Morpheus on… Titanic: Driver Error

One hundred years ago, the “unsinkable” Titanic took around fifteen hundred souls to Davy Jones’ Locker. Since that time, there have been many other maritime disasters, but none has captured the public’s imagination like the one that overtook Titanic. And the arguments over the CAUSE of the tragedy have raged ever since.

There has never been any shortage of information – in fact the saga has been DELUGED with it. Thus interested parties have a plethora of causes to choose from.

The hull plating and/or rivets. Were either or both substandard? It seems not – given we now know the iceberg did NOT carve a long slice through Titanic’s hull. It merely opened up a series of slits just above her keel. And since the mechanical riveter could not REACH down there, the rivets had to be driven in by HAND – and the riviters could not use steel, so had to do with cast iron, instead.

In any case her sister ship, Olympic, was virtually identical and lasted twenty-five years without incident.

It was that bloody great ICEBERG that the plating and rivets could not deal with.

The weather. This undoubtedly played a part. Titanic was steaming along at nearly full tilt when the crash occurred. And why not? The ocean was millpond smooth and visibility was infinite.

But this was deceptive. The fact was that the weather was FREAKISH. A massive high pressure zone was parked right on top of Titanic. And only recently has a factor emerged that was unknown by the two enquiries held at the time. Because of that zone, Titanic was surrounded by a cold water MIRAGE.

We are all familiar with the mirages that occur in HOT weather – where the light is refracted in such a way that the horizon becomes distorted. The ground reflects the sky. And on that fateful night, such a condition prevented Aldis lamp communication between Titanic and the nearby Californian.

It also prevented Titanic’s lookouts from seeing the iceberg until it was dangerously CLOSE. The mirage effectively CLOAKED it.

Which brings us naturally enough to – the lookouts. Fred and Reg. Two guys up in a crow’s nest.

Due to a cock-up (? – see later) at Southampton, their binoculars were locked in a cupboard. It is unlikely they would have improved the men’s ability to see the iceberg more clearly – but they would have SHADED the men’s EYES and prevented them tearing up. Which they must have done, given Titanic was chugging along at around twenty-five miles an hour, through ice-cold air.

Another factor was that had the sea NOT been millpond smooth, white wavelets would have lapped the iceberg’s edges, making it easier to see.

A common misconception was that Titanic’s haste was because her owners wanted her to break the crossing record and snatch the Blue Riband from Cunard. This was never true. Titanic was BIGGER than any Cunard ship – but could never hope to beat them on TIME.

Another misconception was that Titanic’s rudder was too SMALL. This too is bollocks – it was plenty big enough to serve the purpose for which it was designed. But more of that later.

The BIGGEST misconception concerns Titanic’s lifeboats. It has been said there were only enough for the first and second class passengers – and that the poor sods locked down in steerage were considered EXPENDABLE.

Nonsense! Even in 1912, this would not have passed muster. The truth is the plebs in steerage were segregated from the nobs upstairs because many had an assortment of DISEASES. When liners hit New York, the great unwashed were offloaded onto Ellis Island, where they would be deloused and checked, before being allowed to mix with Americans. Then the Beautiful People would disembark onto Manhattan.

And as for the lifeboats, they were never intended to take ALL of the passengers in one go. Titanic was built specifically for the North Atlantic run – a VERY busy sea-lane, at that time. In the event of a problem, the lifeboats were merely expected to FERRY the passengers to another ship, in relays.

But unfortunately, when Titanic bounced off that iceberg, there were no vessels within reach – except for the Californian.

Oh, the Californian. Her story is one of woe. She could EASILY have taken Titanic’s passengers off – at least, those for whom there was no room in the lifeboats. Her problem was COMMUNICATION.

Back on Titanic, the radio had acted up on the previous day. And her radio operator was desperately trying to clear a backlog of mostly trivial messages, destined for America. Thus when a poorly trained radio operator on the Californian called out his iceberg warning, Titanic’s operator was BLASTED by his signal, the ship being much closer than Newfoundland.

