The one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice. I did watch one excellent documentary the other evening. From that and reading around the subject I’ve discovered a lot I didn’t know or just not connected with Titanic. If the coverage has not already been too much for you, forget the human interest stuff for a moment; this is just about the ice conditions.
Titanic’s last reported position was 41 46 Lat. 50 14 Long., 700 nautical miles east of Halifax. Much of the enquiry after the disaster was to understand how Titanic came to strike the iceberg, doing sufficient damage to sink her.
Conditions at sea that winter were unusual with persistent north-easterly gales which drove the ice much further south – in fact hundreds of miles further south than was usual in April.
The year 1912 was one of the abnormal years, the ice coming south in great quantities and in very large bergs. 1912 Report of the Hydrographer, U.S. Navy
Captain Hains of the Parisian, which was about 150 miles ahead of Titanic in the westbound shipping lane on the night of 14th April, is quoted in a newspaper article:
“There is no question that the course used at this time of the year was never so invaded by ice in the knowledge of even the most experienced seamen it has been extraordinary the truth is that northeasterly gales began very early last winter and were almost continuous. The result has been to drive the ice hundreds of miles further south than is usual. Moreover, in the swift drive of the great current from the north, bergs shot off the turn that it takes off the Breton coast as mud might fly from a wheel, and these bergs by the score got into a course usually considered free of such dangerous impediments at this season of the year.”
Titanic was repeatedly warned of icebergs – according to Donald Sutherland, the radio operator of the Parisian sent out the warning “Running into ice — very thick — and big bergs.” He also confirmed the unusual nature of the conditions:
“I want to add,” said Sutherland, who is about thirty years of age, “that I have been traveling on this course for seven years and there has never been In my experience such a condition of the Ice as we found on this voyage. The floes have come extraordinarily early and have spread way out of the usual run of what is known as the ice belt.”
“Certainly the Titanic when struck was far south of what the chart defines as the ‘ice line.’ She was fully 75 to 100 miles south of it.”
Captain Johnston of the Ice Patrol (1913 & 1914) gave a deposition to the Limitation of Liability Hearings in 1915. He was questioned at length about where icebergs occur, their visibility at night and good practice by ships’ captains in areas where there is a risk of encountering ice.
Q. Where is it, if anywhere, that bergs coming down from the northward tend to take up a northeasterly drift?
– In ordinary conditions, approximately in latitude 43, longitude 49.
Q. Do those conditions continue south of that?
– The conditions will be the same to the southward, provided the ice gets that far south. The position I have given you, 43 north and 49 west, is under ordinary conditions, and that is where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador current meets. Most all ice is governed almost entirely by the northern contour of the Gulf Stream.
Q. And when the berg get into the Gulf Stream , its tendency is to move in what direction under ordinary conditions, quiet conditions of water, ordinary conditions of water?
– East between, longitudes 50 and 49, then rapidly curving to the north.
Q. And in ordinary conditions of weather, good weather, that is, clear weather, without much breeze if ice were in the vicinity of, say, 41 degrees 45 minutes north and 50 degrees west, what would be the direction it might be expected to take?
– About east-southeast true.
Q. Does the temperature of the water afford any indication of the vicinity of ice?
– Not necessarily. Ice is seldom seen in water above 50 degrees of temperature. It is almost always in water below 40, running from 28 to 40. So that if you strike a band of cold water, you want to look out for bergs, because while there need not necessarily be bergs in it, that is the Labrador current — speaking of the vicinity of east of the Grand Banks — that is the Labrador current, and that is the current in which the ice occurs.
The tragedy was all the greater as the collision happened in such cold water, recorded as 33F – Titanic was not that long into the tongue of the Labrador Current.
Reading about the building of the ship and the details of the tragic event, there are so many things that contributed to the loss of life. The lack of sufficient lifeboats is well known. At one time it was planned to accommodate Titanic with 64 lifeboats, however the prevailing view at the time was that “every ship should be her own lifeboat”. The watertight compartments created by closing off bulkheads when water was sensed in the ship were supposed to render lifeboats virtually unnecessary, keeping the ship afloat until rescue.
Survival time in cold water hovering around freezing is 15-45 minutes. The fate of passengers in the water was sealed.
The Titanic Disaster was one of those that brought change. Just like more recent maritime disasters such as the Herald of Free Enterprise, Titanic’s fate showed up flaws in designs standards and safety practice. It led to an international convention on the Safety of Life at Sea and to the setting up of the International Ice Patrol (right, click for link).
The Ice Patrol iceberg chart for 15th April 2012 carries the words:
“Today we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic”
- Titanic threat: Why do ships still hit icebergs?
- The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic
- Official Website of the Titanic
- Titanic Belfast – a new ‘iconic’ building and tourist attraction
- Titanic 100 Cobh, Ireland (last port of call)
I was previously unaware of the similarity of the actual Titantic disaster and that of the fictional Titan written fourteen years earlier. Coincidence apparently but uncanny.