HMS Titanic — 4

In the last few days I have been trying to understand what caused the Titanic to sink. To belabor the obvious I must admit that I consider the sinking of the Titanic to be a metaphor. There are important lessons that I would like to draw from it.

The Titanic had sealed its own fate by the cavalier disregard to those ice warnings by their Marconi operators. Particularly the last two, from the Maseba at 7.30pm and the Californian after 11pm. Had they paid attention to them they would have seen they were heading straight into an icefield.

Ignoring the warnings was just one of the many things that went wrong. The design itself was flawed. It was a systemic failure.

Even though only 12 feet of the hull was gouged open by the collision, enough compartments were damaged to cause the Titanic to sink. The problem was traced back to the bulkheads; they were not fully extended to the top of the compartments. As the ship went down, the water would fill up and pour over the bulkhead into the next compartment.


Then there were idiosyncratic factors. For instance, the ocean was dead calm on a moonless night. If the seas had been rough, the iceberg would have been sighted sooner due to the surf at the base of the tip of the iceberg. That was a factor beyond the control of the crew of the ship.

However, the iceberg could have been detected sooner had the two crew men assigned to lookout had binoculars. For some reason, they didn’t have binoculars. A simple precaution which would have averted the disaster. But for a pair of binoculars, the disaster may not have occurred.

The iceberg was detected too late for certain. Then there was bad luck, as well. If the ship had turned a bit more, that grazing encounter would not have happened. Perhaps if the ship had hit head on, the front would have been damaged but the ship would have survived. Attempting to miss the berg altogether presented the ship’s vulnerable side to the iceberg.

And now the final insult. The ship was doomed. But nearly all on board could have been saved had two things happened. First, if the inevitability of the demise of the ship had been fully appreciated by the captain and the crew. And most importantly, if the ship had sufficient life boats on board. The first factor was within the control of the crew; the second factor was outside their control but was within the control of those in charge of outfitting the ship before it sailed.

As it happened, there was no awareness of the seriousness of the situation.

Many of the passengers did not believe that the ship was sinking, and refused to board the lifeboats. As a result many of the boats left half full, and some of the starboard boats were filled with men. To add to the confusion and disorganization, many of the passengers were getting cold from the chilly air, and went inside to relax. They did not recognize the actual severity of the accident until the first emergency flare was released. At that time many passengers began to panic, but it was too late half the boats were released and the other half was swarmed by first–class women and children. Water began to flood the lower decks of the bow and the stern began to rise out of the water.

Some more details:

The passengers on the Titanic initially did nothing. The Titanic was believed “unsinkable” and so talk of an iceberg and lifeboats did not enter the equation. Some passengers carried on with playing cards, others sang songs especially in third class as they particularly were kept uninformed.

Whilst the first and second class passengers were required to assemble on the boat deck, the third class were confined in their sector of the boat and not given instructions for some time. They were be allowed access to the boat deck at 12.30 a.m. Orders were given to release the third class and bring them to the boats. However, most of the third class passengers were not familiar with the giant liner. Her passages, corridors and decks must have been a maze to them. Some would have inevitable got lost and spent their last few hours walking aimlessly around the ship.

There were insufficient number of lifeboats to begin with. Only about half of the 2200 people could be accommodated in the 20 lifeboats on board. Even those were not fully utilized because of what I call information failure.

There are lots of what ifs one can ask. What if they had designed the ship to better survive flooding of its water-tight compartments, what if they had sufficient life boats on board, what if they had heeded the warnings, what if they had realized the severity of the damage, what if the Californian had recognized that the Titanic was in mortal danger and sailed the six miles to its aid, what if the seas had been rougher, what if the crew had binoculars, what if the ship had hit the iceberg head on at slow speed or had turned just a degree more, …

If only, lord, if only. Fifteen hundred blameless people would not have drowned that night of Dec 14th 1912 in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

A mighty ship like the Titanic is not easy to destroy. There have to be a confluence of a large number of factors — both natural and human created — that lead inexorably to the end. What the tragedy of the Titanic is a metaphor for let’s discuss in a bit.