it was standard practice for liners to race at top speed through the night, and only take evasive action if confronted by an obstacle.

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

Not that it was freakish bad luck for an iceberg to be in the Titanic’s path. While icebergs were not usually expected that far south, the sea that night was full of them. When the sun rose the next morning, “dozens and dozens” were in sight. Even more to the point, barely three miles ahead the ocean was covered by a colossal unbroken ice field, seventy miles long by twelve miles wide. And the Titanic had been warned, by wireless messages from nearby ships.

When First Officer Murdoch, on duty on the bridge of the Titanic, did take evasive action, he did entirely the wrong thing. His attempt to steer around the iceberg, while throwing her engines into reverse, producing the nautical equivalent of a skid. As the leading manual on seamanship, Austin M. Knight’s Modern Seamanship, advised, “this course is much more likely to cause collisions than to prevent them”. On top of that, there’s plausible evidence that the helmsman initially turned the ship’s wheel the wrong way, losing crucial seconds.

Had the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, she would probably, like the Niagara, have survived. Instead, she scraped along the side of the berg, which had the twin effects of slicing her open, and weakening the rivets that joined the plates of her hull, which effectively “unzipped”. Her much-vaunted watertight compartments had been designed to protect her against sharp impacts; no one had considered the effects of a prolonged scrape.

J. Bruce Ismay.

So what was to blame? Rather than the very existence of the iceberg, or the unusual conditions that made it hard to spot – hazards the world’s greatest liner should have been able to cope with – it seems fair to blame the design of the ship, and the inadequate response of her crew. And to add a special word of condemnation for J. Bruce Ismay, the man who decided not to equip the Titanic with enough lifeboats to rescue everyone on board.

All text © Greg Ward.

This post also appears as an article on the Rough Guides website, www.roughguides.com.