Sparks's Titanic FAQs

Copyright © 2002 by Parks Stephenson


Included below are some conclusions that I have arrived at during the course of my research. I found it convenient to use the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) format that is utilised so often on the Internet today. My hope is that the information and/or opinions expressed here will inspire discussion and feedback from others who share the same interest. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide how valid my reasoning may be.
– Parks "Sparks" Stephenson


I have grouped the FAQs into general categories as follows:

Page 1 - Procedure
Page 2 - Signals
Page 3 - Steel
Page 4 - Trivia
Page 5 - Movie Fiction
Page 6 - Aiming for the Iceberg
Page 7 - Rudder Effectiveness

FAQs (Procedure)

Why was the order "Hard a'starboard" given, when it was intended for the ship to turn to port?

It's best to quote from John Harland, from his book 'Seamanship in the Age of Sail':

Orders to the helmsman were traditionally given in terms of "helm", that is to say, the position of the tiller rather than the rudder. 'Hard a-starboard!' meant 'Put the tiller (helm) to starboard, so that the ship may go to port!'. It will be realised that not only the bow turned to port, but also the rudder, top of the wheel, and prior to the advent of the steering-wheel, the upper end of the whipstaff. Cogent reasons existed, therefore, for giving the order in what one might call the 'common sense' fashion. The transition to 'rudder' orders was made in many European countries about a century ago...The change did not proceed smoothly everywhere, since old traditions died extremely hard in the merchant service, even in lands where the new convention was readily imposed in naval vessels...In the United Kingdom, the changeover did not occur until 1933, at which time the new regulations were applied to naval and merchant vessels alike...although the United States Navy made the switch from 'Port helm!' to 'Right rudder' in 1914, practice in American merchant vessels did not change until 1935.

Aboard Titanic, the command, "Hard a'starboard" would result in the helmsman turning the wheel to the left, which caused the rudder and bow to rotate to port. This may seem confusing to the modern layman, but the deck officers and quartermasters of that period knew no other convention.

Is it true that the White Star Line discriminated against steerage passengers, locking them behind barriers to prevent them from reaching the boats?

Was discrimination intended? Not in the sense that many assume today. Throughout the mid-1800s through the first part of the 20th Century, American immigration laws required that all emigrant ships landing passengers in the New World restrict the placement and movements of steerage passengers. These restrictions were put into law by Congress for the stated purpose of ensuring decent conditions in steerage. Another, more implied than stated, reason was to control the spread of disease normally brought over by the poorer elements of society. Any ship not fitted with barriers (or found to not be using them in accordance with the law), risked being held at Quarantine Station (just inside the Narrows on the Staten Island side), unable to discharge any passengers until the American Health Officers completed the timely process of personally checking each soul on board (normally, they only checked Third Class passengers) to verify that the ship was free of disease. In extreme cases, all passengers might be disembarked on Fire Island, where they would be held in quarantine for forty days before they could complete their journey to New York. This was costly to the Line and impacted negatively on the ship's reputation. Most steamship companies, including White Star, ensured that their ships complied fully with these regulations.

Why then weren't the barriers taken down after the collision? It's safe to say that no one in Titanic's command structure was concerned with U.S. Immigration Law while the ship was foundering. The fact that many barriers remained locked reflected a breakdown in the chain of command, rather than a deliberate decision to prevent the steerage passengers from reaching the boats. For reasons unknown, neither the Captain nor the Chief Officer gave the order for the barriers to be opened and the other officers were too preoccupied with the launching and manning of the boats to consider the plight of the Third Class. Without orders from above, few of the stewards or seamen at the gates felt they had the authority to act on their own (John Hart was one of the few stewards who organised groups of steerage passengers to be led topside). More importantly, though, everyone was too busy to give much consideration to the steerage passengers — basically, they were on their own. Most of the Third Class passengers who found their way to the Boat Deck did so on their own initiative. Possibly the most persuasive counter to the argument that policy dictated preventing steerage passengers from getting into the boats is the fact that steerage women and children who managed to reach the Boat Deck were given priority over men of any class.

So, where exactly does it state in Immigration Law that barriers were required to segregate classes?

