I recently read Walter Lord's classic book about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night To Remember, having won a copy as the runner-up prize in a Titanic-related trivia quiz a few weeks back on the centenary of the disaster. Lord provides a vivid experience of the sinking through the eye-witness accounts of survivors, but is light on detail and analysis. At the end, I found that there were still many long unanswered questions nagging at me, and some new ones arising for the first time.
What happened to the iceberg?
Well, in fact Lord does touch on this, but in doing so raises a much larger question. It rapidly disappeared into the night, because the ship was evidently still going nearly full speed at the moment of collision and the berg passed along its entire length in barely 30 seconds. A steward on a German liner took a photograph of what is almost certainly the berg responsible the next day (he hadn't yet heard of the sinking, but noticed a long gash of paint along the base of the iceberg). I had always pictured the ship as rapidly coming to a dead stop in the water, and hence the iceberg being comparatively nearby, certainly less than a mile away, perhaps within a few hundred yards; I was curious as to why none of the graphic depictions of the event (hundreds of paintings over the years, as well as several film and TV accounts) ever showed the iceberg still within sight as the lifeboats pulled away from the stricken ship. The reason appears to be that the ship DID NOT STOP. Lord records that the officer on the bridge, First Officer Murdoch, ordered the engines stopped immediately after the collision - perhaps before the iceberg had even cleared the stern of the ship. Moments later, Captain Smith joined him on the bridge, and the two of them immediately went outside to look for the berg and found it still just within sight, a hundred yards or so astern but receding quickly into the night. I had thought that the point of stopping the engines was to stop the ship; and the point of stopping the ship, presumably, was to provide a stable position for her rescuers to aim for, and also possibly to slow the ingress of water. (I imagine forward motion must increase the pressure of water being forced through the ruptures in the hull, but I'm not sure how significant this effect is. Mr Halpern [see below] of course has done an analysis on this, and concludes the increase in flooding rate caused by forward motion of the ship would not be significant. Quite apart from the question of when, or whether, Murdoch or Smith implemented a 'crash stop', there are some survivor accounts which suggest that the engines were later restarted for some manouevring.) But according to Lord's account, it would seem that the Titanic hardly lost any speed at all, and was probably still making perhaps 15 knots, if not 20 or so knots, through the water when Murdoch stopped the engines. Without reversing the engines to brake the ship, how long would it take her to come to a dead stop? 15 minutes? 30 minutes? It appears that the ship might have drifted several miles beyond the iceberg (and beyond the position Captain Smith had ordered his wireless operator to broadcast to rescue ships?).
How long would it take the ship to stop?
In her brief sea trials - one busy day, immediately before sailing - Titanic had carried out one 'crash stop', and supposedly managed to come to a halt in just under half a mile (probably a rather flattering figure, given that she was not fully ladened at this time). That would take about 2.5 minutes, assuming a uniform rate of deceleration; in fact, deceleration probably becomes much more efficient as the ship slows, so it may be a little less than that. However, Lord gives us - without explanation - the oddly precise figure of 37 seconds between the sighting of the iceberg and the collision. Even if the ship's engines were at full reverse for the whole of that time, it could not have lost much more than a quarter of its speed, probably considerably less. And there must have been a pause of a few seconds at least for First Officer Murdoch to issue the order to attempt a 'crash stop'. I would think there must also be a significant time lag before the propellers can be reversed. (Was there some braking mechanism on the prop shafts? Surely they would have to stop rotating in the forward drive direction before they could be reconnected to the power-train to drive them the other way. That might take quite a while.)
Was a 'crash stop' the best option?
