Titanic’s Perfect Storm

On the night of April 14 1912, Frederick Fleet, on the crow’s nest of  RMS Titanic of the White Star Line, strained to keep a sharp lookout for the possibility of ice ahead. There was a flat calm, no wind, no swells, a perfectly clear, moonless night; any of these conditions would have been unusual in the North Atlantic, but to have them all together was extremely rare. The air was very cold, with temperatures near 27 degrees. Because of a mix up at Southampton, the binoculars he would normally have been issued were nowhere to be found; since there was no moon that night, the only source of illumination was starlight; ahead, Fleet could see a faint haze on the horizon, under a blanket of stars.

Titanic continued to steam ahead at 22 knots. She had received warnings of ice packs forming ahead and of drifting ice in the area of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland but as it was the custom of the day, she did not reduce speed; after all, the ocean liners were the equivalent of the 747s and 777s of the times; the passengers they carried expected to be at their destination as scheduled and the mail they delivered was not to be delayed. Close calls were common and even collisions with icebergs were not unknown. In 1907, the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, a German liner, had rammed an iceberg but had been able to complete her voyage. It was generally believed that ice did not pose great danger to large vessels.

In the crow’s nest, Frederick Fleet continued his sharp lookout. The haze on the far horizon remained unchanged; at the same time, the SS Californian, of the Leyland Line, encountered a large ice field and at 22:20, her captain, Stanley Lord,  decided it would be prudent to stop and wait until morning to proceed. As the vessel came to a stop, he saw a ship’s lights approaching.

The temperature continued to drop as Fleet scanned the sea ahead of the ship. Ice was beginning to form, but it represented little danger to Titanic, the largest ship of his class afloat; then, at 23:40, he suddenly saw a gigantic white mass coming out of the haze. Immediately he rang the ship’s bell three times and picked up the telephone to the bridge and shouted “Ice dead ahead!” . In the bridge, first officer William McMaster Murdoch immediately shouted “Hard a-starboard!” (steer left) followed by “Full speed astern!” (reverse engines); 37 seconds after Fleet’s warning, Titanic swung 2 points (22 1/2 degrees) to port (left) and for an instant, it seemed she would miss the iceberg altogether, but at the last moment, her starboard side scraped the iceberg under the water line and buckled 5 of her 16 watertight compartments. By 2:20 on the morning of April 15 she broke apart and foundered; two hours later, the Cunard liner RMS Carpathia arrived at the scene and rescued 705 survivors out of the 2224 passengers and crew. Titanic entered the world of legend and ignited a controversy that continues today, 102 years after the tragedy.

Carpathia, after a difficult sailing around icebergs, arrived in NY on the evening of April 18, 1912 at 21:30. The news of the sinking ofTitanic preceded her arrival; she first sailed to Pier 59, reserved for the White Star Line to unload Titanic’s empty life boats and then proceeded to Pier 54, Cunard Line’s own; an estimated 2,000 people already crowded the pier, with an additional 30,000 in the immediate vicinity plus another 10,000 lined at the Battery; Carpathia’s passengers disembarked first, followed by Titanic’s survivors; only then did the magnitude of the disaster become apparent and the crowd let out loud moans and cries. The mood changed rapidly from one of shock and disbelief to one of anger as the details of the disaster filtered out and became public. Newspaper reporters hounded the survivors in search of sensational stories and they found them in the lack of enough lifeboats for all passengers and the fact that J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line was among the survivors. It was played for all it was worth. Ismay was branded a coward and Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith  was labeled a hero because he had gone down with the ship.

The inquiry held by  a subcommittee of the US Senate Commerce Committee was very critical of Titanic’s emergency preparations and evacuation procedures, the lack of enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers, the fact that the safety equipment had never been tested and that the lookouts were not equipped with binoculars. Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, came in for his share of criticism for having shown “indifference to danger that was one of the contributing causes of the tragedy”

There were many contributing causes of the tragedy and some of them are not as obvious as others 

Titanic was trying to set an Atlantic crossing speed record. The fact was that she was doing nothing of the sort. The White Star Line had already conceded the speed crown to its rival Cunard and concentrated instead on size and comfort. Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, were dubbed floating palaces, and indeed they were; additionally, the huge engines needed to power these behemoths to anything near record speeds would have created uncomfortable and unwanted vibrations, which indeed plagued Cunard’s record holder Mauretania. Titanic’s average cruising speed was 21 knots. In the early 1900s, ocean liners criss-crossed the North Atlantic at record or near record speeds. Close calls, either from ice or from other ships were considered to be part and parcel of the Atlantic trade and no one thought of those as valid reasons to reduce speed.

Titanic did not carry enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers. The British Board of Trade regulations of the time required vessels of over 10,000 tons to carry 16 lifeboats for 990 occupants. No one had envisioned ships such as Titanic, 5 times the tonnage of the Board’s requirements. Titanic carried 20 lifeboats (14 standard Harland and Wolff lifeboats with a capacity of 65 people each, 4 collapsible boats (with wooden bottoms and canvas sides with a capacity of 47 people each) and 2 emergency cutters with a capacity of 40 people each. Thus, she carried more lifeboats than required. Still, only enough for 1,200 passengers. In 1912, the belief was that, given the traffic density in the North Atlantic (comparable to today’s air traffic over the same region) chances were that, in the unlikely case of a ship needing assistance, there would be another vessel always in the vicinity and thus, lifeboats would only be used to ferry passengers from one ship to another. That lifeboats would be used by survivors of a foundered ship to stay afloat for hours or perhaps days, was never envisioned.

