Six Seconds to Disaster - the Death of Titanic

As a professional mariner and Marine Accident Investigator, I was irresistibly drawn to the detailed information available concerning the few minutes before Titanic began her death throwes.

Six Seconds to Disaster - the Death of Titanic

Titanic Research

For almost a hundred years, scientists, historians, navigators and enthusiastic amateurs have delved into the mysteries surrounding the loss of the White Star liner RMS Titanic.

Some have concentrated on the engineering aspects of the ship... her engines, boilers and auxiliary machinery. Some find fascination in the lives of the people who were on board her on that fateful maiden voyage to New York. Yet others are interested in the aesthetics... her basic design, furnishings and fittings etc. As a result of all the digging and delving, there is now a huge database covering every single aspect of Titanic. Without doubt, all this information will be put to good use, resulting in a plethora of books, pamphlets, articles and short stories. All of these, scheduled to see the light of day at or near April 14, 2012... the centenary of that dreadful moment when the great ship struck an iceberg in the cold North Atlantic Ocean and plunged over 2000 fathoms down to where she now lies.

I am not about to produce a book or try and emulate all those clever people who have spent years minutely examining the circumstances surrounding the disaster and writing books about it. By April, 2012, there will be enough Titanic books to build a staircase to the moon thus avoiding the huge expense of using a rocket!

I am a relatively latecomer to this arena so have a very narrow field of interest in the subject.

I first joined this excellent web-site a couple of years ago and was astounded at the wealth of information contained within its pages. I was a struck by the depth of knowledge by many of the contributors. However, one particular part of the story fascinated me.

As a professional mariner and Marine Accident Investigator, I was irresistibly drawn to the detailed information available concerning the few minutes before Titanic began her death throes.

Like most people, I had sat through the movies and television programmes covering the accident. While these were excellent in their construction and production, I could not but chuckle at the artistic licence taken by those who marketed such entertainment.

The most glaring error concerned the time interval between the moment the iceberg was sighted by the lookouts Fleet and Lee and the moment the ice penetrated Titanic’s hull below the water line.

In various film versions of the accident, the officers on Titanic’s bridge could have sent out for pizzas while waiting for the crunch to come. That is understandable; such films were made to entertain... not educate.

Almost every paper and article I read concerning the final moments before Titanic’s original course was altered, caused me to doubt what I was reading. With few exceptions, they promoted a 37 seconds period to turn the ship 2 points... 22½ degrees to the left of her original course...the period from the time of the three bell lookout warning to the moment of impact.

Such a conclusion in itself is unremarkable but when that same 37 second interval of time is used to support other theories then a closer examination is necessary. One such theory connects the use of a second emergency helm order to the positions of the Leyland Liner SS Californian and  that of the sinking Titanic.

The most important part of the period between the lookouts warning and the moment of impact is the part starting with the first helm order. Specifically, the moment the ship’s head started to turn left.  I firmly believe that the time taken for this to happen did not exceed 6 seconds. Consequently there was no time to give or execute a successful hard-a-port helm order. But let’s be fair and have a look at the evidence for the 37-second duration.

The 37-second time to turn before Titanic hit the iceberg was based on evidence given by Robert Hitchens, the Quartermaster who was steering Titanic at the time.

Hitchens informed the US Inquiry that the ship’s head had altered 2 points to the left between the time he was given the emergency turn order and the moment the ship hit the ice. Since Titanic was at the bottom of the ocean, there was only one way to find out just how long it would take for Titanic’s bow to turn 2 points; by simulating the turn using Titanic’s sister ship Olympic.

The simulation showed that a 2 point emergency turn would take 37 seconds to complete. And so the 37 seconds myth was born. 

This test could not be an exact replica of the events that night. Never-the-less, it supported the theory that First Officer Murdoch’s initial hard-a-starboard helm order was immediately followed  by an order to turn the ship the other way... hard-a-port.  Let us consider the evidence put forward to support a second helm order!

Quartermaster Frank Olliver told the US Inquiry that he distinctly heard First Officer Murdoch give a second helm order to turn the ship to the right

Able Seaman George Scarrott said that when he saw the offending iceberg, it was out from the starboard side of the ship and agreed that this indicated that she was swinging away from it thus the ship was turning rapidly to the right.

A passenger stated that the iceberg was about 50 feet off the starboard side of Titanic confirming Scarrott’s observation

Conversely, Quartermaster George Rowe who was located at the ship’s stern told his questioners that the offending iceberg was 8 to 10 feet off the ship’s side. But when it passed his position, it was so close, he could almost touch it. If Titanic ’passed’ the iceberg, she did not swing away from it, as would be the case with a hard-a-port helm order given in sufficient time.

So how to treat these bits of conflicting evidence?

The evidence of Joseph Scarrott and that of the passenger points to the stern of Titanic swinging away from the iceberg as her bow turned rapidly to the right. But did the bow act in this way as the result of a helm order? Was there time to give a second emergency helm order?

There is no reason to disbelieve the evidence of Frank Olliver relative to the second helm order however there is enough hard evidence to state that such an order was not part of the iceberg avoidance manoeuvre. This being so, Titanic did not turn to the northward. Subsequently, the moving ship seen on her port bow in the early hours of April 15 was not and could not have been the SS Californian. So how to go about proving it?

Let us first look at the time to turn 2 points to port and the experiment to prove it.

The experiment made on the Olympic was fatally flawed. Simply because it was made by conducting an emergency left turn at speed without considering any other contributing factors. On the other hand, the Titanic emergency turn was not simple but extremely complicated. Olympic did not have the added problem of a very big chunk of ice virtually pushing on her starboard bow. Additionally, although the Olympic’s bow took 37 seconds to turn 2 points, Titanic’s bow did it in about 6 seconds!