To my knowledge, there's actually no single specific statement in any of the U.S. immigration laws which states that emigrant ships were required to have locking barriers to segregate classes. The de facto requirement is derived from a combination of statutes that began with the original Steerage Act of 1819. The March 1853 Act to Regulate the Carriage of Passengers in Steamships and Other Vessels laid down steerage space requirements, while the August 1882 Act to Regulate the Carriage of Passengers by Sea determined the difference in space allocation between cabin and steerage passengers. According to the 1882 Act, the owners and master of an emigrant ship were charged, under penalty of law, to enforce the restriction of steerage passengers to those decks alloted for their use, for the duration of a voyage. Section 42 of the Immigration Act of February 1907 was especially contentious, because in its attempt to further define the requirements for steerage spaces, it actually restricted steerage accomodations to only 3 decks...a critical comment made soon after the Act's passage claimed that Section 42 constituted a "statutory exclusion of steerage passengers from the best decks of a ship." IMM Vice President A.S. Franklin took the issue up with the Immigration Commission in January 1908, prompting a December 1908 amendment to the original 1882 statute (thereby superceding the 1907 Act). The wording that Franklin suggested (which happened to coincide with that used by the British Board of Trade) found its way into the 1908 amendment, but all it sought to change were the restrictions on which decks the steerage could be housed (in particular, it did away with the 1907 use of the term "main deck," which was ambiguous). The 1908 amendment did not change the fundamental requirements that set the steerage spaces apart from those in the cabin class.

As the Immigration Acts were enacted and amended throughout the 19th Century, the requirements for health inspections were made increasingly stringent...for steerage passengers, at any rate. Cabin-class passengers were not required to submit to individual medical examinations before being landed on American soil (all physically-ill passengers were taken to the medical facility on Ellis Island, regardless of class). In contrast, steerage passengers were required to be held in their spaces aboard ship until individual inspections by Health Inspectors were completed. Only then could they be landed.

Taken together, these requirements placed a heavy burden of responsibility on the owners and Masters of emigrant ships. Shipbuilders were tasked to provide a means by which a ship's Master could ensure the safe segregation of steerage passengers. The method used by Titanic's builders, along with other shipbuilders of the period, was that of lockable barriers. This may seem harsh by today's standards, but it must be kept in mind that steerage passengers were provided with proper ventilation and food, dedicated public rooms and open deck areas, sanitary needs and a certain measure of privacy. Care was taken to protect the welfare of women in steerage, and regulations were very specific about keeping the ship's crew from intruding upon the areas assigned to steerage. Many steerage passengers enjoyed a luxury that in terms relative to their station in life, rivalled that of the First Class.

Side note: It was the requirement to house the steerage passengers on the "main deck and the two below" that prompted the use of well decks in the design of the larger emigrant ships. Because the "main deck" was described in U.S. statutes as a continuous deck, use of well decks allowed more room for cabin-class passengers in the higher decks by pushing the continuous deck down closer to the waterline.

How was the watch rotation set up aboard Titanic?

Both the crew and the junior officers changed watch at the same time. Junior officers stood 4-on, 4-off watches that completed a full rotation over a 2-day period (two-watch system):

First Watch (Day 1)

2000-2400

Pitman/Lowe

Middle Watch (Day 1)

0000-0400

Boxhall/Moody

Morning Watch (Day 1)

0400-0800

Pitman/Lowe

Forenoon Watch (Day 1)

0800-1200

Boxhall/Moody

Afternoon Watch (Day 1)

1200-1600

Pitman/Lowe

First Dog Watch (Day 1)

1600-1800

Boxhall/Moody

Last Dog Watch (Day 1)

1800-2000

Pitman/Lowe

First Watch (Day 2)

2000-2400

Boxhall/Moody

Middle Watch (Day 2)

0000-0400

Pitman/Lowe

Morning Watch (Day 2)

0400-0800

Boxhall/Moody

Forenoon Watch (Day 2)

0800-1200

Pitman/Lowe

Afternoon Watch (Day 2)

1200-1600

Boxhall/Moody

First Dog Watch (Day 2)

1600-1800

Pitman/Lowe

Last Dog Watch (Day 2)

1800-2000

Boxhall/Moody

Titanic's three senior officers, on the other hand, stood 4-on, 8-off watches. This does not necessarily mean that they had more time to sleep, because they had additional duties to perform when they weren't standing watch on deck. The watch nomenclature in the table below is borrowed from Royal Navy practice, and even though the names are similar to those used to describe the crew's watches, the times are not the same. To avoid confusion, watch periods were often referred to in the Merchant Marine by the rank of the officer standing the watch (e.g., the Chief's watch):

First Watch

2200-0200

Murdoch

Middle Watch

0200-0600

Wilde

Morning Watch

0600-1000

Lightoller

Forenoon Watch

1000-1400

Murdoch

Afternoon Watch

1400-1800

Wilde

Evening Watch

1800-2200

Lightoller

Senior officers did not stand dog watches. The First and Second Officers relieved each other for half-hour periods in order to take meals. Lightoller relieved Murdoch around 1230 and Murdoch relieved Lightoller around 1900 each day.


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