Sample reading text
Lessons from the Titanic
A From the comfort of our modern lives we tend to look back at the
turn of the twentieth century as a dangerous time for sea travellers. With
limited communication facilities, and shipping technology still in its infancy
in the early nineteen hundreds, we consider ocean travel to have been a
risky business. But to the people of the time it was one of the safest forms
of transport. At the time of the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912, there had
only been four lives lost in the previous forty years on passenger ships on
the North Atlantic crossing. And the Titanic was confidently proclaimed to
be unsinkable. She represented the pinnacle of technological advance at
the time. Her builders, crew and passengers had no doubt that she was
the finest ship ever built. But still she did sink on April 14, 1912, taking
1,517 of her passengers and crew with her.
B The RMS Titanic left Southampton for New York on April 10, 1912.
On board were some of the richest and most famous people of the time
who had paid large sums of money to sail on the first voyage of the most
luxurious ship in the world. Imagine her placed on her end: she was larger
at 269 metres than many of the tallest buildings of the day. And with nine
decks, she was as high as an eleven storey building. The Titanic carried
329 first class, 285 second class and 710 third class passengers with 899
crew members, under the care of the very experienced Captain Edward J.
Smith. She also carried enough food to feed a small town, including
40,000 fresh eggs, 36,000 apples, 111,000 lbs of fresh meat and 2,200 lbs
of coffee for the five day journey.
C RMS Titanic was believed to be unsinkable because the hull was
divided into sixteen watertight compartments. Even if two of these
compartments flooded, the ship could still float. The ship’s owners could
not imagine that, in the case of an accident, the Titanic would not be able
to float until she was rescued. It was largely as a result of this confidence
in the ship and in the safety of ocean travel that the disaster could claim
such a great loss of life.
D In the ten hours prior to the Titanic’s fatal collision with an iceberg at
11.40pm, six warnings of icebergs in her path were received by the
Titanic's wireless operators. Only one of these messages was formally
posted on the bridge; the others were in various locations across the ship.
If the combined information in these messages of iceberg positions had
been plotted, the ice field which lay across the Titanic’s path would have
been apparent. Instead, the lack of formal procedures for dealing with
information from a relatively new piece of technology, the wireless, meant
that the danger was not known until too late. This was not the fault of the
Titanic crew. Procedures for dealing with warnings received through the
wireless had not been formalised across the shipping industry at the time.
The fact that the wireless operators were not even Titanic crew, but rather
contracted workers from a wireless company, made their role in the ship’s
operation quite unclear.
E Captain Smith’s seemingly casual attitude in increasing the speed
on this day to a dangerous 22 knots or 41 kilometres per hour, can then be
partly explained by his ignorance of what lay ahead. But this only partly
accounts for his actions, since the spring weather in Greenland was known
to cause huge chunks of ice to break off from the glaciers. Captain Smith
knew that these icebergs would float southward and had already
acknowledged this danger by taking a more southerly route than at other
times of the year. So why was the Titanic travelling at high speed when he
knew, if not of the specific risk, at least of the general risk of icebergs in
her path? As with the lack of coordination of the wireless messages, it
was simply standard operating procedure at the time. Captain Smith was
following the practices accepted on the North Atlantic, practices which had
coincided with forty years of safe travel. He believed, wrongly as we now
know, that the ship could turn or stop in time if an iceberg was sighted by
F There were around two and a half hours between the time the
Titanic rammed into the iceberg and its final submersion. In this time 705
people were loaded into the twenty lifeboats. There were 473 empty seats
available on lifeboats while over 1,500 people drowned. These figures
raise two important issues. Firstly, why there were not enough lifeboats to
seat every passenger and crew member on board. And secondly, why the
lifeboats were not full.
G The Titanic had sixteen lifeboats and four collapsible boats which
could carry just over half the number of people on board her maiden
voyage and only a third of the Titanic’s total capacity. Regulations for the
number of lifeboats required were based on outdated British Board of
Trade regulations written in 1894 for ships a quarter of the Titanic’s size,
and had never been revised. Under these requirements, the Titanic was
only obliged to carry enough lifeboats to seat 962 people. At design
meetings in 1910, the shipyard’s managing director, Alexander Carlisle,
had proposed that forty eight lifeboats be installed on the Titanic, but the
idea had been quickly rejected as too expensive. Discussion then turned
to the ship’s décor, and as Carlisle later described the incident … ’we
spent two hours discussing carpet for the first class cabins and fifteen
minutes discussing lifeboats’.
H The belief that the Titanic was unsinkable was so strong that
passengers and crew alike clung to the belief even as she was actually
sinking. This attitude was not helped by Captain Smith, who had not
acquainted his senior officers with the full situation. For the first hour after
the collision, the majority of people aboard the Titanic, including senior
crew, were not aware that she would sink, that there were insufficient
lifeboats or that the nearest ship responding to the Titanic’s distress calls
would arrive two hours after she was on the bottom of the ocean. As a
result, the officers in charge of loading the boats received a very halfhearted
response to their early calls for women and children to board the
lifeboats. People felt that they would be safer, and certainly warmer,
aboard the Titanic than perched in a little boat in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Not realising the magnitude of the impending disaster themselves, the
officers allowed several boats to be lowered only half full.
I Procedures again were at fault, as an additional reason for the
officers’ reluctance to lower the lifeboats at full capacity was that they
feared the lifeboats would buckle under the weight of 65 people. They had
not been informed that the lifeboats had been fully tested prior to
departure. Such procedures as assigning passengers and crew to
lifeboats and lifeboat loading drills were simply not part of the standard
operation of ships nor were they included in crew training at this time.
J As the Titanic sank, another ship, believed to have been the
Californian, was seen motionless less than twenty miles away. The ship
failed to respond to the Titanic’s eight distress rockets. Although the
officers of the Californian tried to signal the Titanic with their flashing
Morse lamp, they did not wake up their radio operator to listen for a
distress call. At this time, communication at sea through wireless was new
and the benefits not well appreciated, so the wireless on ships was often
not operated around the clock. In the case of the Californian, the wireless
operator slept unaware while 1,500 Titanic passengers and crew drowned
only a few miles away.
K After the Titanic sank, investigations were held in both Washington
and London. In the end, both inquiries decided that no one could be
blamed for the sinking. However, they did address the fundamental safety
issues which had contributed to the enormous loss of life. As a result,
international agreements were drawn up to improve safety procedures at
sea. The new regulations covered 24 hour wireless operation, crew
training, proper lifeboat drills, lifeboat capacity for all on board and the
creation of an international ice patrol.