Unthinkable

David Fowler checks out how The Engineer reported on the sinking of the Titanic

After nearly 86 years the Titanic disaster continues to fascinate. Just before midnight on 14 April 1912, the world’s largest liner, dubbed ‘unsinkable’, hit an iceberg in clear weather five days into its maiden voyage to New York. It sank less than three hours later with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

The fascination with the fate of the great liner is such that it has now been turned into the world’s most expensive film, James Cameron’s Titanic, released in the UK tomorrow.

Contemporary reports from The Engineer in 1912 show that the regulatory authorities had not conceived of the possibility of a disaster on such a scale, and that regulations intended to ensure safety had been made obsolete as ocean liners inexorably increased in size. It was perhaps the first such disaster to shake humanity’s faith in the ever-increasing power of technology.

At the time, as reflected in the pages of The Engineer, concern focused on three points: the provision of watertight bulkheads intended to divide the hull into self-contained compartments, limiting the ingress of water should the hull be breached; provision of lifeboats, since there were only enough boats for around half the ship’s complement of 2,201 passengers and crew; and the role that radio communication, then a new development, could have played in averting the disaster.

The Titanic was not unique. It was the second of three liners built by Belfast’s Harland & Wolff for the White Star Line. Its sister ship, Olympic, had been launched in 1910 and was successfully plying between Southampton and New York.

The Engineer took issue with the popular press’s description of the Titanic as ‘unsinkable’ in a leading article four days after the disaster on 19 April. ‘It is becoming increasingly the custom… to refer prominently to the number of the watertight compartments of the vessel, and to describe her as “unsinkable”. This idea is quite erroneous.’

It added: ‘The phrase “unsinkable ships” is certainly not one that has originated from the builders.’

The same issue contained an explanation by Professor JH Biles of the current requirements for watertight bulkheads, dating from the deliberations of the Bulkhead Committee of 1891. ‘A vessel is considered to be safe, even in the event of serious damage, if she is able to keep afloat with two adjoining compartments in free communication with the sea.’

The regulations did not require the bulkheads to extend the entire height of the ship, but they did have to extend to a watertight deck and the bulkheads had to be spaced so that, with any two adjacent compartments open to the sea, the watertight deck did not come closer than a specified distance to the water level.

The Titanic exceeded the requirements. The board of inquiry into the disaster, chaired by Lord Mersey, found that the Titanic could have remained afloat with four compartments flooded. In fact five had been breached: it was believed that the iceberg must have left a 300ft gash along the vessel’s 880ft length.

Provision of lifeboats was at the time a controversial issue. Some writers in The Engineer believed that lifeboat accommodation for every passenger ‘ought to be the ideal which should be aimed at’. The Titanic had more boats than the minimum required, though they had only been filled to two-thirds of their capacity.

Against that, provision of boats for only ‘a fourth of the people on board’ was ‘met with in nearly all the large liners [and has been] arrived at after careful consideration’, The Engineer reported. ‘Had another vessel been at hand we would probably have heard little or nothing of the Titanic’s boat equipment.’

It argued that providing stowing and manning boats for the full complement of passengers was impractical.

Instead The Engineer advocated measures ‘to prevent the necessity of their use, which should be a primary feature of large steamship design’. The principal factor in achieving this was adequate subdivision of the hull, and the second was wireless telegraphy. ‘A much closer regulation of the use of wireless is necessary, and even more powerful instruments are required,’ it argued.

Another liner, the Californian, had been in the area when the Titanic sank and had failed to receive the White Star ship’s distress calls because it was unable to keep a 24-hour radio watch. Whether it could have reached the Titanic in time has been the subject of debate ever since.

When Lord Mersey’s commission of inquiry reported, it did indeed recommend that lifeboat accommodation should be sufficient for all on board and called for rules requiring regular lifeboat drills. It also recommended that ships should have sufficient radio operators to provide a 24-hour service; and that steamship companies’ regulations should instruct captains to moderate speed or change course when ice was reported ahead.

The Mersey commission referred the question of subdivision of ships to the newly appointed Bulkhead Commission and called on it to report on the practicality of providing ships with a double skin carried up above the water line, or a longitudinal watertight bulkhead, or both, in addition to watertight transverse bulkheads.

The Olympic was taken out of service for a refit to give the ship a double skin and to add more lifeboats. By early 1913 the liner was back in service, and was decommissioned only in 1935.

Construction of the third Olympic class liner, Britannic, was interrupted pending the outcome of the Titanic inquiry. Following numerous design changes, including a double skin hull and higher water-tight bulkheads, the ship was launched in 1914. Requisitioned for war service, it was sunk in the Aegean in 1916 with the loss of 30 lives.

The wreck of the Titanic was located in 1985, lying in two pieces at a depth of 4,000m. No sign of the 300ft gash thought to have been torn in the ship’s hull by the iceberg was found. Scientists suggested instead that the impact buckled or loosened seams in the hull plates, with the same effect: allowing water to flood in.

Losses at sea prompt safety rethinks

The loss of the Titanic is probably the most famous maritime disaster, but there have been many others since 1912 which have prompted reappraisal of marine safety legislation and the design of safety equipment.

Most major disasters at sea have usually been as a result of collision, grounding or fire, but a recurring theme has been the ineffectiveness of lifeboats.

The best way of improving safety is by developing international regulations. From the mid 19th century onwards several treaties were adopted, but it was not until the 20th century and disasters such as the Titanic that real progress was made.

Many states believed there was a need for a single, permanent international body to coordinate and promote the development of marine safety legislation. So, in 1948, a United Nations conference set up the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), since 1982 known as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

The organisation has promoted some 40 conventions and protocols and adopted more than 700 codes and recommendations.

At the first IMO conference in 1960, the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) was adopted, coming into force in 1965. Solas has been modified, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, notably as a consequence of the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Although the official report into the loss of the Estonia ro-ro ferry in 1994 was published in December 1997, the IMO had already begun taking steps to make ro-ro ferries safer in the event that water reached the car decks.

Ironically, given the great loss of life from the Titanic attributed to insufficient lifeboats, the IMO is now developing legislation affecting the design and use of modern lifesaving appliances. It is also reviewing its International Convention of Search and Rescue in light of the Estonia disaster.

The committee investigating the loss of the Estonia recommended ‘urgent action to develop new lifesaving concepts and equipment’. One of the major lessons learned – re-learned from the Titanic – was that many survivors when the ship went down died later due to inadequate, poorly designed and maintained lifeboats and rafts.

It is thought more people could have been rescued from the water had their life jackets – which were of an approved type – been equipped with lights. In bad weather, survivors could not climb into the life rafts from the water. Of the ship’s lifeboats, nine out 10 broke loose.

Diary of disaster

The Morro Castle, 1924: lost to fire. Fire fighting equipment was shut off, cutting the supply of water to the hoses on deck.

Normandie, 1942: fire started by careless workers while in port.

Kiamgya, 1948: exploded near Shanghai; over 3,900 people died.

Empire Windrush, 1954, Siestan in 1958, and Meteor in 1971: all lost due to fire on board.

Toya Maru, 1954: Japanese ferry sank in the Tsugaru Strait.

Andrea Doria, 1956: collided with Swedish-American liner Stockholm in dense fog.

Tamponas II, 1982: caught fire and sank in the Java Sea.

Herald of Free Enterprise, 1987: ferry capsized off Zeebrugge, with the loss of 192 lives.

Estonia, 1994: capsized in Baltic; 852 people died.