The RMS Titanic (RMS = Royal Mail Ship) hit an iceberg on April 14th, 1912. It sank in the early hours of April 15th. More than 1500 people died.
The Unsinkable Ship
At nearly 270m long, Titanic was the largest passenger ship in the world when it was built. It had been designed by Thomas Andrews for the White Star Line, and construction took more than 3000 men and over 2 years in the Belfast shipyard. The total capacity of passengers and crew was said to be around 3500. Deemed a wonder of naval engineering, the boat that it was given the nickname ‘The Unsinkable Ship’.
Notable elements of the design included the four distinct funnels releasing exhaust from 29 boilers, and 3 engines. The rudder had its own engines to assist with steering. For safety, the ship was double-hulled, with 16 flood compartments that could be isolated if the boat was struck or leaked.
There were 8 decks in total on the ship, with the luxury quarters near the top (A deck), and third class passengers towards the bottom, with the final lowest deck for the engines and electrics. Amongst the amenities on board were restaurants catering to every class, a swimming pool, and a squash court. Being a mail ship, it also had an area for transporting cargo.
After some initial short sails around Britain, Titanic’s maiden passenger voyage was scheduled: Southampton to New York, via Ireland.
The boat sank on its maiden passenger voyage. It was heading to New York, via Ireland. It set out on Wednesday April 10th 1912 with 2224 people on board, which was a bit over half its passenger capacity.
For the first four days there was little incident bar warnings form boats further towards Canada of ice in the area.
At 23 40 on April 14th, close to Canadian waters, a lookout suddenly saw an iceberg in Titanic’s path. He raised the alarm, but it was too late: despite the boat attempting to slow, it struck the ice. The ice ground against the ship’s right side.
It was the manner of the scraping – rather than a straight collision – that was was to lead to Titanic’s sinking. Rather than extensive damage to one or two of its 16 flood compartments, it had holes punctured in at least 5. Water began to slowly fill each section, adding greater weight on the structure. This was a slow but guaranteed demise: nothing could be done to repair the damage, but it was not until after 2am on April 15th that enough of the boat was low enough in the water for the sea to start flooding through the forward deck.
Once water began entering the ship from the deck, the speed of sinking dramatically increased. The front of the boat was pulled down, lifting the back out of the water until eventually the suspended weight could not be supported and the boat broke in two.
The decision to abandon ship had been made just after midnight, and distress signals sent. However, the first boat able to arrive at the scene, the Carpathia, did not do so until around 4am.
Many errors accounted for the high death toll, most importantly that, despite several other boats radioing in large ice flows in the area, the Titanic did not slow its speed
Another error is believed to be that Titanic tried to avoid the iceberg by a more complicated process than needed, by reversing its engines; it is thought that if the ship simply tried to steer past the berg at its speed, it might have missed the iceberg.
Some other major safety procedures were overlooked: there were not enough lifeboats; a safety drill was cancelled on the very day the boat hit the iceberg; and binoculars for the look-outs were left in Southampton due a mix-up with keys.
Half-filled lifeboats were a famous problem: it is reported that the first lifeboat left the Titanic with only 12 people.
Bad luck was also a major factor: although the Carpathia came to the ship’s aid, it was not the closest ship. The California was closer, but its radio signaler had gone to bed and it did not investigate the lights it saw (Titanic’s distress flares). However, the Titanic also did not help itself: its distress call gave the wrong coordinates for its position.
Approximately 92% of people in second-class accommodation died. Only 328 bodies were recovered the next day.
The Titanic’s nickname of ‘The Unsinkable Ship’ is seen as one of the greatest historical examples of hubris. The mixture of hype, the degree of the disaster, and the manner in which the disaster occurred on its very first voyage, that has made it infamous.
Due to the high profile of the sinking, and the large death toll, action was taken to improve future shipping safety.
Titanic was one of three sister ships built by White Star Line. One of these was HMHS Britannic, which was sunk in World War I for the loss of 30 lives. Britannic remains the largest passenger wreck on the sea bed, with Titanic the second.
It was not until 1985 that the wreck of the Titanic was found by a team led by American underwater archaeologist Robert Ballard. The wreck lies nearly 4km below the surface and 600km from the coast, and has deteriorated badly since it sank. So far no credible plans to raise the wreck have been produced.