Blame on Captain Smith


Adam McGuirk

Hey on this site I have heard people say don't blame Captain Smith for what happened to Titanic, it's not his fault. Well if its not his fault whose is it? He was the captain of the ship and what ever happenes to the ship good or bad isn't it the captains fault. I know Ismay was persuading him to have more speed but it can;t be blamed on him because wouldn't Smith still have the final say since he is in command
Essentially correct. As the master of the ship, the final responsibility rests with Captain Smith. Regarding Ismay's influance, that's a matter of some considerable debate. The Titanic increased speed gradually over the voyage to reach her service speed, but much the same had been done with the Olympic the previous year to get the engines run in. There is some evidence that a full power run was going to be attempted on Monday morning. Not an unusual occurance for a brand new ship.

As to whether Captain Smith would have the final say, legally the answer is "yes". But if the owner or a representative of the owner was "encouraging" him, he would be in a very difficult position as a practical matter to decline to accept such "advice".

Michael H. Standart
yeah it must of been a bad situation. he didnt want to get the lines chairman mad.
Regardless of the outcome in terms of death, Captain Smith was responsible for the overall safe and prudent navigation of his ship. No matter how you look at it, Smith did not do his duty in several respects. Lately Capt Dave Brown and I have been attempting to come up with an acceptable soulution to make Smith and Murdoch look as good as possible. The fact remains that by yesterdays standard Smith missed more then a few ques, which in that era would have resulted in the loss of his license. By today's standard Smith would be in jail. Regardless of what Ismay told him to do or not do, it was Smith's call.

It occurs to me that Smith and Murdoch could be faulted for serveral things before 1140. After 1140 they both did there duty to the best of there ability. They responded to the situation in way that I only hope that I could if called upon.

Very often I have spoke of hinsight in regards to folks blaming Smith for the disaster. I no longer think that hinsight applies. He had several warnings, and buy using standard navigation he was aware when his ship could be in ice. Regardless of how fast or slow the ice appeared, it appeared none the less. Smith nor Murdoch can be faulted for the sighting of ice, they can be faulted for running into at the speed in which they did.

Capt E.D. Wood
yes, but i wonder how many captains over the years acted just as "negligent" during an ocean crossing at night...probably's just you never heard about them because they got away with defense of Captain Smith, fate was simply against him, 101 times......he could have got away with 100, but not 101...
According to the accounts in the British Inquiry, captain after captain testified that he would be going full speed toward the ice, just as Smith did. And would slow down if and when the ice was sighted, and directly in their way.

In that sense, Smith was the one that got caught.

Regardless of that - as Erik says, Smith was responsible.
I'm afraid that you are wrong. I've been researching for an upcoming book on the Crew and Southampton with my partner and it appears that although nominally in charge under maritime law the captain can be "outranked" by the ship's owner. In the case of the Titanic Ismay, as chairman of WSL, was effectively the owner.

The fact that Smith had proved himself less than capable on many previous occasions doesn't alter the fact that IF Ismay told him to go fast (and the evidence suggests that this isn't the case) then Smith would have to have done what he was told.

I've was amazed at this - I always put it down to Smith. (But then, Smith wasn't the only bad apple in the crew).

Phil -- I am curious about the captain being "outranked" by an unlicensed owner. Such a situation would make a mockery of the whole concept of licensed officers. The reason for the required years of sea service and the testing is to make sure that the person at the top has demonstrated the knowledge and experience to be there. J. Bruce Ismay did little else but make a fortuitious choice of mothers.

This is not to imply that owners do not try to "outrank" their captains. It is fairly common practice for shipping company executives to make outrageous demands of their shipmasters. In my next book, I tell of a captain who sailed into the worst storm in Great Lakes history with his hatches open. He feared losing his command the following season if he was even a day late on his last trip of this season. Neither he nor his ship have been seen again.

Current maritime law (the "Rules of the Road") make it perfectly clear that everyone in the crew is responsible for the safety of the ship. The wording in part is, "...the owner, the master, or the crew" can all be held accountable for violations of the rules. But, at the same time, no one is expected to have a big "S" for "Super Sailor" on their chest. The rules only expect, "..the ordinary practice of seamen."

By the way, ships are also required to obey the rules. Vessels can be arrested, tried, and convicted "in rem" much like people. Thus, one infraction of the Rules can result in citations against the ship, the master, the crew on duty, and the owner--if all were involved.

Of course, the Rules of the Road only apply between vessels. They do not apply to situations involving an iceberg and a ship. Even so, they provide a guideline for determining whether a vessel was being operated properly or not.

The more I learn about 1912-era practices, the more I am inclined to let Captain Smith "off the hook" on the speed issue. It was the ordinary practice of seamen in those days to maintain speed even when ice was about. And, from certain testimonies there is reason to believe that it was quite possible to spot icebergs at a safe distance that night. So, while speed was a factor in the accident, I do not believe that in 1912 that Smith was negligent within the commonly accepted practices of sailors.

