When the Titanic was buil, it was the world’s biggest passenger ship. Fate wanted that on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, the Titanic struck an iceberg, and sunk on 15th April 1912. More than 1500 of its passengers died. Some were trapped and went down with the ship, others perished in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Many had erroneously believed the Titanic was unsinkable. But could one of the biggest peace-time maritime tragedies, have been avoided?

The Titanic steams smoke from its funnels while docked in Southampton
Titanic in Southampton ready to start its maiden voyage. April 1912. Unknown author. Source

1# Double the hull, double the fun

When the Titanic was built in 1909, by the Harland and Wolff shipyard from Belfast, the technology of the double hull already existed, first used by the Great Eastern ship in 1859. A double shell was likely to have withstood the collision against the ship killing iceberg. Nowadays, double hulls are compulsory, but the owners of the Titanic, the White Star Line, deemed it too expensive at the time.

2# Slag rivets

More than three million rivets were used to weld together the hull’s steel planks. Those planks were of good quality. But the rivets have been disputably been pointed as a faulty and poor material choice of the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff. Around 60% of the hull used the better-quality steel rivets, but on the bow and the stern, the rivets were iron wrought. When plates from the hull were recovered, after the Titanic’s wreck had been discovered in 1985, the rivets were analysed. They were found to contain impurities, known as slag, making them brittle and prone to snap under strain, especially under pressure or extreme cold, such as the iceberg-infested waters of the North Atlantic.

Broken and deteriorated rivets found in Titanic's wreck
Rivets salvaged from the Titanic’s wreck. Author: User 699. Source

When the iceberg impacted against the starboard (right hand side) of the Titanic, the rivets snapped off and the hull buckled, allowing water to gush faster than it could be pumped out. Could a better choice of rivets had prevented it? Maybe. However, the Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, which also used the same rivets, had withstand collisions against other ships without the rivets breaking apart.

The only known picture of RMS Titanic (right) and RMS Olympic. Both ships were almost identical. Picture taken by Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff. Source

3# Watertight bulkheads

The Titanic hull was divided into sixteen compartments, which housed the boiler rooms, engines, mail room, cargo holds, etc. Those were separated by watertight doors and bulkheads running the width of the ship. The problem is that those watertight bulkheads weren’t sealed at the top. The Titanic was designed to be able to sail with two flooded compartments, and could even had managed with four. But when the hull’s planks caved in with the impact, the rushing water began to pull the bow down, and list it over two degrees. This allowed the water in the flooded areas to slip over further compartments, just where the bulkheads weren’t sealed.  Like an ice cube tray.

A map depicting the sideways of the Titanic, its decks and compartiments
Map of the ship. In blue the compartments. In red the watertight bulkheads and in green the places where the hull caved in. Author anonymous. Source

Had the watertight bulkheads been slightly taller, the Titanic might even had stayed afloat, and help might had reached them on time to rescue everyone.

#4 Watch out with the icebergs!

The Titanic had received several iceberg warnings all day long, but both Captain Edward Smith, and the Titanic radio operators apparently cared little about it. At the time wireless radio operators were all employed by the single company, and were paid for message, so weather reports weren’t much of a cash cow for them. Jack Philips, the Titanic radio operator on duty on the 14th of April 1912, had been busy, clearing a jam of passenger’s messages from Cape Race, because the radio had been broken the day before.

At 22:30 Jack Philips received a last warning of iceberg from operator Cyril Evans, of the SS Californian, but a stressed Jack Philips replied: “Shut up! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race”. After this Cyril Evans shut down his set of radio. At 23:40 the Titanic collided with the iceberg. Had Captain Smith paid heed to the warnings, the Titanic might had reached New York safe and sound.

We are sinking fast. Passengers being put into boats. 1.40 a.m
One of Titanic’s last calls of distress. It was recieved by the SS Birma. It was sent by Jack Phillips, who died later on that night. Source

#5 Slow don!

