An experiment unveils the timing of the aft port boats

George Jacub

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I didn't know whether to cheer or to cringe.

Having completed my research into the timing of the first lifeboats to leave the sinking Titanic, plus the last boats and half of the middle boats I was looking at how to link my results into an unbroken timeline when I realized I had made a huge mistake.

The only saving grace was that it was the same mistake made by virtually all Titanic researchers---assuming First Officer Murdoch had crossed the ship to load Lifeboat No. 10 after he finished launching Lifeboat No. 15, the last of the rear starboard boats.

It dawned on me that we had all violated a basic rule of research which can be summarized by the aphorism 'water flows downhill.' In other words, don't overlook the obvious.

The obvious: Murdoch was in charge of loading lifeboats on the starboard side of the Titanic; Chief Officer Wilde was in charge of the port boats.

There was no way that Murdoch would cross into Wilde's territory. After launching starboard Boat No. 15, Murdoch would know there were still two starboard boats to load, Collapsibles C and A. They was his responsibility.

Wilde was responsible for the port boats, and he did not need Murdoch's help. As Murdoch lowered No. 15, across the deck four officers were at work loading and lowering the aft port boats---CO Wilde, Second Officer Lightoller, Fourth Officer Lowe, and Sixth Officer Moody.

And yet, there were witnesses who saw Murdoch loading No. 10.

How to reconcile Murdoch's undisputed presence at a port lifeboat?

I decided to search for the answer with a thought experiment. It's a research tactic used in fields as diverse as physics and philosophy. In essence it starts with the proposition "what if", followed by a logical extension of circumstances that would flow from the "if".

In this case, what if Murdoch had stayed on the starboard side of the Titanic, what would we expect to see, and is there any support for the results?

After lowering No. 15, Murdoch would go forward to Collapsible C, the lifeboat that was positioned to go into the davits after Lifeboat No. 1 was launched. What would he find there? He would find that Collapsible C was not ready to be loaded; there were no sailors around to get C cleared and into the davits. As early as the loading of No. 1 the deck there was empty of both sailors and passengers.

What would Murdoch do then?

Talk to the Captain.

If there's one thing clear about the sinking of the Titanic, its that all major decisions had to be cleared by the Captain. Lightoller went to get the Captain's okay to start loading passengers. When Chief Officer Wilde ordered Quartermaster Rowe to stop firing rockets, Rowe went to the Captain to doublecheck whether he should obey.

The Captain was usually found on the bridge or possibly near the wireless room on the port side of the ship. What would he tell Murdoch? Of that we have (indirect) evidence.

'Forget Collapsible C for the moment; start loading No. 2.'

For that's exactly where witnesses put Murdoch, loading Lifeboat No. 2 which was already in the davits and ready to go.

Now we can see why Murdoch was on the port side of the ship.

I next applied the thought experiment to Chief Officer Wilde.

Wilde, as noted, was one of four ship's officers at the port rear of the Titanic. Sixth Officer Moody was at No.16, Fifth Officer Lowe was at No. 14 and Second Officer Lightoller was at No. 12. Given that Lowe was actually in No. 14 and leaving with it, it stands to reason that CO Wilde would take the job of supervising the lowering of that boat.

Once free from No. 14, Wilde would, by the thought experiment, proceed to the front of the ship. After all, there were twice as many boats left on his side of the ship than on Murdoch's starboard side---No. 2, No. 4 and Collapsibles B and A.

Wilde would pass right by No. l0 which still wasn't in the davits. But there were two other officers in the aft area and none up front.

Upon reaching the bow of the Titanic, what would Wilde see?

Why, Murdoch at No.2.

You can imagine the conversation.

Murdoch would tell Wilde about Collapsible C and how he came to be loading No. 2.
What would Wilde do? Talk to the Captain, of course.

We know what Wilde then did, but he would have needed to clear it with Capt. Smith first.

Wilde crossed to starboard and, at 1:25 a.m., ordered the men who were firing the rockets to stop. He told them to get Collapsible C ready to load. Of this we have the evidence of quartermasters George Rowe and Arthur Bright.

And then? The evidence is that Wilde went back to port, his side of the ship, to take over from Murdoch. The Chief Officer wasn't needed at Collapsible C while the men cleared the boat and got it into the davits. He would load No. 2. while Murdoch, in turn, was ordered to see about No. 10. Steward John Hardy described for the Senate Inquiry seeing Murdoch go aft.