Ah, but that does not end the captain's problems. You see, Titanic had de facto "insufficient lookout" simply because it ran into an iceberg. Smith had no defense here. The conditions warrented extra lookout...the ship employed sufficient trained seamen to supply extra lookout...but no extra lookouts were posted. Even worse, Captain Smith did not ensure that those men who were on duty were utilized to best advantage.

It was in failure to maintain sufficient lookout that Captain Smith was deficient. And, as far as I can determine, Bruce Ismay had nothing to do with lookout at any time during the voyage.

The failure to maintain lookout is a broad net. It would certainly have caught the captain, but First Officer Murdoch would have been snared as well. He was the officer in charge of the watch. As such, it was his duty to maintain the lookout and to call for extra "eyes" if necessary.

In a nutshell, seven men were available to keep lookout that night: Smith, Murdoch, Boxhall, Moody, Olliver, Fleet, and Lee. At the moment of impact, only three of these men were in a position to have been doing so. And, of those three only one was protected against the bitter 22 knot wind caused by the ship's forward motion. That man was Murdoch and there is some evidence he may have been distracted by a navigational problem. (My current subject of personal inquiry.)

The "ordinary practices" of seamen 1912 may have allowed Smith and Murdoch to escape with just reprimands for speeding into an ice field. (Just because something is stupid doesn't mean that it is criminal.) Nothing could have saved them against charges of not maintaining an adequate lookout. Both men would undoubtedly been asked to surrender their licenses over the lookout issue.

Today, speeding into an ice field with inadequate lookout--causing loss of life--would probably become a criminal matter in addition to one of licensure. Jail time might result for the senior officers of a ship that performed as Titanic. The reason that things are different today is because Titanic proved the fatal danger of speeding blindly into ice. Neither Erik nor I (nor any other captain) can claim blissful ignorance. We know what happened to Titanic. That is knowledge that E.J. Smith did not have prior to 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912.

But, back to the owner overriding the captain's authority. If an owner did that, he would in effect be operating his ship outside both national and international law. In effect the ship would have no licensed captain and would therefore be considered "not seaworthy." In addition to being illegal, this would violate the seaworthiness clause of the ship's insurance, so the vessel would be without coverage. In the event of an accident, the owner could be held personally responsible under the law...and his company might not collect one cent from the insurance. Few men in Ismay's position at White Star are willing to put themselves in such legal periol or their organizations into such financial peril.

--David G. Brown
There isn't a Captain anywhere that hasn't broken the rules to make it to a port on time or any other number of reasons.

As Captain Brown is well aware I disagree with him on the speed issue. Just because others would have done the same as Smith, doesn't make what he did right. We all know what happened post 1140 April 14th. There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what happened pre 1140.

We do know the ship was traveling at full speed, after being warned, with only to two lookouts, and only one of the 5 stationed on the bridge was looking forward at the time of the allision. Granted we know this after the fact, and the only thing that makes this an issue is the fact that the ship hit something and sank, those where the conditions at the time.

Unfortunatly my own research has lead me to those conclusions. Regardless of what the common practice was in 1912 what happened happened. Just like today if I where to go bombing along the Detroit River at 15 knots and hit something and sink, I would be negligent. Even though it is common practice for ships to travel at that speed, and several Captains would admit to doing it. My license would be done for.

In my mind Captain Smith is ultimetly responsible for the loss of the ship in which he commanded. Regardless of what was tradition before 1140. His ship sank, under his command, while traveling at the ships full speed, after being warned of ice, with no extra lookout.

As to the owner vs. ship master issue. I hate to tell you all this but Phil is right, but so is Dave. After reading his post I became a little torked. So, I decided to look it up. It would appear that while the owner can not directly order a ship to change course or alter speed under current international law, he can force his captains do it. Even at sea. If a Captain refuses to comply with the owners wishes the owner can press formal charges against the captain and can have the ship detained or stopped in mid ocean by the local government under something similar as mutiny.

While Captain Brown is techincally correct, the owner buy title is the supreme ruler of the vessel, if the owner doesn't think the ship is being operated the way it should be, the owner can pull the plug. The only catch all is that the ship can not operate without a licensed Captain and crew, so they are suppose to be the voice of reason and usually are.

While at sea the crew is forced by law as Dave states to listen to what the Captain says, and carry out his orders, if the Captain doesn't carry out the owners orders then he to is punishable by law.

After some digging I note the case of a Indian owned tanker vessel bound for Anacortes, Washington. The Captain had received orders from his company to remain underway and not dock. His crew needed food so against his companies wishes the master docked the ship, in which time he was arrested and detained by the United States Coast Guard. Eventually the master was proven to have done the correct thing and was released. The living conditions for his crew where deploreable, and the company is the one that eneded up paying the price and getting into trouble.

A similar situation occured on the Great Lakes about a year ago.