Captain Edward Smith was well aware of icebergs in the vicinity. He had received early warnings, and he even communicated the presence of those icy f****** to Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who agreed to take a southern route to avoid the deadly giant ice cubes.

Captain Smith with his full uniform and condecorations
Captain Edward John Smith. Author: New York Times. Source

Luck was not on their side, as increasing tides and warmer-than-usual waters  allowed for icebergs to drift further south than predicted. On top of that, Smith refused to slow down and continued steaming at 22 knots, two knots short of maximum speed. Although it seems recklessly stupid, it was a standard practice, as iceberg spotting, depended entirely on early warnings from lookouts, in the crow’s nest.

Again weather played unfavourable sea conditions, during the fateful night of the 14 15th. The sea was unusually quiet. Crashing waves against the iceberg would had allowed the lookouts to spot it on time. Therefore, Smith, the most veteran captain of the White Star Line, and an able seaman, should had known better. Moreover, the lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, later stated that they were never given any warnings of iceberg proximity, by Captain Smith. 

#6 Full speed!

I know what I said just above this line, but, ironically mantaining full speed was also an available solution to dodge the deadly ice cube. How? Recent investigations reached the conclusion that, when Fleet spotted the iceberg, it did so one minute short of the collision. It was first believed that the iceberg was spotted within 37 seconds for impact. But modern analysis suggests that First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, who was in charge (Smith was on his bed already), waited for half a minute to see if the vessel could safely pass next to the iceberg, without changing direction. It was a call of judgement. But Murdoch misjudged.

According to the original inquiries of 1912, Murdoch was concerned, and rightly so, that if he had turned the vessel, the stern would had collided against the iceberg. So instead of a full speed turn to the Titanic’s left, Murdoch ordered the engines on reverse, and then attempted to first slightly turn the bow towards the iceberg, and then full swing the ship to the left. However, by doing so, he critically diminished the ability of the rudder to turn. The manoeuvre wasn’t enough to stop a seven seconds collision with submerged parts of the iceberg, which scrapped sections of the Titanic’s frontal starboard hull.

Drawing indicating the trajectory of bow and stern
The manoeuvre Murdoch ‘unsuccesfully’ attempted to dodge the iceberg. Author: User:Prioryman. Based on the original of Ray ray ray. Source

#7 Charge!

Had Murdoch kept on the forward speed without reversing the engines, the Titanic might had totally avoided collision. Really?

As stupid as it might sound, a head-on charge against the tongue of ice that scrapped the hull, might had avoided the tragedy. Other ships, like the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm,  were know to had collided head-on against an iceberg and still manage to keep afloat. On a second thought this idea seems silly  as nobody would like to frontally crash against a massive ice wall, and the strength of the impact would have likely travelled across the length of ship, and snap off rivets from back sections, thus compromising the integrity of the vessel much faster than it did.

And obviously, when you see your ship heading towards such freezing monstrosity, your first thought is not about heading straight against it, but to attempt to dodge it, like Murdoch.

The picture was taken shortly after the sinking and it’s suspected to be the one that doomed the Titanic, since a smear of red paint was found on its waterline. Taken by the chief steward of the liner Prinz Adalbert. Source

#8 More boats for the Titanic

Although not per se a way to avoid the sinking, having more lifeboats and a better protocol for evacuation, would undoubtedly had saved more lives. The Titanic was fitted with 20 lifeboats. 14 made of wood with capacity for 65 passengers each, and 6 collapsible boats with space for 47 each. That is a total of 1.192 people who could be evacuated with the lifeboats. But the Titanic carried 2.224 people, passengers and crew, on-board. And that was not even anywhere near its full capacity.

Yes, yes, we all know the Titanic didn’t have enough boats. Where’s the news in that, you’re probably thinking. But what you didn’t know, is that British maritime law forced vessels of over 10.000 tones to carry 16 lifeboats. Which means the White Star Line perfectly complied with maritime safety regulations. There weren’t still enough boats to accommodate everyone, but standards of the time only contemplated transferring the passengers from a sinking ship to another. Few if none, expected the magnitude of the Titanic’s tragedy.

