April 15th this year is the 111th anniversary of the sinking in the early dark hours of the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage to New York. She had been built in Belfast by Harland & Wolff and was the second of three Olympic class ocean liners operated by the White Star Line. They were designed to be the pinnacle of comfort and luxury and were never intended to compete for the Blue Ribbon of the Atlantic award for the fastest Atlantic crossing. The Titanic was the first modern ship to hit an iceberg and sustain sufficient damage to cause it to sink.
At the time this was the worst civilian marine disaster in history with the loss of 1,500 lives. The ship had sailed under capacity due to a recent coal strike which delayed some shipping because of fuel shortages. This caused many people to be put off sailing at that time, otherwise the death toll would have been much higher.
Despite this passage of time there remains constant interest into the cause of the sinking and what happened thereafter. This worldwide interest was stimulated when, in 1985 and after many years of searching by several organisations, the wreck site was discovered 12,000 feet deep 400 miles west of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Today over 5,000 items have been recovered from the wreck with many legal cases taking place to establish the right to sell. Most are on permanent display at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ian Porter, the speaker at the latest meeting of the Probus Club of Basingstoke, is a journalist, author and historian, and has particular interest in what happened after the supposedly unsinkable ship went down only 2 hours and 40 minutes after that fateful collision with an iceberg.
What happened in the 16 standard lifeboats, the two smaller versions and the two that had folded canvas sides that were positioned upside down on the top of the officers’ quarters and proved difficult to launch? Following the tradition of “women and children first” mainly from first and second class, they were lowered from davits positioned on both sides of the ship. The officer on one side refused to let men get in any lifeboat even when there was space available. He used his revolver to maintain order. It is estimated that the capacity in the lifeboats averaged only around 60%.
Although only twenty lifeboats were available this was sufficient to only hold around one third of the total of people on board, but this number of lifeboats was greater than what was required under the then maritime regulations. They specified that 10 lifeboats were required on any vessel over 10,000 tons and yet the Titanic was the largest passenger liner in the world at 45,000 tons. The thinking was that lifeboats would be used to ferry passengers to awaiting rescue ships. They were like enlarged rowing boats, open to the elements and had none, or insufficient, provisions to sustain life and protection for periods at sea.
The captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith, had been recorded as saying a few years earlier that ships were unlikely to sink because of modern ship building methods. The design of the Titanic contributed to its reputation that it was unsinkable. It had advanced safety features with some watertight compartments and in other places had remotely operated safety doors that in the event allowed water to go over the top and flood the next section. It also had the latest in communication systems with a high-powered radio telegraph using Morse code with a range of 350 miles. This was manned by two employees of the Marconi Company to send “Marconigrams” for passengers as well as typical shipping information.
Would the vessels on the North Atlantic at the time of this disaster have rescued more if they had responded differently? One stopped in an ice field to await day light, one ship’s radio operator ignored the distress call from the Titanic because he had a backlog of passengers’ messages to send, another ship’s radio operator had gone off duty and another ship ignored white distress flares. The Marconi employees were even discouraged to communicate with those ships using the rival Telefunken system. And there were confusing distress signals with Titanic using CQD (seek you – D for distress) and then tried SOS which had yet to become the standard Morse code distress signal of three dots, three dashes and three dots.
The Cunard ship, Carpathia, picked up the survivors, keeping them within their three classes, provided many with spare clothes. A fund was set up on board raising $1,500 to provide funds for survivors’ onward travel from when they arrived in New York. It is reported that survivor, Lady Astor, perhaps the richest lady in the world, refused to contribute.
The White Star Line stopped the pay of any crew that had perished from the time the ship went down and charged surviving crew full fare to be brought back to England. A fund was set up in England that raised £15,000,000 with an elite committee of the great and good of the day set up to distribute compensation to the families of lost passengers. In strict observance of social standing the wealthiest received up to £175,000 down to only £25 to the poorest. Pensions were set up, again subject to the recipient’s social standing with seven levels ranging from 12/6p – 7/6p per week. This fund was only wound up in 1959 with much of the money unallocated.
Two inquiries followed the disaster with one in New York and a longer one in London held by the Board of Trade. Both inquiries concluded that the specification of the Titanic was well above established standards and that best naval practice had been followed that fateful night. But major changes to the maritime regulations emerged to implement new safety measures.
The changes included more lifeboats, lifeboat drills for crew and passengers, wireless operations to be manned 24 hours, red rockets to signal emergencies. There was much discussion about the type of rivet to be used in ship construction. Bulk heads had to be extended to be 10 feet above the water line – later further extended to make fully watertight and ships were modified to have a double skinned hull.
Today passengers are reassured that one change to maritime regulations they instantly appreciate is the sophisticated design and number of lifeboats on modern cruise ships. Passengers are supplied with life vests and know where their muster station is situated. Crews have regular practice in emergency drills whereas on the Titanic there had been no such training as most of the crew joined the ship in Southampton only a few hours before departure.
You must be logged in to post a comment.