One hundred years on, the story of how one of the world’s greatest ships came to sink remains as mystifying as it is tragic. We set out to uncover what happened…
RMS Titanic was an Olympic-class passenger liner owned by British shipping company White Star Line and constructed at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Titanic was the largest ship in its class, along with its sister ship the Olympic, and was capable of holding over 2,000 people. Its maiden voyage from Southampton, UK, to New York began on 10 April 1912. However, four days into crossing the Atlantic the ship glanced an iceberg and sank within three hours, resulting in one of the worst maritime tragedies in history. The remarkable story of how it sank is even more surprising considering some of the technological advances used on the ship, but despite being one of the most high-profile disasters ever, many mysteries around the actions of the senior officers on that fateful night remain unanswered and will likely stay so forever.
RMS Titanic was the second of three Olympic-class ships, the others being RMS Olympic (1910-1935) and RMS Britannic (sunk by a mine in 1916 after two years in service). For their time they were the largest ocean-liners in operation, and by far the biggest vessels in White Star Line’s 1912 fleet of 29 ships. The three were all but identical in design save for a few very minor differences – mostly adjustments to Titanic to make it more luxurious for first-class passengers. They were built as a result of a rivalry between White Star Line and Cunard Line, the latter of which had just produced the fastest passenger ships around (the Lusitania and Mauretania). However, White Star Line’s chairman, J Bruce Ismay, decided in 1907 to focus on size rather than speed, culminating in the building of these three behemoths.
The ships were constructed at Harland and Wolff in Belfast, which had been contracted to build ships for White Star Line for the previous five decades. The shipbuilder was given an almost unlimited budget to spend on the project and, by the end, Titanic and Olympic carried a combined cost of approximately 3 million GBP (USD 4.75 million). Construction of Titanic began on 22 March 1909, just a few months after her sister the Olympic. Over 1,500 men worked on the two ships, with as many as eight dying during construction. In a development that would later prove crucial in the sinking of Titanic, the various steel plates of the vessel’s hull were riveted together, as welding techniques were not yet sufficient in the early-20th century to hold together a ship of Titanic’s magnitude.
One of Titanic’s most innovative features, and also possibly somewhat responsible for its sinking, was its engines. Its two twin four-cylinder engines each measured almost 12.2 metres (40 feet), the largest of their kind. These powered two three-blade propellers – one port and one starboard – at the stern. The prop ellerswereahefty 7.2 metres(23.5 feet) wide and rotated in opposite directions, 75 times per minute, to lessen vibrations. An additional third propeller was positioned between the two main propellers for added efficiency. It was smaller than the other two and used steam from their engines to rotate up to twice as fast. However, unlike the other two it was unable to rotate backwards, which would ultimately prove detrimental when Titanic came face to face with an iceberg. Steering of the ship was largely handled by a mammoth, if somewhat cumbersome, 100-ton rudder.
Titanic was 11 storeys tall and as long as six city blocks. Its interior decks, especially the lower ones encased by the hull, were a maze of narrow passages (known as alleyways) and doors that only a few officers on board were able to competently navigate.
Indeed, Second Officer Charles Lightoller recounted later that it took him 14 days aboard to be able to learn how to navigate from one end of the ship to the other. Considering Titanic sank just four days after it set off, with all the passengers on board never having set foot on the ship before, the complexity of its design brought obvious difficulties at the time of its sinking. Very few passengers in the steerage class were able to navigate their way successfully to the upper decks when Titanic began to sink. The story of how it sank though is a combination of poor design, bad luck and misdirection.
At 11.40pm on 11 April 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg directly ahead of Titanic and telephoned the bridge. Quartermaster Robert Hichens was ordered to change course. However, the turning procedure took up to 30 seconds owing to several factors, including the inability of the ship’s third propeller to rotate backwards and the attempted deceleration of the ship, resulting in Titanic striking a glancing blow on the iceberg. Indeed, it may even have been better for the ship to speed up rather than attempt to slow down, as doing the latter lessened its turning angle. It is estimated that if Titanic had maintained its speed, it would have avoided the fatal iceberg by several metres.
The impact with the iceberg produced a tear on the hull of Titanic more than 90 metres (300 feet) in length above the keel. The iron rivets used to keep the steel plates of the ship together were brittle and prone to snapping, while the plates themselves were weaker than modern steel due to impurities, meaning that they easily buckled under pressure from the iceberg. However, save for a loud bang near the point of impact there was little evidence of a collision throughout the majority of the ship apart from a slight shudder.
Water poured into the tear at a rate of about seven tons a second, flooding the Number 6 boiler room. Engineering staff worked to extinguish the furnaces and vent the boilers before they exploded upon contact with the icy cold water. The lower decks of Titanic were divided into 16 compartments, separated by bulkheads running the width of the ship. However, the bulkheads did not rise to the very top of the vessel, meaning that as water flooded each compartment it spilled into adjacent ones. Five compartments were breached by the iceberg; Titanic could only stay afloat with four flooded.
Due to the uneven rate of flooding, the ship listed five degrees starboard just minutes after the collision. After 45 minutes, over 13,000 tons of water had been taken on board the ship. The bilge pumps could only eject about 1,700 tons per hour, making it readily apparent that Titanic was doomed. The forward part of the ship gradually began to sink lower and lower into the sea. Two hours on, the vessel was tilted forwards at an angle of ten degrees. This greatly increased the rate of flooding and, by 2.18am, the stress on the keel became too great, resulting in the ship snapping in two. The front half descended slowly to a resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic but the back end rose to a vertical position in the water before crashing to the seabed at up to 48 kilometres (30 miles) per hour.
There were 2,206 passengers and crew on board Titanic. Of these, only 711 survived, despite the 20 lifeboats having a combined capacity of 1,178. There are several factors to blame, which include an inadequate number of lifeboats (although above the legal number for ships in 1912), poorly executed orders, lack of a ship-wide announcement system and inadequate information given to passengers. Indeed, up until the final hour many on board were convinced the ship would not sink. The high-profile sinking of Titanic sparked an overhaul of sailing safety measures, and a raft of changes were put in place to prevent such a disaster from occurring again. With the sinking of the Costa Concordia in January 2012, however, it’s clear that even 100 years on there are still many lessons to be learned.
Facts about maritime disasters
MV Dona Paz – Up to 4,375 people died when the passenger ferries MV Dona Paz and MT Vector collided on 20 December 1987, the deadliest peacetime ferry disaster.
Wilhelm Gustloff – On 30 January 1945, German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk by a Soviet Navy sub. Up to 9,400 died in the greatest ever loss of life in a maritime disaster.
Yamato – This Japanese warship was the largest battleship ever constructed. It was sunk on 7 April 1945 by US torpedo planes. Of the 2,778-man crew only 280 survived.
Costa Concordia – Costa Concordia ran aground on 13 January 2012 near the Isola del Giglio. More than 17 people are thought to have died when the ship was taken on an inappropriate course.