Mr. Hardy
"I had great respect and great regard for Officer Murdoch and I was walking along the deck forward with him and he said "I believe she is gone, Hardy," and that's the only time I thought she might sink---when he said that."

Senator Smith
"How long was that before your boat was launched?

Mr. Hardy
A. "It was a good half hour, I should say, sir."

Senator Smith
Where did he go then, do you know?

Mr. Hardy
He was walking toward the afterpart of the deck. That was before all the boats had gone.

Senator Smith
He superintended the loading of the boats?

Mr. Hardy
Yes, sir; he went to see if a particular boat was properly manned.

The thought experiment demonstrates why Murdoch was at Boat No. 10 and how he got there---by following the proper channels of command.

The movements of Officers Wilde and Murdoch have an added benefit. They help approximate the timing of the launches of the aft port boats.

But to do so I had to break one of my cardinal rules. I have always argued that its foolish to try to reconstruct what happened on the Titanic down to an exact minute almost 100 years ago. But this is exactly what I was about to do.

If Wilde was at Collapsible C at 1:25 a.m., he was at No. 2 at least a minute earlier, 1:24. Two minutes to get from the aft boats to the bow of the ship, means he left No. 14 at 1:22 at the latest.

It also means he left before No. 14 was lowered.

Lead fireman Thomas Threlfall, who escaped the sinking ship in No. 14, told a reporter he was ordered to abandon his post in Boiler Room #4 at 1:20 a.m. (The Bridgewater Mercury, May 1912). If he went straight up to the boat deck, he could have arrived at No. 14 within two minutes, using the British Inquiry Commissioner's estimate of 10 seconds to cover each deck.

But No. 14 is known to have been loaded under extremely disorderly circumstances. Men were pushing past the crew and jumping into the lifeboat, threatening to overturn it even in the davits. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe fired his gun three times to ward off anyone thinking of jumping into the boat as it was lowered. Wilde wouldn't have abandoned the lifeboat if the disorder had grown to the point where shots had to be fired to deter jumpers. So we can assume he left before the press of male passengers grew unmanageble.

So we must conclude No. 14 went down after 1:22. Pinpointing a time would take more work.

Starting again at 1:25 a.m., when Wilde gave the order to stop firing rockets and load Collapsible C, you can track First Officer Murdoch backwards to when he left the aft starboard boats.

If, as speculated, Wilde went to Collapsible C after finding Murdoch at No.2, you can say Murdoch was at No.2 at least a minute earlier (the minimum time for Wilde to talk to the Captain and cross the deck), i.e. 1:24 a.m. Still working backwards, it would take Murdoch at the very least 3 minutes to get to No. 2 from No. 15 (two minutes to get to Collapsible C, another minute to cross the deck and speak with the Captain.) That would take you to 1:21 a.m. Assuming he stayed with No. 15 until it was safely launched, is it possible to determine when No. 15 was lowered?

I have been using a rule of thumb of five minutes for the lowering of lifeboats, but that needs to be changed, not to conform with some predetermined theory, but with the facts of the sinking.

No. 13 went off at about 1:15 a.m. The lowering did not go well. The boat found itself being lowered into the path of a plume of water spewing out the side of the Titanic.

Dr. Washington Dodge provided this exciting account in a speech delivered to the Commonwealth Club San Francisco, May 11, 1912:

"The boat in which I embarked was rapidly lowered, and as it approached the water I observed, as I looked over the edge of the boat, that the bow, near which I was seated, was being lowered directly into an enormous stream of water, three or four feet in diameter, which was being thrown with great force from the side of the vessel. This was the water thrown out by the condenser pumps. Had our boat been lowered into the same it would have been swamped in an instant. The loud cries which were raised by the occupants of the boat, caused those who were sixty or seventy feet above us to cease lowering our boat."

Crewmen testifying at the official inquiries said they planned to use oars to push No. 13 away from the Titanic and out of the path of the condenser discharge, but it turned out that desperate act wasn't needed. The Titanic sank deeper into the sea, positioning the discharge underwater.

