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.

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Did anyone really think the Titanic was unsinkable?

Whether the Titanic was unsinkable was settled once and for all on April 15, 1912. A hundred years later, however, two related issues are still being debated. Did her makers, the White Star Line, claim that she was unsinkable? And did the world at large – and above all, her passengers – believe her to be unsinkable?

The Olympic and Titanic under construction, Harland & Wolff shipyards, Belfast.

Only the faintest of pre-tragedy references to the Titanic’s supposed unsinkability have been discovered. Describing the system of watertight compartments used in both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, a 1911 White Star Line brochure explained how in the event of an accident the captain could close the watertight doors, thereby “practically making the vessel unsinkable”.

In the Shipbuilder magazine, later that year, the crucial phrase was truncated to become “practically unsinkable”. Far from singling out the Titanic, however, the author referred to such watertight compartments as being “usual in White Star Lines”.

On the very day that the Titanic sank, the word “unsinkable” seemed to rise to the surface. The man largely responsible was White Star vice president Philip A.S. Franklin. When the first rumours of the sinking reached New York, he responded “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable”. He later told the New York Times “I thought her unsinkable, and I based [my] opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it”.

Philip A.S. Franklin (left) and J. Bruce Ismay (right) during the US inquiry into the disaster.

The arrogance of imagining any ship to be unsinkable tied in perfectly with the notion of the Titanic being destroyed by hubris. Early reports of the disaster were peppered with the word, and survivors swiftly started to use the term. Less than a month later, White Star’s president J. Bruce Ismay, who had himself survived the sinking, testified at the British inquiry that “I think the position was taken up that the ship was looked upon as practically unsinkable; she was looked upon as being a lifeboat in herself”. Colonel Archibald Gracie, who was on the deck of the Titanic as her fate became horribly apparent, described the male passengers as seeking to “reassure the ladies” by repeating “the much advertised fiction of ‘the unsinkable ship’”.

In his stimulating book, The Myth of the Titanic, author Richard Howells concluded that the idea was “an essentially retrospective invention”. He argued that the Olympic was all but identical to the Titanic, built in the same shipyard at the same time. The Olympic sailed on her maiden voyage less than a year before the Titanic, on the same route and even with the same captain.

At no time however was the Olympic hailed as being unsinkable; only the Titanic became known as the “unsinkable ship”, precisely because she did in fact sink. No one would dispute that the Titanic’s passengers, and for that matter her captain and crew, thought they were aboard an exceptionally safe ship. Few appreciated that she was in fact considerably less safe than such predecessors as the Great Eastern.

While that over-confidence may not have caused the collision itself – racing at breakneck speeds towards dangerous icefields was pretty much standard practice at the time – it did ultimately cost lives, because it was surely the main reason why so few passengers came forward to board the earliest lifeboats.

Only once the Titanic sank, perhaps, did people realise quite how invulnerable they had imagined themselves to be, a blind faith they then simply articulated by using that one small word – “unsinkable”.

All text © Greg Ward