Surely putting the propellers into full reverse must severely limit the ship's manouevrability? It has always seemed to me that Murdoch's unenviable choice would have been to try to stop the ship OR to take evasive action; but it seems he attempted BOTH. I have never seen any discussion of the practicalities of this. Moreover, as recorded by Lord, Murdoch reported to Smith that he had turned hard-a-starboard... and yet the ship turned - eventually, at the very last moment - to port and the iceberg grazed her starboard side. Is the operation of the rudder reversed when the propellers are reversed? It seems unlikely to me that there could be any significant localised flow of water around the propellers in the opposite direction to that of the ship, or that this could be of much effect on the steering when the ship is still moving forward through the water at 22 knots. Lord's failure to address such technical points of seamanship and the ship's operating capabilities is my major gripe about the book. [From what I've read on the Net over the subsequent couple of days, it appears that 'hard-a-starboard' is interpreted as an order to turn to port. Well, according to this explanation, this was an outmoded hangover from the earliest days of sailing, the idea being that you're telling your helmsman which way to turn the tiller (which of course turns the rudder, and the ship, in the opposite direction). This potentially confusing usage had long since been abandoned almost everywhere else in the world, but it somehow clung on in the British Merchant Navy until 1932. I'm not a nautical man, but it's odd that I don't recall ever coming across this before in any of dozens of books and films about the sea. There's a chap called Samuel Halpern who has produced a number of detailed studies of technical aspects of the Titanic disaster for his Titanicology website, some of them on PowerPoint: the one on the ship's manoeuvring is especially interesting. Halpern reckons that Murdoch must have turned the ship to starboard as it passed the berg, to swing the stern clear of it. He feels that if the ship had turned to port only, to try to avoid the iceberg, the sideways drift of the ship would have resulted in heavier contact with the iceberg, damaging the hull along almost its entire length. He thinks it possible that Murdoch only turned to starboard, to steer around the berg as it was passing, and likeliest that he turned first to port and then to starboard. This further article of his on Murdoch's bridge orders concludes that the First Officer did the best he could to minimize the impact of a collision that would have been almost unavoidable, unless he had reacted within seconds of hearing the lookouts' warning gong (probably impossible, given that he had to first see for himself what the obstacle was, and what its position was relative to the ship); Halpern says here that a head-on collision might have been survivable, but incomplete evasive action - if Murdoch had turned earlier, but not quite early enough - would have resulted in far worse damage. Halpern also seems to think that the engines were not reversed before the collision, but - contrary to the account Walter Lord gives - were reversed for two minutes or so afterwards before being stopped, which might be just about long enough to bring the ship to a dead stop. However, I suspect this belief arises from an opinion of what ought to have happened. The survivor testimonies he cites in support of this view are not very convincing.]
Did the watertight bulkheads fail?
Lord tells us that at least one of the bulkheads in the forward section of the boat did collapse, leading to the sudden flooding of Boiler Room No. 5. Was there a design flaw, the bulkhead not actually capable of withstanding the weight of water in a fully flooded compartment? Or was there some unforeseen effect, unexpected pressure on the bulkhead from the high speed of the water entering through narrow breaches in the hull? Was the bulkhead perhaps weakened by the collision? I can imagine there might have been a domino effect - if one bulkhead suddenly failed, the weight of water rushing backwards might easily smash down several others in sequence. But why did the first one fail?
What's the story with the 'cook'?
One of the most famous survivor stories is that of Charles Joughin, the ship's Master Baker, who, according to legend, got blind drunk in the ship's last moments. Lord focuses mainly on Joughin's own account of events, in which he just had a couple of drinks to settle his nerves; but he does throw in one passing reference - apparently a reference to Joughin - that a passenger saw one crew member downing a whole bottle of gin. So, Lord is vague on how much alcohol Joughin had consumed. The larger question, though, is how the heck did Joughin survive? He remained on the ship until the very end, spent nearly two hours bobbing in the icy water, and when he did finally reach a boat, it was Collapsible Lifeboat B, which had not been properly launched, was upside-down and barely afloat, and thus not offering much comfort from the sea at all. It was a further three or four hours before he was safely aboard the S.S. Carpathia, and for much of that time he'd been in the water alongside Collapsible B. Alcohol is commonly supposed to accelerate rather than ward off hypothermia. And even if there were some unexplained beneficial effect from the whisky and/or gin that he'd drunk, it would surely have worn off within a couple of hours. I can't believe he could have survived if he'd got himself incapably drunk, as the myth suggests. Could a more modest amount of alcohol consumption have contributed to his survival? Joughin somehow withstood the freezing temperatures for hours, conditions which proved fatal in just minutes for many others. It is one of the biggest mysteries of the sinking.
