This weekend, the World has been remembering the sinking of the RMS Titanic one-hundred long years ago; arguably the most famous ship in history! Of course, the so-called “unsinkable ship” is so very fascinating because it … well, sank; tragically taking with it fifteen-hundred and thirteen passengers and crew, and making it the largest single loss at sea of all time.
Prior to hitting an iceberg one hundred and seven hours into its ill-fated journey, passengers had enjoyed comfortable (if they couldn’t afford luxurious) surroundings, superb cuisine, the most attentive of service and promise of a safe arrival in New York City. Alas, for two-thirds of its occupants, this was not to be, for one hundred and sixty minutes after its collision, the great ocean liner sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Titanic’s brief life has engendered hundreds of books, countless television documentaries, a Broadway musical, more than a dozen films, numerous Titanic organisations on no fewer than three continents and changes to safety regulations that make travel on the ocean waves one of the safest modes of transportation today.
My interest in the disaster started as a child, on discovering a book of my Fathers in his library. From that moment I was hooked – bedtime fairy tales were soon replaced with texts, pictures, facts and figures about the great ship. Inevitably I became a bit of a tomboy, and a rather huge Titanic buff. And as an adult I remain every bit the Titanic fan.
And so, in the spirit of the centurion anniversary, remembering Titanic and the souls who so tragically lost their lives, I’d like to tell you 10 things you may not know about the disaster.
1. Three ships – Contrary to the popular belief that Titanic was a one-off, there was actually three near identicle ships, commissioned by Bruce Ismay (Chairman) of White Star Line: the Olympic class ocean liners. They were called the Olympic, the Titanic & the Gigantic (later re-named the Britannic) – in order of their going into service. The Olympic launched approximately ten months prior to the Titanic, and successfully sailed to New York on June 14, 1911. The Britannic’s construction was completed shortly after the Titanic’s tragic maiden voyage, leading to design changes (later made to the Olympic too!) such as extending watertight doors from E to B deck.
2. The Bad Omen – As Titanic left the harbour on her maiden voyage, a smaller ship called the New York escaped from its moorings and drifted towards the giant liner. The ships came within centimetres of collision, which was averted only by stopping the Titanic. Many seamen called the near miss, by the New York on the way to New York, a bad omen. Evidently it was!
3. The unsinkable myth – In September 1911, the battle ship HMS Hawke collided with the Olympic, midship. The incident opened two of the watertight compartments – damage that would have sunk most other sea-faring vessels at the time. But Titanic’s sister ship withstood the leakage, permitting her to return to port for repair. The accident fuelled the Titanic’s unskinable myth.
4. Still waters made the iceberg difficult to see – Official investigations into the sinking of the Titanic faulted the crew and White Star Line for not having enough binoculars to hand, particularly in the crow’s nest where look-outs spotted for ice. The oversight proved pertinent that night because the ocean was still and there was no moon. Waves would have created mist off the iceberg, making it easier to see, as would light from the moon, had there been any! Lookouts spotted the iceberg just a quarter-mile away – too close!
5. There was another ship in Titanic’s vicinity – Somewhere between six to ten miles away from the location of Titanic’s sinking, another ship, the Californian, had stopped for the night because of ice – something Titanic should have done too! But the ship did nothing to save Titanic, leading to disciplinary reprimands for its Captain and crew following the disaster. Investigations concluded that unfriendly banter between the wireless operators on the Titanic and the Californian had caused the latter to sign-off for the night.
In a twist of fate, the wireless operator of the Carpathia, the ship which steamed to the rescue of Titanic’s passengers, returned to check the time over wireless prior to going to bed. If he had not done so, he too would have missed the distress call.
6. The legend of Molly Brown – In James Cameron’s romanticized version of Titanic, and indeed, across other accounts of the sinking ship, there exists a legend of the “unsinkable Molly Brown”, a staunch feminist who was ostracised by society and shunned by her family. In reality, the name Molly Brown was a Hollywood invention! First class passenger Margaret Tobin Brown was neither spurned by her family or society. And she proved to be a heroine of the Titanic; helping other people onto lifeboats after the ship struck the iceberg. She was eventually forced to board lifeboat six to save herself, but worked tirelessly to keep up the spirits of the other women passengers and dispel the gloom that was broadcast by the emotionally unstable Robert Hichens. However, Margaret’s most significant work was carried out on the Carpathia, where she assisted Titanic survivors, and afterwards in New York. By the time the Carpathia reached New York harbour, Margaret had established a survivors committee, been elected as Chair and raised $10,000 for destitute survivors. A truly remarkable woman!!
7. Locked below? – Every Titanic movie depicts third-class passengers trapped behind floor-to-ceiling gates. Careful examination of available plans of Olympic and Titanic reveals no such gates in passenger areas. U.S. immigration regulations required segregation of third class from first and second — the former faced Ellis Island inspection; all others landed directly at the pier. On Titanic, waist-high gates separated classes. Stewards nearby prevented gate-jumping. Eventually, they left to help in the evacuation, leaving gates unguarded, explaining a surge of third-class passengers onto the boat deck after most lifeboats had left. One Titanic author plotted more than 20 paths from third-class areas to the boat deck.
The high third-class death toll resulted primarily from language barriers, natural obedience to authority figures, refusal to leave male loved ones behind and the absence of communication.
8. One wrong turn. As Titanic’s grand staircase ascended to the boat deck, it divided into left and right halves. First-class male passengers who chose the left side were doomed; Second Officer Charles Lightoller strictly enforced the “women and children first” rule on the port side, allowing just one male passenger into a boat to help with rowing. Those who turned to the right at the top of the staircase had a chance to survive; First Officer William Murdoch enforced a policy of “women and children first, but men when there were no women.”
9. A Royal Mail Ship – The RMS Titanic was a Royal Mail Ship, a designation which meant the Titanic was officially responsible for delivering mail for the British postal service. On board the Titanic was a Sea Post Office with five mail clerks (two British and three American). These mail clerks were responsible for the 3,423 sacks of mail (seven million individual pieces of mail) on board the Titanic. Interestingly, although no mail has yet been recovered from the wreck of the Titanic, if it were, the U.S. Postal Service would still try to deliver it (the USPS because most of the mail was being sent to the U.S.).
10. The strangest of coincidences – Writer Morgan Robertson in his novel, the ‘Wreck of the Titan, or Futility’ predicted the sinking of the Titanic fourteen years before it really happened. In his book he tells the story of an “unsinkable” ship, the Titan, which sinks on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic, in April. Very few people survived because of cocksure constructors and a shortage of lifeboats – just like it really occurred fourteen years later in real life.