Titanic was unsinkable The White Star Line never referred to Titanic as “unsinkable”. Because she had a double bottom and 16 watertight bulkheads which could be operated individually or simultaneously by an electric switch from the bridge, the trade magazine “Shipbuilder”, in a special issue dedicated to the Olympic class ships, referred to them as “practically unsinkable”

There were serious design flaws Though Titanic was hailed as the greatest ship at the time, she was not as innovative as Cunard’s ships were. Harland and Wolff, the builders, used the tried and true technology available . The hull and the rivets failed because they became brittle in the cold water and fractured. Titanic steel showed a high content of both oxygen and sulphur, higher than what was common at the times. Vicky Basset, in a paper called Causes and Effects of the Rapid Sinking of the Titanic”, shows that the transition temperature from ductile to brittle of the Titanic steel was 25 to 35 degrees F. The water temperature that night was 28 degrees F, the freezing temperature of salt water; the rivets of wrought iron also failed because of brittle fracture caused by the high impact of the collision.

The 16 watertight bulkheads that earned the “practically unsinkable” endorsement from Shipbuilder magazine were only watertight horizontally; the walls rose a few feet above the waterline and did not reach the top. The collision had damaged 5 of the 16 compartments and as the bow started to go down, the water from one would spill over to the next, much as water in an ice cube tray does. If there had been no compartments, the flood water would have spread out and kept the ship horizontal, delaying the sinking for probably six hours, enough time for other ships to arrive and rescue the passengers. Olympic’s compartments were refitted after the Titanic disaster.

And now, the closing act of the tragedy The questions first raised during the Senate inquiry that are still raised today: why did the lookouts failed to spot the iceberg sooner than 37 seconds before the collision? The night was clear and bright, even without the moon. The iceberg should have been visible on the horizon against the backdrop of stars. And why did the Californian, which the inquiry established  was a mere six miles north of Titanic failed to render assistance? Had she done so, most, if not all, of Titanic’s passengers could have been saved. Were the two related? According to Titanic expert, historian and author Tim Maltin, they were.

The night of April 14 was beautiful, clear and very, very cold; as the cold water from the Labrador current merged with the warmer current of the Gulf Stream, warm air hovered over the cold  Labrador water creating a temperature inversion, ideal conditions for a cold water mirage. In the desert, because the surface is very hot, light bends upwards and reflects the sky on the ground, which looks like water. But when the surface of the earth is very cold, the opposite happens. Light bends downwards around the curvature of the earth, which raises a false horizon, called a “superior image”; at night, it would look like haze, shielding whatever is behind it. That is precisely what the lookouts on the Titanic saw. The same conditions affected the crew of the Californian; they testified later that they were not sure of what they were seeing.

During cold water mirages, the appearance of objects becomes severely distorted. To the end of his days, Captain Lord maintained that the ship whose lights were visible that night was too small to have been the Titanic and that there was a third ship present in the vicinity. This gave rise to the theory that the phantom ship was a Norwegian vessel illegally hunting seals and that was the reason it skedaddled out of the area. According to Tim Maltin, what he saw was an image so distorted by refraction that he could not have an accurate perception of either size or distance and what appeared as near was in  reality, much further away.

Titanic tried to raise the Californian via wireless but her lone telegraph operator was asleep. The two ships exchanged Morse code using lanterns, but again, neither ship’s crew was sure of what they were seeing. Titanic then fired rockets. In 1912, it was agreed that distress rockets were to be fired at one minute intervals, but Titanic fired hers at haphazard intervals; again, the refraction in the air may have made the rockets appear low in the horizon and thus more distant.

At 4:20 am on April 15 Carpathia appeared on the horizon. Titanic had sunk two hours before, taking over a thousand souls down with her. Captain Rostron described the place as an ice field that included some 20 icebergs, some measuring close to 200 feet high, numerous smaller ones and ice floes as well. At first light, Californian turned her wireless on and learned of the sinking ofTitanic; immediately she offered assistance. She was told that all that could be done had already been done. For the rest of his life, Lord maintained that the ship whose lights he had seen that night could not have been Titanic. He died in 1962, aged 84, unable to clear his name.

Many factors contributed to Titanic’s tragedy. Could it have been avoided had any one of them been different? It is tempting to think so. Construction of Titanic was delayed because Bruce Ismay insisted on design changes to enhance the luxury of the ship; otherwise she would have been finished some three weeks earlier. At the start of her only voyage, at Southampton, as she sailed past the berthed Olympic and New York, her wake caused the smaller New York to break off her moorings and come perilously close to Titanic. Captain Smith ordered hard astern and avoided a collision by about four feet. By the time New York was secured, Titanic was an hour behind her scheduled departure time. Would that hour have made the difference between life and death for 1500 people? Only God knows the answer.



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