Saturday, May 05, 2012

List of the Month - unanswered questions about the Titanic

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.


John said...

A lot of your questions might well be answered in a book from the local library I read briefly recently. It's a modern edition of one of those Haynes Manuals you're probably aware of. The newer ones are deliberately tongue-in-cheek as hardly anyone can do their own car maintenance on modern models these days and so realising an end of an era Haynes expanded into other subjects while still giving the reader a highly technical aspect; you might have seen such titles as WWII planes, computers, even women, all still with their trade-mark cross-section cover. Anyway, I thought the Titanic one by David Hutchings was a very interesting read because it goes into deep detail on the liner from a naval aspect. It's a new release too so the information is bang up to date.

More info:

Froog said...

Ah yes, that does sound fascinating.

I'm really interested in this question of how you put the propellers into reverse. I'd never thought about it before.

We're all familiar with 'engine telegraph' device with which they ring up the desired engine settings on the bridge, and I think people tend to subsconsciously assume that this somehow controls the engines directly - and instantaneously. Of course, it doesn't; it's just a signalling device. Whoever's in charge down in the engine room has to notice it and then give appropriate orders to his team, who may need to go through several processes to implement the required changes. I would think that shifting from 'Full Ahead' to 'Full Astern' must be quite a complicated procedure.

Froog said...

I've also been musing on this question of the portrayal (or rather, the lack of it) of the icerberg(s).

I think it's prompted by the way people want to conceive of the story. We are somehow drawn to the idea that the ocean liner and iceberg were fated to meet, that it was a bizarre and terrible coincidence that these two objects should encounter each other in a vast and deserted ocean.

Hence, we don't want to be reminded that this particular stretch of ocean was, at this moment, relatively crowded with other shipping and other icebergs.

But the poor iceberg is not the focus of the story. Once it has played its part, we can forget about it. Like a mugger, it emerges briefly from the shadows, and then disappears again. We don't want to think that - if the Titanic had completed a full 'crash stop' immediately - they would have been drifting with the current in parallel, perhaps only 400 or 500 yards apart.

Interesting point on this: Walter Lord's brief preface is about a novel called 'Futility' which had anticipated the disaster in uncanny detail nearly 14 years before (the world's largest liner, the Titan, strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and rapidly sinks with huge loss of life). In that story, the protagonist survived by taking refuge on the iceberg!

Also, I wonder if it might have been some way to manoeuvre alongside the iceberg and attach cables to it. Very tricky, I'm sure; probably impossible. But an intriguing speculation. After all, the iceberg is never going to sink, so it should have been able to keep Titanic's bow from going under.

Froog said...

A favourite cartoon from Punch (that I've never been able to track down online: I first saw it reprinted in the 1970s [I think it was cited as a long-time favourite in an interview with Bill Tidy, their leading cartoonist at that time], but the style appeared much older, perhaps 1920s or 1930s).

A glum and anxious crowd of people is queueing patiently outside the offices of the White Star Line in the early hours of the morning. A man with a pet polar bear on a leash standing beside him has just reached the enquiries window, and he's asking: "Yes, yes - but is there any news of the iceberg?"

Surprisingly surreal for its apparent vintage!

I love jokes like this that invert our usual perspective on something.

John said...

This was an easy one to find, you can even buy a print of it. [url][/url] It also forms part of the cover of the cartoonist's autobiography.
I'm actually intrigued into solving some of these minor-mysteries now, I mean the timing couldn't be more suitable; I'll see if they have the book I mentioned available to lend again tomorrow.

John said...

OK so bulletin-board code doesn't work on Blogger, good to know. I'm meant to use HTML tags instead like this.

Froog said...

Ah, thanks, John. The amount of stuff on the Net, and the search tools for sifting it, has increased enormously in the last few years. I probably last tried to find this 3 or 4 years ago, was yet again discouraged, and gave up for good.

Quite a few of my early posts on here refer to poems or songs or cartoons or film clips that appeared to be unavailable online at the time, but are probably out there now.

Froog said...

Another thing that's been bugging me about the Titanic - though it doesn't bear on the sinking - is whether it was commercially viable.

I would have thought that, given the much greater expenses - and the much greater risk! - involved, ocean liners would have to aim for much higher occupancy rates than hotels. I would have thought they'd need 60%-70% to be reasonably viable. With months to promote the ship, and all the free publicity surrounding it, and the extra cachet attaching to its maiden voyage, I would have thought the White Star Line would have been hoping to sell it out.

But in fact... Third Class ('Steerage') had done best in sales, but was barely at 70% of capacity. Second Class was barely over 50% full (and that, perhaps, largely because many of the First Class passenger's servants, and many of the ship's own crew - or at least supernumerary members of the ship's company who were not technically part of the crew: the musicians in the band, restaurant staff, and the technicians from the Harland & Wolff 'Guarantee Group' - were lodged in them; many of these were not paying passengers). The prestigious First Class accommodations were at less than one-third capacity.

