Sinking a Myth

by Jim Davies

There is an intriguing conspiracy theory that holds that the ship that sank was not the Titanic at all, but her almost identical sister ship the Olympic, and that the sinking was deliberate by the White Star Line as an act of insurance fraud.

See this separate page for a brief consideration of that theory.

Before 2012 disappears for ever below the Western horizon, it might be good to reflect on the centenary of a tragedy whose effect on the destructive growth of government was out of all proportion to its size, thanks to skilled repetition and enhancement of the story by propagandists in school and media. One century ago, the world's latest and finest liner sank on her maiden voyage, killing two thirds of those on board – about 1,500. No matter that a couple of years later governments began a totally needless war that killed as many as that every three and a half hours for more than four years; the myth that governments help save human lives has been greatly advanced by blaming:

  • The builders, for equipping the Titanic with far too few lifeboats
  • Weak laws, for allowing them to do so, and on
  • Captain Smith, for racing irresponsibly through an iceberg field

- all of which are said to have been caused by the greedy pursuit of profits. Each rising generation since 1912 has therefore been taught that profits are evil and that ever stronger laws are good. The reality for both is the exact opposite.

Some of the radio warnings about icebergs did reach the ship's bridge, and probably the Captain, though it was not his watch; he was asleep when the berg was hit. The reason they were ill-heeded may well be that the White Star Line wished to cross the Atlantic on this maiden voyage in record time, to enhance the ship's reputation, and as this was to be Smith's last voyage he would naturally endorse that as an achievement to crown his career. All that was plain bad seamanship, and it cost the lives of him and 1,500 others.

The lifeboat question is less simple. The UK regulations in 1912 required 15 boats for this size of ship, and Titanic had 20. The design therefore provided 33% more than the law required. That does not, however, mean that the law was ill-formed, nor even that the law had any business existing.

Titanic's designers were obviously concerned to maximize safety; if the ship gained a reputation for being unsafe, the company's profits would suffer. If she sank, so might the company. To imply that they sacrificed safety for money is absurd. Rather, they made a design that took a broad view of safety at sea, noting for example that

Such thinking meant that lifeboats were of minor importance; yet even so, many more were provided than legally required. The key provision was to partition the hull into sixteen watertight compartments (to above the waterline) so that any four could flood without flooding the others and sinking the ship. It meant also that in true truth, Titanic was the safest ship afloat. That claim was perfectly fair.

By grazing the iceberg rather than hitting it head-on, unhappily five compartments were holed, by six small slits extending their whole length - and so the ship sank. No ship afloat could survive that. Where, then, should blame be placed?

As above, on the failure to heed warnings about the ice field – the more so because of fog patches. Not all radio warnings, however, were relayed to the helmsman; the radio operators were handling a high volume of passenger cable traffic. Bad seamanship!

After the collision, and after the officers realized the ship was doomed, the captain still delayed announcing “abandon ship.” Accordingly, passengers mustered at a leisurely pace, arriving on the boat deck after some lifeboats had departed part empty. This particularly impacted Third Class passengers, who had further to go to reach the boat decks and whose way was temporarily barred by gates, installed to comply with US immigration laws. Again, poor seamanship – and meddlesome laws.

The nearby liner California ignored distress flares which its captain clearly saw. Had he diverted to help, Titanic's design objectives would have fulfilled their purpose; very many more would have been saved, for most deaths came from exposure to cold, not by drowning. Few were left alive in the water when the Carpathia arrived later.

Though the 20 lifeboats could readily hold 1,200, they loaded with only 700 and by orders of their crews, would not return to pick up floating survivors even after the ship sank. The excuse was that desperate survivors might swamp the boats. We might call it poor seamanship - and callous conduct.

One reason boats were launched part empty was that officers operated a “women and children first” policy too literally. Men were denied places even when no women or children were waiting to climb aboard. More poor seamanship, together with a strange, if traditional, prejudice in favor of ladies.

Additional blame may be due on the ship's bridge and crow's nest. The lookouts reported sight of the iceberg promptly, but their binoculars had been mislaid! - so valuable seconds were lost before they could see the danger. Then there is some question about how well helmsman Hitchins responded to their warning. He turned the ship to port and ordered full-astern on the engines. Two problems: first, initially he may have first turned the wheel to starboard, because prior to the early 20th Century ships' wheels were built to simulate a tiller (and to steer to port, one instinctively moves a tiller to starboard.) In the confusion of the moment, he may have begun to move it the wrong way.

Then secondly, the reversal of the propellers interfered with the functioning of the rudder. Had the engines merely been set to idle, the turn would have been sharper and the iceberg, very possibly avoided. This was well enough known. More poor seamanship.

Lastly let's return to a hypothetical question: suppose more lifeboats had been provided, even though the designers and the law saw no necessity. Would more have been saved? The answer is “maybe.” With more boats, more crew would have been allocated to load them, but under the same set of orders – namely, to launch them as soon as there were no more women and children waiting to board. And once they were away from the ship, they would have stayed there. The problem was not a lack of boats, but a lack of passengers to board them – and later, a lack of compassion to collect floating survivors. Instead of leaving five-twelfths empty, more boats might well have left two-thirds empty.

In any case, even to pose the question is to exhibit wisdom after the event. All design is compromise, and Titanic's design provided, as above, the best overall safety possible. The designers did not cause the disaster. The crew did.

In Summary: the laws about lifeboats were entirely irrelevant, and the design of the ship was far more than adequately safe. The Titanic sank because its officers and crew were bad or complacent sailors who panicked under stress, and the heavy death toll was compounded by poor seamanship on the one vessel that might have saved hundreds: the California. Why such unprofessional conduct prevailed, from a nation of excellent seamen for over three hundred years, is an open question.