The Six Second Turn

Titanic was steering a course of 265 True. Barring accidents or emergencies, she would maintain that course until she got close to her destination. As we know, a dire emergency in the form of an iceberg caused her First Officer William Murdoch to shout to the helmsman to put the rudder hard over to the left... hard-a-starboard!

Quartermaster Hitchens, the man steering the ship, immediately obeyed this order and spun the steering wheel over to the left as far as it would go. He had barely got the wheel over to it’s maximum when the ship hit the iceberg.

By experiment, it takes 4 to 6 seconds to turn a ship’s steering wheel hard over from the mid-ship neutral position. It follows that Titanic had changed from her normal course for a mere 6 seconds when she hit the iceberg... not 37 seconds!

Hard-a-Port

Now that we know that Titanic had changed direction for 6 seconds before she hit the iceberg, was there time for an effective reverse helm order to be given? The physical evidence of Able Seaman Scarrott and the passenger suggest that such an order was given. How else could the iceberg be 50 feet off the ship’s starboard side?

Let’s examine the possibilities.

The ship’s speed was close to 36 feet per second and we know from other evidence that she was damaged from just before the Forepeak bulkhead to a point just aft of the watertight bulkhead in boiler room 5... a distance of about 206 feet. This meant that the iceberg was in contact with Titanic for close to 6 seconds. Five (5) seconds after that the iceberg would be mid-ship. Ten, Seconds (10) later, it would pass very close to Quartermaster Rowe. So how was it that Scarrott and the passenger saw the berg clear of the ship’s side? I suggest the answer lies with the complicated physics involved when a very large ship travelling at speed, brushes against an immoveable object.

If we consider the iceberg in a pushing role...rather like a tug pushing on her bow then we might just have an answer to the mystery,

If, when a ship is turning, a tug pushes on the bow opposite to the direction of turn, the ship tends to turn back towards the tug doing the pushing. If the pushing effort is removed, the ship resumes her original direction of turn. It is all to do with an imaginary point on a ship called the ‘pivot point‘...the point about which a ship turns...much like the fulcrum of a sea-saw. Until recently, people thought that the pivot point was fairly fixed depending on whether the ship was going ahead or astern. Turns out, this is not the case. In fact, in certain circumstances, it actually changes position fairly quickly. The following rough sketch substituting Titanic’s iceberg for a tug might explain it better. The black arrows represent the sideways-pushing currents generated.

As can be seen, the pivot-point position changes quickly relative to the position of the iceberg. Initially, at B, the effort on both sides causes a resistance to a left turn and the pivot point moves aft. Eddy currents are set up on the port bow and the ship keeps moving straight.

At C, the bow moves into clear water. As more of it moves ahead of the pushing point, the bow swings to starboard and the stern moves to port.

At D, the contact with the ice is lost... no more relative push and the bow resumes it’s turn to port and the iceberg closes with the ship’s side. However, the beam of the ship reduces toward the stern so the ice passes clear... just!

The foregoing is one explanation as to why Titanic seemed to be turning under a hard right helm order given immediately after the initial hard-left one. But was there time to give such a second order? More important... was there time to observe the effects of it?

Earlier I explained that it took a maximum of six (6) seconds to apply full left or right rudder from the mid-ship position. Titanic’s rudder was hard left when she hit the iceberg. If, at that moment, Murdoch had ordered a hard right application, it would have taken about 3 seconds to return the wheel to mid-ship then six seconds to spin it hard over the other way. A total of nine seconds! In that time, Titanic would have moved on another 324 feet and the berg would be just over 300 feet from the stern. Five or six seconds later, it would pass Quarter Master Rowe. All of these estimates depend on Mr. Murdoch giving instant orders... without a second’s delay in his decision making. While this is possible, it is just not practical! Apart from the time factor, the rudder was acting in disturbed water and the ship speed was dropping rapidly. A second helm order would not have been effective enough.

Summary

There is no doubt that a second helm order was given. However, the physical evidence discounts the possibility of it having been given as part of an emergency iceberg avoidance manoeuvre. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that Titanic was deliberately turned toward the north.

As to that second helm order:

According to the transcript of the US Inquiry, Quartermaster Olliver stated that the second helm order was given when the iceberg was ‘away up stern'. According to the same transcript, part of his duties was to attend to ‘the lights in the standing compass’.

In fact, I believe that Olliver was indicating that the berg was away astern and that he was attending to the Standard Compass. The terminology used in the transcript is totally inaccurate!

There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the second helm order.

When it is a captain’s intention to put people in lifeboats, he will stop his ship and point her in the most favourable direction before doing so. He will take into consideration the prevailing conditions of wind and weather. Captain Smith had ideal conditions; he could point his ship in any direction. However, he would not do this or consider putting people in boats until it was absolutely necessary to do so. There was only one other reason why... after he had taken the way off his ship... he would start his engines once more and at the same time give a helm order. That would be while he still had hopes of resuming the voyage. In that event, it would be while he waited for departmental reports, he would turn his ship back to her original heading and be ready to carry on. To do this, he would order a brief half-ahead on his engine and if Titanic was pointing south; hard-a- port the helm. As soon as the ship‘s head started turning he would order stop engines and then steady the ship‘s head on her former course. At that time, the iceberg would be somewhere off the ship’s starboard quarter. This would be about ten minutes to quarter of an hour after impact. Shortly after that, Boxhall’s mystery ship was approaching Titanic from a westerly direction. It was not, nor could it have been the SS Californian.

Contributor
Jim Currie
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    Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Wednesday 4th January 2012, last updated .