How did the ship go down?
A few of Lord's eye-witnesses refer to the stern of the ship standing almost vertical out of the water in the last moments before it sank. I suspect this is an exaggeration - or perhaps a misperception arising from looking at the ship from in front or behind. In a recent National Geographic documentary on the sinking, film director James Cameron asked an engineer to calculate the stress on the ship when the rear half of it began to be raised clear of the water, and the result was apparently that the hull would snap in two when it reached an angle of 21° above the horizon. It is remarkable how few of the survivors referred to this (none of those in Lord's book); although a good many of them said they could not bear to watch as the ship went down. Lord does, however, mention that some of them noted that the ship "settled in the water" again in its last moments, its angle becoming much less steep: this, I would think, is the moment at which the hull cracked. Charles Joughin (who, like Leo and Kate in Cameron's film, had made his way to the stern of the ship) described the stern as descending to the water smoothly and gently, like an elevator. I suspect Lord thought that he was describing the ship's forward movement into the water as it sank, and failed to question him any more closely about this detail. It seems to me he was more probably describing the downward movement of the raised stern falling back towards the surface of the sea. It seems odd, though, however drunk he may have been, that he would not have noticed and remarked upon the ship breaking in half. I wonder if perhaps the rupture occurred just below the surface, so that the changing attitude of the section of the stern that was still above water was all that the survivors might have noticed.
How did the ship stay on an even keel?
Ships taking on a large amount of water capsize very easily. Was there something about the Titanic's design that made her unusually stable? Did the fact she was taking in water at the bow have a stabilizing effect? (I imagine the water collecting at the front of the ship, and the rearward progress of the flooding being slowed by the watertight bulkheads, would limit the effect of uneven distribution of the water across the longitudinal axis, although I have no idea what the mathematics of this would be.) Were the ship's engineers working heroically to keep the ship trimmed, right up until her last moments? Or was it just 'luck'? (Also, strangely enough, when the ship did eventually start to list, it was to port - whereas she was holed on the starboard side.)
What's up with the lights?
Apparently, the ship's lights remained on until seconds before she finally sank. This seems incredible, given that nearly half the ship would have been flooded with seawater by this point, and that it must have been almost impossible to continue working in the ship's engine room when she was tilted at such a crazy angle out of the water. Again, I would be curious to read a detailed technical appraisal of how the ship's electrical system worked, and how it could have remained operational under these conditions. Furthermore, Lord refers to the lights getting weaker near the end, and taking on a strange reddish glow; but he offers no explanation of these phenomena. My curiosity runs rampant!
How far away was the Californian?
One of the most tragic aspects of the story is that the S.S. Californian was apparently quite nearby, but failed to take notice of signs of the Titanic's distress. The Californian was observing a ship "a few miles away" which clearly was the Titanic (well, it's evident in retrospect; the officers on the Californian had difficulty identifying even what type of ship it was). The Titanic observed a ship - and some of her lifeboats tried to row towards it, but in vain - which was presumably the Californian. Estimates of the distance between the two ships vary wildly: I've seen figures from 5 to 20 miles mentioned; and there is the additional complication that some people believe this nearby ship the Titanic had in sight was not the Californian at all, but some other vessel. However, when the Californian's captain finally learnt of the loss of the Titanic, it took him well over two hours to reach the site - which would suggest he was perhaps 30 miles or more distant. Lord doesn't inquire into this. [The problem with Lord's account is that he doesn't really pay any attention to the Californian joining the rescue effort. He suggests that she set off towards the Titanic at about 5.45am (nearly three-and-a-half hours after she'd gone down), but didn't arrive until some time well after 8am. Halpern indicates that she may not have got underway until nearly 6am, but reached the vicinity of the sinking by about 7.30am - presumably this is where the 20 mile estimate comes from. Unfortunately, she had gone to slightly the wrong position, and had to force her way through broken pack ice to reach the area where the Carpathia had been picking up survivors, which took nearly another hour.]
