Saturday, 14 April 2012

A century ago ...

White Star Line's brand new flagship, RMS Titanic, struck an iceberg south of Newfoundland at 21 knots (roughly 35 mph for landlubbers). With 44,000 tons of ship and several hundred thousand tons of iceberg meeting with all the forces in play at that speed (To give an idea - a 2lb tin of jam on the parcel shelf of your car at 35 mph will, if the car stops dead, continue to travel at that speed with a "kinetic force" of 2,200lbs behind it. A bit of a shame if your head gets in the way of its flight.) something had to give, and it wasn't going to be the iceberg.

Much is made of the fact the ship was "said" to be "unsinkable," a claim made in the news media of the day and in fact never made by the builder or the designer. Their statement was that the ship was virtually unsinkable and further qualified by adding the technical information that she could remain afloat with four of her compartments flooded. As ever, the news media lost the crucial word, and it's one researcher after researcher seems to skate past without thought in more recent times. 

It was very unfortunate that the officer on watch attempted to turn the ship. He'd have done better to throw the outer engines astern, stop the centre turbine and ram the iceberg head on. Yes, he'd have lost probably two bow compartments, but the ship might have stayed afloat a lot longer. Attempting to turn the ship away was bound to fail, a ship like that travelling at that speed would need a far greater distance to make the turn than she had available. 

A new book makes some very sweeping claims about the sinking, most of which I think will be dismissed as "crackpot" by the vast majority. Unfortunately it will be picked up and eagerly promoted by the conspiracy theorists as "truth." Let's look at some of the claims. First it claims that the designer, builder and the owners all agreed to compromise safety by cutting costs and using substandard steel. That one has already been refuted, there is no doubt at all that she and her two sisters were built using the finest steel then available. In fact RMS Olympic, her sister, survived two collisions and served under the Cunard house flag until broken up in 1934 and her steel was then recycled into new ships. It is claimed that the original design called for more compartments - again rubbish, the original proposals are freely available and in fact Titanic's design was changed and improved upon with lessons learned from building the Olympic and both Olympic and Britannic were further modified after the sinking to raise the height of the compartmentation to the Upper Deck. The author continues, dragging in the politicians and even accusing Sir Winston Churchill of complicity in what he regards as a "plot" to cut safety. His reasoning is that, as "President of the Board of Trade" (Secretary of State for Trade and Industry), Winston Churchill "blocked" the fitting of more lifeboats.

As I said, patent garbage, but it will, no doubt, feed the egos of the conspiracy theorists.

I am always more struck by the fact that, though mortally damaged, the Titanic still took a little over four hours to sink. This does rather suggest that her design was, at least in part, sound. It must be said, at that time, very few ships had watertight compartmentation, even the great Cunarders, Mauretania and Lusitania had to be brought home and extensively modified after this disaster. Nor were they the only ones. I cannot help but wonder what the outcome might have been had an immediate attempt been made to "fother" the gash along her plating. This is a process by which tarpaulins - usually used to weatherproof the hatches - are drawn down the side of the ship and over the damaged plating. By allowing the inrushing water to push the tarpaulin into the openings, the inflow can be reduced. It may well be the officers thought of doing this, but then decided it was too big a task. We don't know. 

The real tragedy is that she did have enough place in her boats for over half the people on board, but only a third of those places were filled. That led to changes in the requirements for training in abandoning ship and to the provision of lifeboats and life saving equipment, but, as we have recently seen with the Costa Concordia, even that is no guarantee of complete safety.

The Titanic caught the popular imagination and it led to numerous changes and the first Safety of Life at Sea agreements, but it wasn't the worst ever maritime disaster and nor, I suspect, will it be the last.

(RMS = Royal Mail Steamer. A ship belonging to a company contracted to carry mail for the Royal Mail from the UK to everywhere else in the world. White Star and Cunard had these contracts for the Atlantic, P&O for the Far East and Union Castle for the South African run. There were others for the Caribean, South America amd elsewhere. They usually also wore the Blue Ensign and were commanded by Royal Naval Reserve officers so they could be taken into service as Armed Merchant Cruisers or Troop Ships in time of war.)


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