Passengers and survivors stare the Titanic's boats being loaded in the RMS Carpathia
The RMS Carpathia raising the Titanic boats on her deck after rescuing the survivors. Picture taken by HO, The New York Times. Source

#9 Captain Smith and the lifeboat drill

Captain Smith’s leadership during the evacuation was negligent. At 12:00am 15th April 1912, Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s naval architect, said the ship would irremediably sunk in two hours. Smith ordered his officers to muster the passengers for evacuation. However, at no stage Smith communicated them that the ship was doomed, neither he gave the order to abandon the vessel. After that, Smith was seen paralysed, neither giving orders nor supervising the evacuation.

The evacuation was chaotic, with each officer responsible for the boats, proceeding at his own criteria. When asked by Second Officer Lightholler, Smith agreed to embark women and children, but that was left for the officers to interpret. Some believed only women and children, while others believed it was women and children first. Be as it may, most of the boats departed half-empty, for the lack of children or women in that section waiting to embark, even when many men awaited too.

A dozen of Titanic's survivors with life vests
A boat with survivors from the Titanic rowing towards the RMS Carpathia. Taken by one of its passengers. Source

The highest mortality rate befell on the third class, because of its location deep down in the bowels of the ship. Many never made it to the upper decks because of the partitions and barriers that segregated them from 1st and 2nd class, and to compound the tragedy, many simply awaited from orders telling them what to do or where to go. Or simply couldn’t understand what was going on because many didn’t speak English. Also some officers refused or delayed 3rd class passengers embarking the lifeboats.

Smith is to be hold responsible once more, for he had cancelled the evacuation drill that was planned for the day just before tragedy struck. An estimated total of 500 lives could have been saved if every crew member had known what to do.

#10 Titanic’s last chance. The flares

Two public inquires, American and British, were set up to tie-up the knots, and find the responsible ones for such a calamity. The role of the SS Californian, the closest ship to the Titanic, was thoroughly investigated. His wireless operator, Cyril Evans, had turned off the radio during the night, but that wasn’t an uncommon practice. But it was later reported in the enquiries, that when the Titanic began to send distress calls, five white flares were shot to mark their location.

Herbert Stone, SS California’s Second Officer, saw it, and rushed to awake Captain Stanley Lord, but the latter dismissed the warnings and went back to dream with tities and sailor’s rum. Stone, however, felt uneasy, as he knew several flares weren’t shot in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, for no reason.

The California was the only ship that might had made it in time to rescue all the passengers and crew from the Titanic
For many decades it was believed the SS Californian might have reached the sinking ship in time to rescue everyone. But when Robert Ballard discovered the remains of Titanic and thus its exact position, this belief was put in doubt. Author: AvelKeltia. Source

The commissions determined that Lord’s actions were ‘reprehensible’ but no formal charges were brought against him. Many years later, when the Titanic remains were discovered, a re-examination took place. Since the ship lay 13 miles away from where it was believed to sink, it was determined that the SS Californian wouldn’t have been able to reach the Titanic on time to rescue everyone. The fate of the Titanic might, or might not have been averted. It was a ‘cascade’ of some predictable consequences, and many other unforeseen ones, that took place in one stroke. The British commission summed it up perfectly:

What was a mistake in the case of the Titanic will without doubt, be considered negligence in any similar case in the future.

The sinking was an accumulation of unfortunate events, and despite all the chances to avert the catastrophe, the disaster still took place. Perhaps the Titanic, the most luxurious, expensive and biggest liner of its time, was doomed to plunge on the seabed and ascend as one of the most famous ships in the collective memory. Until today, it is still debated whether the Californian could have saved the 1514 victims that perished with the Titanic. We will never know.

Dedicated to all those who died and rest in the Titanic, to those who fight to preserve and protect the wreck and its artifacts. And also to those who dedicate their lives to share the memory of the Titanic, and the story of its passengers