A simple limiter circuit could have counteracted the problem, but such did not exist in 1912 – which resulted in a sharp exchange between the two radio men – after which the operator on the Californian switched his set off and went to bed. Fifteen minutes later, Titanic’s radio operator had cause to wish he had been more civil.

In fact, the Californian so NEARLY saved the day. In addition to its officers trying to signal Titanic, one stopped off by their radio room, just as Titanic was going down, to check the traffic – but a clockwork device that enabled reception had run down. A fact the officer had no knowledge of. All he heard was silence.

There were many other factors that contributed to – or exacerbated – the tragedy.

Enough to fill a book. But since there are HUNDREDS already available, this writer has no wish to add to them.

No, the reason he is writing this monograph is because for twenty-odd years, he was a professional DRIVER (of every kind of vehicle, in every kind of weather, road and traffic conditions – including off-road – for nearly a million miles) and sees Titanic as just another vehicle.

It had engines and a steering wheel – so it was a vehicle.

And the first necessity for safe driving is VISIBILITY. It is no use ploughing through the night unless you can SEE as far as it will take you to STOP – or at least, swerve.

Thus Titanic should have had bloody great SEARCHLIGHTS mounted atop her front end. The technology existed in 1912 and there were no oncoming motorists to moan about being blinded.

And her lookouts should have had EYE PROTECTION against the weather. Simple goggles would have done. Or glasses like those Bono wears. Titanic DEPENDED on those two men in the crow’s nest – their eyes were HER eyes.

Plus the crow’s nest should have been near the TOP of the forward mast – not halfway up it.

Which brings us to the nub of the thing. The DRIVER of Titanic.

But this is not as simple as when this chronicler used to hurtle through the dark on two-lane country roads, dodging stags and suchlike, in Norfolk. No, Titanic had SEVERAL drivers.

Chief among them was her First Officer, Will Murdoch. After receiving the iceberg shout, he did two things. If had done just ONE, Jim Cameron would be millions of dollars poorer today. But sadly, after ordering the wheelman to give Titanic left full rudder (actually, RIGHT – in those days, ships’ wheels were configured as tillers) he telegraphed the engine room to throw her into REVERSE.

(The Californian had earlier done the same thing and narrowly AVOIDED an iceberg – after which, its captain decided to STOP for the night).

But again, this manoeuver was a lot less easy than doing a handbrake turn in a CAR. The rudder was HUGE and thus, powered by engines, it took a while to respond. And down in the hell that was Titanic’s engine room, the chief engineer had to respond to the three bells, then order the two main engines to be powered down – then back up, in reverse.

The result of all this was that Titanic only began her turn twenty-six seconds before she impacted with her nemesis. It was not enough.

And yet it COULD have been. Titanic had three screws (propellers). The outer two provided thrust – but had no rudders. However, she did not need them. All of her manoeuvering in the ports was done by tug-boats. Only the CENTRE propeller had a rudder (for minor course corrections) but here lay the problem.

The engine driving it was a TURBINE which derived its power from the other two engines. And it could only go FORWARD. Once the engines were thrown into reverse, the centre propellor simply STOPPED.

Now for those who have never driven a power boat, allow this scribbler to EXPLAIN something. The water passing the rudder only deflects the boat marginally. Most of the turning power is effected by the water being driven past the rudder by the PROP.

It squirts it SIDEWAYS.

If you want to impress people when driving a power boat, a good way is to WHIRL your boat sideways and drift it into the pier. And if you turn the wheel and THEN cut the engine, this can be achieved. However, if you cut the engine FIRST and THEN spin the wheel, you will crash headlong INTO the pier.

And look a right prat in the process.

Therefore, what Murdoch SHOULD have done was just shout left full rudder – and left all the engines RUNNING (although if he could have stopped just the left one WITHOUT reducing power to the MIDDLE one, so much the better – the stationary left screw would have provided DRAG).  

Alternatively, if he had believed he could not turn Titanic in time, he could have left the wheel where it was and just ordered full reverse of the main engines. Titanic would still have hit the iceberg – head on – but only crumpled the first couple of compartments.

THAT she would have SURVIVED.