That much ice?
I don't recall Cameron's film, or any others, showing much if anything of the rescue the next morning. Apparently, there was ice everywhere. The S.S. Carpathia, first on the scene to pick up survivors, found it difficult to pick its way between dozens of large and small bergs. The Californian had heaved to for the night because it had encountered a huge floe, an impassable barrier many miles long. (This would seem to be further evidence that the ship had not implemented a full 'crash stop', but had drifted some distance beyond the collision site. There seems to be no mention of encountering other ice in the vicinity until the morning. If the ship had been fully stopped, it would have been drifting in the Labrador Current with exactly the same speed and direction as the ice, and wouldn't have moved into the midst of it. Well, maybe not: apparently there are some large eddies in that Current.) These were exceptional conditions, one of the highest concentrations of ice ever recorded in the North Atlantic, but... it does tend to undermine the position of those who claim that it was not irresponsible of Captain Smith to be proceeding at nearly full speed despite receiving warnings of ice ahead. The coming of dawn the next day revealed a sea crowded with icebergs: it would seem that the Titanic was not unlucky to have hit one, but lucky to have hit only one.
Was there any way to save the ship, or at least to keep her afloat longer?
I have long been troubled by the thought that perhaps the vaunted system of watertight compartments was a key factor in the speed of Titanic's sinking. Captain Smith relied on them to slow the rate of sinking, even though the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews, had told him that the water in the compartments would eventually overflow the tops of the watertight bulkheads and that the ship must then inevitably sink. I wonder if opening the watertight doors in these forward compartments might have bought the ship more time: if water had been allowed to spread down the entire length of the ship, she might have sunk more evenly, not have had the bow pulled underwater so quickly (and, presumably, more pumps would have been available to reduce the amount of water being shipped). I suppose she would still have tended to sink bow first. And allowing the water to spread further back in the ship would probably have increased the risk of capsize. Perhaps it would not even have been possible to open the watertight doors again, once the forward compartments were largely flooded. But I think this is an intriguing possibility; and I would imagine that it should be possible to test this scenario with computer modelling. I wonder if anyone has tried. [Aha! This article cites a 1995 study by Robert Gannon (published in Popular Science, Vol. 246, No.2) in which he found that the complete flooding of the bow compartments did substantially accelerate the sinking. If the watertight compartments had been left open, allowing water to flood more evenly through the whole length of the ship, he estimated that Titanic could have remained afloat six hours longer - time enough for both the Carpathia and the Californian to reach her and begin taking off passengers with their own lifeboats. I'm a little sceptical about this, though: it seems a rather dramatic difference. I wonder if Gannon's conclusion wasn't mainly based on an assumption that the Titanic would not have broken in half if the flooding had not been concentrated in the bow, thus lifting the stern clear of the water; it seems unlikely to me that the hull breaking accelerated the sinking very much, since this occurred only a few minutes before the ship finally went under, and when she was already more than half under water. The ship's designer, Thomas Andrews, had assessed that she could not stay afloat more than two to three hours, and his calculation did not allow for the hull breaking in half. Moreover, I wonder if Gannon overlooked a factor highlighted by Halpern in this study on the rate of ingress of water: that flooding is slowed by the weight of water accumulating above the point of breach, and hence slows progressively as the level of water inside the ship rises towards the external waterline. Thus, confining the flooding to the forward compartments would have resulted in a considerably slower rate of ingress of water than if the watertight doors had been opened to allow the water to spread down the length of the ship, because the water level would rise much more rapidly in a limited space. I suspect this effect would have outweighed the advantages of additional pumping capacity.]
Yes, indeed, so many questions about that terrible night. I have a few more besides, but these are the main ones.