Of course, this means that the loss of life was much lower than it might have been (Titanic was about 1,250 passengers short of her full capacity). But it seems to me that for the owners the passenger numbers would have been a major disappointment. Indeed, was the Titanic actually losing money on its first trip?

I suppose this raises the possible conspiracy that the sinking was an insurance scam...

Froog said...

Conspiracy theory, that is.

Froog said...

Ah, that does in fact appear to be a 1970s Bill Tidy cartoon.

I wonder if this is just a bizarre trick my memory played on me, or if this is an example of Bill copying an earlier cartoon. I remembered a very different style of drawing.

Froog said...

That chap Halpern (who has eaten up most of my Sunday and Monday!) has a particularly interesting article on the angle at which the ship broke in two: he thinks it is likely to have occurred at the lowest end of what seems to be commonly calculated as the likely range, perhaps as little as 11 degrees.

However, he seems to accept a version of events that has the stern of the ship (after briefly settling back into the water at a fairly even pitch, and even giving some onlookers the impression that it might be able to stay afloat) once again tilted to a very steep angle, perhaps almost vertical.

I just can't imagine what mechanism could have caused this. You'd think that the lower hull (and any extra weight in the keel for stability?), and the engines and all the other machinery on the lowest decks, would make the bottom of the ship much heavier than the upper half of it - particularly in the rear part of the ship where there's little superstructure. I can just about accept that the great weight of water in the portion of the stern that was below the waterline might stabiliise the stern if it had already reached such an angle, but I can't see what could pull it into that angle. If the watertight bulkheads in the stern section were still sound (and if the watertight doors were closed: Walter Lord mentions that the chief engineer had initially reopened all the ones aft of the iceberg damage, so that his men could more easily move about the ship, but does not give any information on when or whether they were closed again), I suppose the watertight compartments might have been flooding one at a time, and the weight of water in these - as with the bow going down very sharply as the forward compartments filled before any of the rest of the ship - might pull the front of the stern section down at quite a sharp angle; but I can't see any way it could pull it vertical.

In that James Cameron documentary I mentioned in the post, it was suggested that for a while the two halves of the ship had remained attached by a large double-plate of the hull bottom which obstinately refused to break (rather like the strip of peel along the underside being the last thing to give way when you break a banana in two). These plates, thought to have initially remained attached to the stern, were broken off by water resistance as the stern sank into the depths, and, planing through the water, fell some distance away from the two main pieces of the wreck.

I suppose it's just possible that the forward section of the ship, very rapidly filling with water almost completely after it was holed at both ends, could have pulled the stern section towards the vertical if it was still attached like this. But how long could two hull plates bear this massive weight, when the whole of the rest of the hull had failed at this point? And when it did finally break, surely there would have been a significant bobbing effect, as the stern was released from the weight pulling it down, and pulling it into this unnatural angle? And wouldn't the natural tendency of the stern - unless it already contained a tremendous weight of water in its forwardmost compartments - be to topple backwards again when it was finally released from the ship's bow?

Something about this story of the stern suddenly going vertical before sinking doesn't ring true for me. I feel the only way it could have happened is if the two halves of the ship had remained attached, and the bow pulled the stern down with it, even before the stern had flooded that much. And I just can't see two hull plates being able to maintain that attachment.

John said...

I like your conspiracy theory, er, theory! What about the Titanic being a promotional tool itself? As the biggest boat ever built it garners fame for the WSL whether people sailed on her maiden voyage or not.
It's a bank holiday today but I'll try to remember to pop into the library tomorrow.

Froog said...

Aha, the Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a painting of the Titanic surrounded by small bergs (painted in 1914 by a C. Dixon).

JES said...

Outstanding post, outstanding comments thread. Thank you so much!

And for what it's worth, the polar bear/iceberg cartoon appeared in 1968. (I suspect you may find more material there to procrastinate further on... nearly everything. :))

And on an unrelated note, I was MORTIFIED to have confused Finney and Finch on that movie-dialogue quiz.

Froog said...

I prefer the term 'memory rationalisation', JES. As our brains get overfull, it makes sense to simplify the filing system by lumping all the 'Fin***s' together. Didn't that guy direct Fight Club as well?

Froog said...

Oh, and I say in a comment above the iceberg would never sink, meaning that it's own buoyancy is constant, uncompromisable - unlike that of the sadly not-so-unsinkable Titanic. However, it's buoyancy is finite. I wonder how much it weighed?

It seems to have been only a mid-sized berg, the part above the surface (which might have served to counteract the weight of water being shipped by the Titanic) was tall, but very pointy. Would its mass have been able to provide enough additional buoyancy to keep the Titanic's bow above water?

Froog said...

'it's'?? Oh my god - senility (and severe shortage of sleep) compromising my own brain function here.

Froog said...

I had thought of myself as a bit of a Titanic obsessive, but... by that I just mean that I am very interested in the story, and will read any articles I happen upon about it, and subject any ideas I find in them about the sinking to a protracted analysis. But I don't really go out actively seeking Titanic-related stuff on the Net.

And so I hadn't realised how extreme - and how numerous! - the true Titanic obsessives are.

