If any one thing is guaranteed to raise hackles in the whole, sorry saga of the Titanic, it is the subject of the loading and lowering of the boats.
Consider this; there were twenty boats in all. There were some fourteen regular, five ton lifeboats, and an additional pair of cutters, as well as four emergency boats on board. Their total capacity was something in the region of 1180 people. Yet only 705 would actually make it into those boats.
The Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40 on the evening on Sunday, April 14th. But not until 12.45 on the morning of the 15th was the first boat- number 7- lowered from the sinking ship. With a capacity for some sixty five people, it left the Titanic carrying just twenty eight.
In many instances, the pattern was repeated. Boat number one, capacity forty, left carrying just twelve.
How could it happen? How could those boats- insufficient for around half of the 2200 plus people on board the sinking liner- leave with something like 475 empty seats? And how did it take so long to begin an evacuation that soon thereafter became almost ruthless in its desperate haste?
Some of the answers lie in the way that the Titanic was conceived and run in the first place.
When the writer Joseph Conrad derisively referred to Titanic as ‘a kind of maritime version of the Ritz’ not long before she set sail, he was closer to the truth than many then realised. The ship was staffed and run- in first class at least- like a top end, five star plus hotel.
There were literally hundreds of stewards, stewardesses, bell boys, chefs, musicians, postal clerks, and even a gardener on board the Titanic. They were there to deliver a level of service and catering excellence that would leave most land based hotels reeling in her wake.
But, for all of her finery and panache, the Titanic was not a hotel; she was a ship.
Of a total crew in excess of nine hundred, there were only something like sixty five trained seamen on the entire ship. That is to say, men who could be expected to carry out emergency duties in the unlikely event of an accident. Including, say, the loading, lowering and, indeed, the manning, of all the lifeboats.
Sixty five men out of a crew of nine hundred….
But the owners had thought of that. They had fitted the Titanic with a wonderful, new advanced system of launch gear for the boats. Known as the Welin davit system, it allowed for each lifeboat to be lowered smoothly to the sea by small, electrical engines. No need for a large amount of manual labour, and time saving to boot.
Of course, the boats could still be lowered manually, in the old fashioned way. This was all well and fine, if only one or two boats needed to be lowered that way.
But what happened if all of them needed to be lowered by hand, and quickly? That was the nightmare scenario that no-one could ever have envisioned. But that is exactly what came to pass on the night of April 14-15, 1912.
After the Titanic glanced against the iceberg at around 11.40, Captain Smith brought the ship to a standstill, and sent both his carpenter and Fourth Officer Boxhall down below to make an inspection tour of the damage. The carpenter’s report indicated that the ship was making water very quickly indeed.
Instead of ordering that the lifeboats be uncovered there and then, Smith himself then set off on a tour of inspection with Thomas Andrews, the chief builder of the ship. Their increasingly baleful progress through the damaged areas convinced both men that the Titanic was, indeed, going to sink. Here, valuable time was lost while the captain confirmed for himself what a perfectly qualified carpenter had already told him.
Now, Smith swung into action, and started swinging out the boats. He ordered that each boat be uncovered, filled with women and children, and then lowered away. On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller would be in charge. First Officer Bill Murdoch would officiate over on the starboard side.
Stunned, half asleep and disbelieving, the seaman of the Titanic began to gradually report to the boat deck. What followed was a black comedy, played out across the sloping decks of the sinking liner.
The normal, scheduled boat drill which should have taken place that Sunday morning had been cancelled at the last moment- by Captain Smith. There was nothing unusual in that back in 1912. Cancellations were as regular as Atlantic storms, just part of the increasingly cavalier mind set that had taken over even the best and most formerly prudent of ocean liner captains by the second decade of the new century.
Thus, the men had no actual boat assignments; everything they did that night was by instinct, rather than routine. And that work was far from easy.
Every single boat had to be stripped of it’s canvas cover- no small job in itself. Then they had to be swung out on brand new davits, lowered flush with the boat deck, filled with women and children, and then lowered a full seventy feet down the side of the Titanic.
Once afloat, they had to be disconnected from the ropes that had lowered them, and then rowed to the assumed safety of some nearby rescue ship. Each boat weighed five tons empty, and they would take the additional weight of sixty five frightened souls on board. In those days, each boat had to be rowed manually. There were no electric motors for the lifeboats.
You can see that all of this was a pretty tall order, in and of itself. It would have presented a huge challenge to a perfectly trained crew; even one that had grown used to working together over a long period of time.
But for the crew of the Titanic, untried and unused to working as a team, it was about to get a whole lot worse.
With the electrical supply available to the ship slowly failing, Chief Engineer Joseph Bell had to decide on priorities, and quickly at that. He decided to concentrate on keeping power going to the lights and the wireless room on board.
To facilitate that, he shut down the power to a whole raft of redundant, now pretty much superfluous power outlets. As the situation worsened, Bell and his heroic engineers ruthlessly culled every bit of machinery that they could in order to keep those other, more vital elements alive and in play.