However it is easy to say that today, knowing what we know. Fact is, in 1912, no-one had ever had a ship sliced open by a glancing blow from an iceberg (or indeed, since) thus Captain Smith would have had some serious words to say to Murdoch, having been thrown off his bunk to find his brand new ship now had a flat snout.

Whereas had he ordered the turn WITHOUT reversing the engines, he could have JUSTIFIED that – for the reasons stated above.

Thus his best course of action would have been to ONLY hit left full rudder (and possibly, cut the left engine) hope Poseidon was in a good mood – and then if Titanic evaded the iceberg, slow the hell DOWN.

If Murdoch had just done THAT, all of the many circumstances that conspired to freeze and drown around fifteen hundred people – most of them poor immigrants who were just looking for a better life – would likely have counted for nought.

Titanic could have arrived at New York, with her passengers unaware of the disaster they had narrowly missed. Perhaps a few hours late – but they would have ARRIVED.

So it was Murdoch’s fault.

However, he had mitigating circumstances. As a highly experienced seaman, his seafaring skills – and initiative – were unparalleled. But on that night, his reasoning may have been compromised.

While Titanic was loading in Southampton, her staff was “reshuffled”. Whether this was at the behest of Captain Smith or the White Star Line is unclear. But the result was that Henry Wilde was drafted in from Olympic as Titanic’s Chief Officer.

This meant that Murdoch received a temporary DEMOTION to First Officer, while Charles Lightoller got busted from First down to Second Officer – and, like the end ball on a Newton’s Cradle, the vessel’s Second Officer, Davy Blair was bounced OUT.

Now at the time Titanic was approaching her destiny, Murdoch had had four days to assimilate this indignity – and to adjust his body-clock to his new roster.

But was he still ANGRY on that night? And/or TIRED, it being nearly midnight? As Chief Officer, he would probably have served on the DAY shift (Lightoller would have been on duty instead) and been tucked up in BED by that time.

It is well known that driving whilst annoyed and/or tired is NOT a good idea.

So it was STILL Murdoch’s fault.

But before closing this account, mention should be made of one last, curious happenstance.

Davy Blair may have had even MORE reason to feel humiliated by the reshuffle than Murdoch. One account has Captain Smith on the bridge, announcing their demotion to Murdoch and Lightoller – then telling Blair (in the other men’s presence) that he wished to have a private word with him.

No-one knows exactly what he said to Blair, but the upshot was that Blair was sent packing – literally. And while packing, he managed to “accidentally” pack the KEY to the cupboard that held the binoculars intended for the lookouts, Fred and Reg.

Did he do this in a fit of PIQUE?

Obviously, he would have known that an officer could easily have had an engineer break open the cupboard (but Titanic was a spanking NEW ship) or simply have sent up a pair from the bridge. Thus it never occurred to either of the enquiries to make a big deal about it.

But suppose the key “misplacement” incident WAS deliberate? Imagine how Blair would have felt, for the rest of his LIFE, knowing that not only had he escaped the tragedy – but might actually have CAUSED it?


The key still exists. It was last purchased – for ninety thousand GBPs – by a jewelry company in China. Some people claim to be able to receive “vibrations” from objects and artifacts, which reveal the thoughts of the people who have held it.

Perhaps one of THOSE people could tell us the truth…


2 responses to this post.

  1. Lots of new-to-me points here. Very interesting. I can only repeat my thing from 2008 LHR-LAX flight. Everybody was rushing, stowing, and then sitting. A young lad was on the tannoy saying “We will try to get away on time this afternoon.” And we did. Zoosh, and the 11 hours began. It took me a while to twig that, whereas 29 years ago (the previous last time I flew) I was young and the driver was old, NOW I WAS OLD AND THE DRIVER WAS THE YOUNG LAD WHO HAD JUST BEEN YAPPING!.

  2. Posted by Vincent on April 14, 2012 at 2:27 am

    I know what you mean. I’d heard it said you know you’re getting old when the cops start looking young – but now they, POTUS, James Bond, Pinky and Perky and seemingly EVERYBODY still capable of doing ten press-ups are ALL older than me!

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