FAQs
(Aiming for the Iceberg)


Shouldn't Murdoch have aimed the ship directly at the berg? Wouldn't it have been better to crush the bows and trust in the collision bulkhead to keep the ship afloat, rather than risk exposing the side to longitudinal damage that opened multiple watertight compartments?

 

Aside from the fact that deck officers are trained to avoid hazards at sea, the speculation that Titanic's First Officer should have aimed for the berg carries with it no guarantee that the ship would have survived the impact had he done so. Famed Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad (who, incidentally, was an accomplished seaman and held a Master's certificate) provided some witty yet insightful comments on the idea of ramming the berg in his 1912 essay Some Reflections on the Loss of Titanic:

I am well aware that those responsible for her short and fatal existence ask us in desolate accents to believe that if she had hit end on she would have survived. Which, by a sort of coy implication, seems to mean that it was all the fault of the officer of the watch (he is dead now) for trying to avoid the obstacle. We shall have presently, in deference to commercial and industrial interests, a new kind of seamanship. A very new and "progressive" kind. If you see anything in the way, by no means try to avoid it; smash at it full tilt. And then – and then only you shall see the triumph of material, of clever contrivances, of the whole box of engineering tricks in fact, and cover with glory a commercial concern of the most unmitigated sort, a great Trust, and a great ship-building yard, justly famed for the super-excellence of its material and workmanship. Unsinkable! See? I told you she was unsinkable, if only handled in accordance with the new seamanship. Everything's in that. And, doubtless, the Board of Trade, if properly approached, would consent to give the needed instructions to its examiners of Masters and Mates. Behold the examination-room of the future. Enter to the grizzled examiner a young man of modest aspect: "Are you well up in modern seamanship?" "I hope so, sir." "H'm, let's see. You are at night on the bridge in charge of a 150,000 tons ship, with a motor track, organ-loft, etc., etc., with a full cargo of passengers, a full crew of 1,500 cafe waiters, two sailors and a boy, three collapsible boats as per Board of Trade regulations, and going at your three-quarter speed of, say, about forty knots. You perceive suddenly right ahead, and close to, something that looks like a large ice-floe. What would you do?" "Put the helm amidships." "Very well. Why?" "In order to hit end on." "On what grounds should you endeavour to hit end on?" "Because we are taught by our builders and masters that the heavier the smash, the smaller the damage, and because the requirements of material should be attended to."

And so on and so on. The new seamanship: when in doubt try to ram fairly – whatever's before you. Very simple. If only the
Titanic had rammed that piece of ice (which was not a monstrous berg) fairly, every puffing paragraph would have been vindicated in the eyes of the credulous public which pays. But would it have been? Well, I doubt it. I am well aware that in the eighties the steamship Arizona, one of the "greyhounds of the ocean" in the jargon of that day, did run bows on against a very unmistakable iceberg, and managed to get into port on her collision bulkhead. But the Arizona was not, if I remember rightly, 5,000 tons register, let alone 45,000, and she was not going at twenty knots per hour. I can't be perfectly certain at this distance of time, but her sea-speed could not have been more than fourteen at the outside. Both these facts made for safety. And, even if she had been engined to go twenty knots, there would not have been behind that speed the enormous mass, so difficult to check in its impetus, the terrific weight of which is bound to do damage to itself or others at the slightest contact.

And again in Certain Aspects of the Admirable Inquiry Into the Loss of the Titanic, also written in 1912:

With ludicrous earnestness he assured the Commission of his intense belief that had only the Titanic struck end-on she would have come into port all right. And in the whole tone of his insistent statement there was suggested the regret that the officer in charge (who is dead now, and mercifully outside the comic scope of this inquiry) was so ill-advised as to try to pass clear of the ice. Thus my sarcastic prophecy, that such a suggestion was sure to turn up, receives an unexpected fulfilment. You will see yet that in deference to the demands of "progress" the theory of the new seamanship will become established: "Whatever you see in front of you – ram it fair. . ." The new seamanship! Looks simple, doesn't it? But it will be a very exact art indeed. The proper handling of an unsinkable ship, you see, will demand that she should be made to hit the iceberg very accurately with her nose, because should you perchance scrape the bluff of the bow instead, she may, without ceasing to be as unsinkable as before, find her way to the bottom. I congratulate the future Transatlantic passengers on the new and vigorous sensations in store for them. They shall go bounding across from iceberg to iceberg at twenty-five knots with precision and safety, and a "cheerful bumpy sound"--as the immortal poem has it. It will be a teeth-loosening, exhilarating experience.

 

During the 2009 expedition to the Britannic wreck, divers discovered the watertight tight doors leading into both Boiler Rooms #5 and #6 were jammed in the full open position. These doors were supposed to have been closed by either electronic manual control from the bridge or automatic control from the emergency float system. It appears as though the tracks in which the doors would be guided to the closed position were warped, presumably by shock loading transmitted through the steel hull structure by the mine explosion. The door tracks were bolted directly to the bulkhead, so any deformation, no matter how slight, of the bulkhead would warp the tracks and subsequently prevent the door from falling into a closed position. Britannic might have survived the breach caused by the mine explosion, but she couldn't survive that, plus the uncontrollable flooding in Boiler Rooms #5 and #6.

 

Adding the immediate loss of Boiler Room #5 into scenarios run with the 2012 FEA model show that Titanic would have immediately rolled over onto her starboard side, rendering her lifeboats ineffective, and sinking well inside an hour. The force from a bows-on collision, given Titanic's mass of 45,000 tons running at 22.5 knots, would have deformed the steel structure under impact loading at a magnitude several times greater than the shock load created by the mine that struck Britannic. Mounting the watertight door tracks directly onto the bulkhead might be considered the Olympics' one design flaw; then again, how could one anticipate such an event befalling an emigrant ship?

 

Regardless, Joseph Conrad pointed out the key difference between the speculative ramming of the iceberg by Titanic and other ships that hit icebergs and survived. One need only calculate the physics to understand why a ship of 5,147 GRT running at 15 knots (Arizona) has far less impact loading acting on its steel structure than a ship of 46,328 GRT running at 22.5 knots (Titanic). In fact, Titanic was subjected to a force 22.5 times greater than that experienced by Arizona...22.5 more times the energy deforming the structure and anything attached directly to it.


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