No. 13 was lowered by the davits to the ocean. But their drama didn't end there. A current created by the condenser discharge pushed No. 13 back directly under the path of Lifeboat No. 15 which by then was coming down directly on top of them. The crew managed to cut away the ropes holding them to the ship only seconds before No. 15 would have swamped them.

The point, though, is that No. 15 would not have taken 5 minutes (the usual rule of thumb) to lower. It started from A deck and the Titanic sank at least one deck by the time it was launched. Say by the time No. 15 was launched, it was taking lifeboats only 3 minutes to reach the ocean. This would put the launch of No. 15 at about 1:18 a.m. (1:21 as per above minus 3 minutes).  

It couldn't have been any earlier.  No. 13 went off at 1:15 a.m. There is absolutely no evidence that No. 13 and No. 15 were on A deck at the same time. So there has to be time for No. 15 to be lowered to A, and as many as 10 women and children to be loaded (according to testimony given to the Inquiries).

We know Sixth Officer Moody was at No. 13 as it was being loaded on A deck. And nobody from the surviving crew members recalled seeing him, or any officer, at No.15 when it was lowered to A deck. So it's looking likely that Moody was ordered to port when No. 13 was launched (about 1:15 a.m.). If he stayed as late as the launch of No. 15 (1:18 a.m.), he would get to the aft port boats a minute later, 1:19 a.m.

The evidence at the inquiries was that Moody and Lowe arrived at No. 16 and No. 14 respectively when both boats were almost finished loading. After conferring briefly as to who would go off in a lifeboat and who would stay, Moody supervised the lowering of No. 16. By this scenario, that could have started as early as 1:19 a.m.

Three minutes later, you have 1:22, the earliest time we deduced that CO Wilde could have left No. 14 and still arrived at Collapsible C by 1:25 a.m. Though only a thought experiment, it suggests that Moody could have launched No. 16, then taken over from Wilde at No. 14. Although Lowe, the more senior officer, was leaving in the boat, another officer would be needed to supervise the men at the davits to make sure they lowered the boat evenly without tipping it.

What about Lifeboat No. 12?

No. 12 was loaded and presumably lowered by Second Officer Charles Lightoller. But for unknown reasons, Lightoller never provided any details of his time at the aft port boats. Although he testified at both the Senate and British inquiries, and wrote a book in which he discussed his role during the sinking of the Titanic at length, he only spoke about what he saw and did regarding the port forward lifeboats.

Nevertheless, we can use the same techniques to uncover the timing of No. 12.

If Wilde was at Collapsible C at 1:25, ordering a stop to the rockets and the clearing of C, he would have returned to Lifeboat No. 2 about a minute later,1:26. This gives a hint of the time Murdoch would have received orders to go to No. 10 to see it loaded and lowered.

If he left immediately after Wilde showed up to supervise the loading of No.2, then Murdoch would have reached No. 10 about 1:28 (using the two-minute yardstick to travel the 400 feet from bow to stern on the boat deck).

Able seaman Frank Evans told the Senate Inquiry he assisted Murdoch, from the start, at No. 10. He had just finished lowering No. 12, he said.

"I lowered that boat, sir, and she went away from the ship. I then went next to No. 10, sir, to that boat, and the chief officer, Mr. Murdoch, was standing there, and I lowered the boat with the assistance of a steward."

If Murdoch was at No. 10 at 1:28 a.m., and Evans just finished lowering No. 12, then, accepting three-minutes to lower a boat by that point, No. 12 was launched at about 1:25.

Or maybe it was a few minutes later, and Murdoch had to wait until No. 12 reached the water.

That's the danger of trying to time things Titanic to the minute. There are too many variables without reliable witnesses.

However, if you stop trying to see the trees and look at the forest, you can use such an exercise to grasp the bigger picture. In the space of about 12 to 15 minutes, the three aft port boats were launched.

They had been loaded concurrently, starting about 1 a.m. Less than 20 minutes later, the first (No. 16) was being lowered.

Sixth Officer Moody takes on a bigger role than previously believed. He likely supervised the launches of both No. 16 and No. 14, and possible even No. 12, depending on when Lightoller left to go forward and get started loading No. 4.

That's how Titanic's Secrets Unfold.

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George Jacub


Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) An experiment unveils the timing of the aft port boats (George Jacub, ref: #13267, published 15 July 2011, generated 26th July 2021 02:19:52 PM); URL :