One of the first casualties was the lifeboats’ winches. After all, the boats could be lowered by hand, couldn’t they?
So now, the small band of sixty five seamen set about the loading and lowering of something like twenty lifeboats. There were two groups of four boats on the forward deck, and another group of four located aft, on both port and starboard sides. The four collapsible boats were on top of the officer’s mess right forward, and were somehow supposed to be manhandled down and fitted into the forward davits, once those were empty. It was an utterly farcical placement.
Both Murdoch and Lightoller knew that the Titanic was sinking by the head. As her bow sagged down, the water would inevitably rise to the forward end of the boat deck first. Which made getting those first, forward boats away something of a necessity, if anyone was to be saved at all.
Now this woefully inadequate band of sixty five men embarked on a herculean task for which they had not been trained or prepared, in circumstances that could hardly have been more dire. They knew almost from the start that they were truly up against it.
The passengers, alas, did not.
While the all too alarmed passengers in third class were kept below by the series of locked gates mandated by US Customs to keep the classes segregated on ocean liners, their counterparts in first and second class were reluctant to even come out on deck, never mind enter the lifeboats. And, after all, why would they?
The only coherent thought that seemed to occupy Captain Smith’s mind that night was the need to prevent a panic. Simple maths informed his thinking on that front.
Some 2200 souls had been entrusted to his care, and he had lifeboats for less than 1200. The nearest responsive rescue ship was some four hours’ steaming away. And the Titanic had just over half that time to live.
Smith knew that over a thousand of his passengers and crew had nowhere to go but down. And he also knew that, as the ship sank further, awareness of their truly desperate plight could trigger an unstoppable panic, one that might result in even more fatalities.
There was no public address system available to the Titanic, so no general alarm was ever sounded. This largely explains why there was a lack of any initial panic; it was the end product of people’s largely complete lack of awareness of the true nature of the ship’s plight. And, up to a point, that fed into Smith’s hand.
So, instead of opening up the gates to third class, Smith tried to play an unwinnable poker game; passengers in first class were lulled with lively ragtime and other upbeat tunes in the warm, well lit interior of the ship. Outside, the night air was freezing, and the sound of the ship’s boilers, venting off steam through the whistles, was akin to a deeply unpleasant roar that made conversation- and, indeed, hearing any shouted orders- all but impossible. No, better by far to stay inside in the warm, comfortable surroundings that they had enjoyed so much over the last five days.
At the same time, the under resourced, over worked handful of officers and men on the boat deck were desperately trying to coerce passengers into the boats. But even the few passengers that did come out into the frigid night air were reluctant; wives did not want to leave their husbands. Extended families were reluctant to be parted. And the idea of climbing into those little boats, there to endure a potentially terrifying, seventy foot drop down into the darkness to drift about on the sea, seemed ridiculous. After all, they would only have to come back up the same way in a little while. After all, wasn’t the Titanic unsinkable anyway?
So, in that first, desperate hour, we find a fatal cocktail of events taking shape; overworked seamen, unused to working together, carrying out backbreaking work- so backbreaking that many of them were sweating in the freezing cold air- working frantically to manhandle these large, five ton boats out over the ship’s side, only to find that the handful of passengers that were about were extremely reluctant to enter them. Combined with an understandable desire to get those boats most threatened by the rising water away first, it is little wonder that things went to pieces.
Urgent, often haphazard work by a desperate crew was met with the utter complacency of many passengers in first and even second class that night, at least in that first hour. The result was the loss of almost five hundred more lives than were necessary; a shocking indictment. On the Titanic, almost everything possible was done for the comfort and leisure of the passengers, and almost nothing at all for their safety.
And, inevitably, as the tilt of the deck grew greater, the fear and panic did spread like sleeping sickness right through the foundering ship. When a wave of terrified third class passengers did come pouring up from down below, they had to be physically pushed back in some cases. For sure, shots were fired in the air.
For by now the boat deck was crowded, but the boats were mostly gone. And, as a few able seamen were sent away in each successive boat, so the numbers available to launch those last boats dwindled, even as their work load grew ever greater and more desperate.
What could they have thought themselves, as they worked like manic automatons to load and lower those boats, knowing full well that they had scant chance of finding a place in one for themselves?
Perhaps the one, true mercy accorded to those men is that they could at least lose themselves in a job of work. But those brave men would never be lauded like Wallace Hartley and his immortal musicians, or be showered with the kind of praise rightly directed at the likes of the wireless operators, the stewardesses, or even the hapless Captain Smith himself.
Complacency was the chief catalyst for this ocean going catastrophe without an equal. People will continue to cite the freakish weather conditions of that incredible night as a prime contributor to what followed, and that may well be so. The iceberg wasn’t seen until it was far too late.
But, in truth, nothing was a greater danger to the huddled masses on the Titanic than the ingrained mind set and mentality of those that conceived, commissioned, and then sailed her. That collision of overconfidence and nature was fatally compounded by a kind of complacent, Olympian blind faith in technology; one that eventually found its comeuppance on that cold April night back in 1912.