This post started out as a response to my dissatisfaction with Walter Lord's account, its lack of comprehensiveness as a history (it's a rattling good read, but the lack of footnotes, and the attempt to synthesise a unitary narrative out of multiple inconsistent sources causes me some vexation). It was only when John mentioned in the first comment that I probably could find some answers to my 'unanswered' technical questions that I thought of doing some digging around online, and... well, dig, dig, dig. A bottomless rabbit-hole indeed!

John said...

I can only apologise...
The Titanic does have an astonishing fascination with many doesn't it? Every ten years or so people's interest seems to come around again with a renewed vigour. Of course there are reasons for this, the anniversary being the obvious one this time. My neighbour, as a boy, had a massive obsession with the liner for a period due to the film and now that's being re-released for the centenary. There couldn't be a better time to be discussing this and then time will pass and we'll have to wait another ten years for when the subject rolls around again.

Froog said...

I saw a documentary on BBC4 the other day about 'The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic'. Predictably enough, it was mostly about icebergs in general, since little or nothing is known about the one the Titanic hit.

It included a lot of interesting titbits of information. One thing I hadn't realised before is that, because icebergs tend to melt much more quickly above the surface through direct exposure to sunlight (although there can also be a lot of erosion around the waterline), they are very unstable in the water, particularly as they get older and smaller. They become unbalanced and flip-flop over into a new attitude quite often. Towards the end of their life (and it is thought that the Titanic's iceberg may have been no more than two weeks from extinction), they may be rolling over every few days; at the very end, the rolling may become almost continuous.

I fear this may scupper my hypothesis that perhaps the ship could have been saved if it could have securely tethered its bow to the berg. Such a procedure is probably not possible anyway; but even if it were, if an iceberg is that unstable, the weight of the ship would very probably cause it to roll over in the water - and if the tethers were suddenly attached to the bottom of the iceberg rather than the top, they wouldn't do any good at all.

This phenomenon might raise plausibility problems also for that uncannily prophetic novel Futility, in which, after the sinking of the great liner Titan, the protagonist took refuge on the iceberg responsible. I don't know how long he was supposed to have spent on it.

Froog said...

One of the boffins in that BBC iceberg programme suggested - with bizarrely robust but unexplained confidence - that the Titanic would have been just fine if it had chosen to ram the berg head-on.

I would think a head-on collision with a nearly immovable object at 20 knots or more (probably at least 15 knots, even if they'd managed to begin a 'crash stop' before the impact) would cause MASSIVE damage. I don't know if anyone has tried to model exactly how much. I seem to remember the indefatigable Mr Halpern somewhere suggesting that the bow section would have been completely smashed and damage to the forward compartments might have spread almost as far back as the damage actually inflicted by the glancing blow from the berg.

Of course, damage almost as far back should not have been fatal: the Titanic could supposedly survive with its first four watertight compartments fully flooded, and the iceberg tear only extended a little way into the fifth compartment, more than 200ft back from the prow (although Walter Lord's account suggests that at least one of the watertight bulkheads in the forward compartments failed; so perhaps even that basis for the ship's qualified 'unsinkability' was flawed). But I imagine this estimate is based purely on the presumed deceleration due to the resistance of the ship's hull. I would think that in addition to the immediate smashing-and-crumpling in the forward sections of the ship, there would be extensive shockwave damage further back - that there might be a ripple passing down the hull, popping rivets along much of its length (particularly as studies seem to have proved that the steel used in the Titanic's construction was quite inflexible/brittle, especially at low temperatures, and that its hull plates and rivets thus cracked relatively easily).

A further thing that has bothered about Walter Lord's and others' accounts of the sinking is that there doesn't seem to be any reference made to any attempt to plug the leak in compartment No. 5. Since it was this that was supposedly decisive in sinking the ship, and since the tear apparently stretched only a few feet into this compartment, you would have thought that something could have been done to at least slow the inrush of seawater a bit. One gets the impression that people were so dismayed by the extent of the damage in the first four compartments that the situation was immediately given up as hopeless.

John said...

Have you read the book I originally suggested weeks ago? You were mentioning things from it but then these might be common in most books but either way that's a few less things for me to mention in my answers of the first thread.

Froog said...

No, I haven't read any books, but I have read quite a bit online - mostly from Sam Halpern's Titanicology website.

Froog said...

Another thing, two things that bother me about the 'safer to ram the iceberg head-on' hypothesis:

a) It would be very difficult to achieve. Aiming for a direct hit in the middle of the iceberg - unless by chance that was the ship's course anyway - would be even harder than steering to avoid it.

b) I don't think you could guarantee that the iceberg would remain in front of the ship. If the impact took place much to one side or other of its centre of gravity, particularly with a relatively small berg such as this, it might easily be deflected to the side - and bump along the side of the Titanic, causing much the same sort of damage as the actual collision. Moreover, if, as that BBC4 programme suggested, the berg was unstable in the water, such a heavy impact might well have unbalanced it and caused it to suddenly change its attitude in the water - which would again increase the possibility that it would roll to one side or the other of the ship's sharp prow and scrape along the hull.