So Many for so Little!


Before and after Titanic, countless people have died through a desire to "save time". Modern newsmedia provide endless examples. Seldom has the ratio of deaths to imagined time saving approached that of the Titanic disaster.

Let's turn again to the Traverse Table and see what time would have been "lost" had Captain Smith been as prudent as Captain Rostron, who was cruising peacefully on a course which "wasted time" while ensuring safety. The answer will surprise many and dismay all.

Consider the ice reports which Captain Smith received on April 14th. One was relayed from Athinai by Baltic and was the one Smith showed to J.Bruce Ismay. It reported ice in 41° 51' N, 49° 52' W. Another came from Noordam via Caronia. This reported ice as far south as 42°24' N and extending from 49°50' W to 50° 20' W. This was acknowledged by Titanic and must have been seen by Smith or an officer, as its acknowledgement included a weather report. A message from Amerika, which was relayed to Cape Race by Titanic placed ice as far south as 41° 27' N. It is very likely that Captain Smith did not see this message.

Suppose Smith takes Athinai's message seriously and decides to take early and decisive evasive action. This is the most economical way and involves the least extra distance.

He decides to continue the last part of his great circle course as planned and continues to steer for the turning point at 42° N 47° W. On reaching it he turns onto 246° True and steams 147 miles to 41° N, 50° W. This takes him over twenty miles south of all known ice. He confirms this by radio and turns to 269° True, which will take him a further 1,087 miles to the Ambrose Channel, New York in 40° 32' N, 74° 02' W. The total to be steamed from the turning point at 42° N, 47° N is thus 1,234 miles.

On the course actually steamed Titanic, miraculously missing all ice, crosses 50° W in 41° 47' N, having covered 134 miles from 42° N, 47° W. She holds her course of 266° True for 1,088 miles to the Ambrose Channel. Her total distance is 1,222 miles. The distance saved is just 12 miles! That's 33 minutes at 22 knots!

I must add the proviso that these figures are calculated from the Traverse Table and are a little imprecise. The tables have limitations when the course is close to east or west. However, they are within the limits of practical navigation as done in 1912.

There was nothing to prevent this evasive course being followed. The steamer tracks were only recommended and could be departed from if prudence dictated. They were not Separation Zones, such as are seen in the English Channel and elsewhere. The risk of colliding with an eastbound ship showing her proper lights on a clear night was nothing, compared with the risk of reaching an icefield in pitch darkness. There was also the radio to check on the whereabouts of other ships. Titanic herself was lit up like a Christmas tree and was visible for many miles.

Both Parisian and Mount Temple took evasive action and passed south of the ice. Captain Rostron, according to Sir James Bisset, expected Titanic to do the same thing and expressed sympathy for Captain Smith, whose voyage was already not a fast one.

I personally do not believe that Captain Smith had any special reason for not heading south of the known ice. As a gung ho ship driver he didn't need Bruce Ismay to urge him on. He simply did what he had always done. He decided to hold his planned course and speed until ice was sighted or visibility deteriorated. At the heart of the disaster is a simple fact. Smith and his officers seriously over-estimated their ability to see in the dark. Maybe you can't teach an old seadog new tricks!

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