Titanic 100

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

Ship collisions with icebergs in the N Atlantic (Image: Brian T. Hill; source: Database of Ships Collisions with Icebergs http://researchers.imd.nrc.ca/~hillb/icedb/ice/bergs2_01e.html)

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.

Current sea surface temperature 2012 - Gulf Stream (Source: Naval Research Laboratory Global Ocean Analysis and Modeling http://www7320.nrlssc.navy.mil/global_nlom/gfs.html)

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”

Other Links:

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.

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9 Responses to Titanic 100

  1. A close friend and I have been studying the loss of the Titanic for a couple of years now, trying to tease out the truth from thin theories, speculation and conspiracy theories. It seems almost weekly there’s a new take on what many call “an unfortunate accident”. Unfortunate it certainly was, but sailing at near full speed through very cold waters strewn with ‘bergs, with all nearby ships stopped dead in the water for fear of collision, ignoring their broadcast warnings, and with the visible range of the lookouts far less than the stopping or even turning distance of the biggest ship in the word cannot be termed an “accident”. It was wilful negligence, or just ignorant stupidity. A full “Darwin Award” with 1513 bars on the ribbon goes to Captain Edward John Smith.

    Some analyses of the recent Costa Concordia “accident” focus on what can be done to make ships safer for passengers. They should be focussing on what can be done to make ship’s masters obey commonsense and indeed mandatory rules. In both cases, the master’s actions led directly to the collision. Making a ship “safer”, providing more and/or better collision detection, etc. are fine aims. In the case of the Concordia it seems that the captain wasn’t using the automatic navigation system, but was conning the ship manually, and even (some say) ignoring the collision alarms from the electronics. How can captains be made safer?

    Ooops – nearly hit the “post” button with that first sentence reading “A close fiend and I…”. He’d have almost certainly said “We are not amused” if he’d read that uncorrected.

  2. j ferguson says:

    This is a link to a site describing an excellent made-for-television film describing the actions taken by the engineering crew during the sinking to keep lights on that passengers might find their way to the lifeboats. The engine room scenes are very realistic and were filmed at the Kempton Steam Museum near London. The dialogue is realistic. The technical details seemed accurate and the film well worth watching.

    I was wondering while I watched it where they could have found a triple-expansion engine of that size thinking it unlikely that any ship so equipped could still exist. That it could be a stationary engine never occurred to me. And it’s a beauty. I must see it on a forthcoming trip to civilisation.


  3. j ferguson says:

    Wow! the above certainly demonstrates that initial efforts can be much improved by editing.

    • Verity Jones says:

      I was thinking of mentioning the Costa Concordia in the above as I’ve read a bit about it, but decided it was wondering off too much to mention it and actually you have made the point very well that, although regulations are being questioned, again the Captain may have been the risk.

      “Saving the Titanic” (and “A Night to Remember”) have been various TV channels in the last few days, and today too. The documentary/drama I watched focused on the building of the ship and quite a lot of engineering details.


      Talking to my father tonight we think my grandfather may have seen Titanic being built. Although his family was Scots they came to live in Belfast when he was quite young. My greatgrandfather worked in the docks so it is quite likely he was taken to see it.

      Wow! the above certainly demonstrates that initial efforts can be much improved by editing.

      I’m not sure if what you are referring to here. If you mean the blog post itself – I agree. Re-reading it now it reads like (and is) just a collection of things that interested me, almost thrown together. I didn’t want to spend much time on it.

      • j ferguson says:

        It was my comment. I reread it and realized it was wordy. It’s amazing how easy it is to see after it’s beyond reach.

      • j ferguson:

        Winston Churchill once added a footnote to a letter he’d written – “I apologise for writing a long note, I didn’t have the time to write a short one”. Love him or hate him, he was a master of the English language.

  4. Simon says:

    Yes it was a tragedy and a previous poster mentioned how much neglect the captain took, trawling through them seas at high speed when there was so much ice around. I actually watched a program about it the other night, mainly about the ice bergs from where they start and where they end up, and i was amazed at how the iceberg turns over all the time, I actually did not realise this. You learn something every day

  5. The inquiry transcripts are fascinating to read., and well worth the effort. The captain of the Californian (the nearest ship) was vilified in the press for not going to Titanic’s aid, unjustifiably in my opinion. He did nothing wrong, and his officers were not to blame for misinterpreting Titanic’s distress rockets. They were not fired in the regulation sequence or timing, and were mistaken for fireworks. Californian’s radio room was shut down, and the operators off watch, not surprisingly, especially as Titanic’s operators were hogging one of the only two frequencies available at that time, sending telegrams. My praise goes to the captain of the Carpathia, who answered Titanic’s distress calls. He sailed as fast as he dared, while his crew collected spare clothing, blankets, medicines, and prepared hot food. He knew exactly what he had to do in that emergency, and did it all, and more. There should be a statue or memorial in his memory. What a guy.

  6. Pascvaks says:

    I guess I’m numb to most of the Titanic stuff. A couple things of note to me:

    The Trib had a circulation of ~24,000 (?), was 16 pages, and cost a penny in-town and 2cents out-of-town. Curious (but not enough to search) how many papers there were in NYC then, how many full page ads were inside that thin, little paper (though I imagine the paper was thicker then than now and wasn’t as ‘thin’ as it would be today;-), what you could buy for a penny then vs now (bet it has something to do with ‘inflation’ –whatever that is;-).

    Amazing isn’t it? With a circulation of just 24,000 a paper could make money for just a penny a copy –and that included all the paperboys (I used to be one way back when, took a bundle off the truck, hawked them in front of the post office in La Mesa, California, after school; they cost 10cents then, and I made a penny off each sale;-). Guess that means a dollar back in 1912 went 10 times farther than it did in 1958, and 75 times farther than it does today? My how we’ve changed, hey?

    The other thing that caught my eye was at the bottom of column 5: ‘Colony of 110 Thought Lost’. Not sure why, maybe because it wasn’t in the last movie, that punch in the gut was new. Maybe because it was in a newspaper, at the bottom of the front page, it meant more than it would have in the middle of a history book on page 263.

    The old saying about living life one day at a time, as if it were your last, is still pretty good advice ain’t it?

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