So I guess both of you are right. While technically the Captain is responsible for the safe and prudent navigation of his vessel, the owner is responsible for the captain and there for in a weird and twisted yet, completely legal way out ranks the Captain.

That by the way is why the Ectasy was never abandoned during her fire. The Coast Guard told the captain to abandon ship, the Captain wanted to get passengers off, but the company said, keep them on the boat. They wanted to keep the illusion that the situation was more then under control and give the tv watching public the idea that the ship was safe. Once the company told the Captain, they told the Coast Guard the same thing, and then the Coast Guard said, keep your passengers on the boat.

Captains can never forget that the ship belongs to somebody else. The law recognizes this. A captain who sails to Zanzibar instead of Adelaide is going to have to do some explaining. The captain of any ship is bound to attempt the voyage as specified.

However, the owners do not have a free hand to force unsafe or unseamanlike operation. Although the owners can lay a charge of "mutiny," it is unlikely to hold up if the captain acted in a reasonable and prudent manner. Erik cited cases to show this.

Does anyone really want to suggest that a court would have punished Captain Smith for disobedience if he had prudently slowed or stopped Titanic at 11:15 p.m. that night because of dangerous ice? Punish a captain for not having an accident? Not only no, but Hell No.

Would Captain Smith have brought Titanic back from New York after such a performance? The answer is the same: not only no, but Hell No. Ismay would have been angry enough to chew steel and spit rivets if Titanic had arrived safe and sound in New York, but a day or two late. Former Captain Smith would have been told to walk home.

Regarding Titanic's speed -- Erik and I do not disagree on the speed issue in terms of its importance. Speed was a critical factor in the Titanic incident. My point is that the actions of Captain Smith with regard to speed were in full compliance with the standard practices of the shipping industry at that time.

Those standards allowed for "full speed" in ice because most ships still plodded along at less than 15 knots. That gave almost twice as long to recognize icebergs and dodge them as Titanic. Machinery had changed, speeds had changed, but the accepted practices of the industry had not caught up.

The current version of the Rules of the Road outline criteria for setting "safe speed." These criteria are designed to avoid collisions between ships, but are good common sense for avoiding collisions with big floating chunks of ice.

One guidline requires taking into consideration any hazards to navigation. Ice, of course, would be one such hazard. Another part of the Rule requires mariners to assess the state of visibility. While darkness is not considered "reduced visibility" (eg. fog), it does play a role in the state of visibility because objects are generally harder to see at night than during the day.

Using these modern rules, Captain Smith did not take into account that his ship was moving faster than the older, 15-knot liners of his younger days--yet the range at which his lookouts could recognize dangers was exactly the same. Ships were bigger and faster. Human eyes remained unchanged. Smith failed to realize that Titanic was moving so fast that it might not avoid some dangerous objects even if his lookouts performed their duties flawlessly.

The "balls to the wall" attitude of mail boats menaced more than just those ships. Fishing smacks and even some sailing ships were known to have been run down at night by fast steamers. Note that Captain Smith's first question was, "What did we strike?" And, QM Rowe at first thought that the iceberg was a sailing ship. That type of accident--not icebergs--is why the current Rules of the Road require ships to operate at a "safe speed" no matter what schedule the owner has imposed.

Captain Smith also failed to take into account the amount of ice that night. It seems obvious now, but more icebergs in front of the ship increased the chances of an encounter. Today's Rules do not require slowing for icebergs, but they do require taking them into account when determining "safe speed." The reason is that an iceberg may prevent a ship from taking the usual avoiding action to prevent a collision with another vessel.

Captain Erik and I are in full agreement that we would like to save both Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch from being blamed for the accident. That is the bond of mariners. However, we cannot do so. Titanic was traveling at excessive speed for the conditions. It had inadequate lookout. And, it as Erik pointed out to me, it appears that Murdoch lost his "situational awareness."

Smith and Murdoch screwed up and they paid with their lives. The problem was that the debt they created called for 1,500 souls..not two.

--David G. Brown

PS -- "Balls to the wall" is a phrase for mixed company. It refers to the spherical weights of a steam engine governor. As the engine speed increases, the weights move up and out--toward the walls. Presumably, once the governor weights reached the walls the engine could go no faster, hence the expression. In reality, the weights never went that far, but hyperbole is half the fun.

Next time...monkeys...
Dear Captain Brown,

Just read this thread and it is fascinating. I have always thought that Captain Smith did have blame in what happened to TITANIC, but now I understand after reading your book and this thread that Murdoch was also responsible. Thank you and Capt. Wood for your very interesting insights.
VERY good posts cap'ns! I am thankful that you are spelling this out for me/us. It is difficult for me to understand "blame" for someone who was not on duty at the time, but I am beginning to get the picture of why.

Without exactly knowing how to ask this, I will have to ask in basic terms. When Murdoch took over watch was he then the "acting captain in charge" or was all he allowed to do was "babysit" until Captain Smith came back on watch to make or change orders? Had he seen danger but was not immediate and decided that the ship needed to be slowed down, could he have done so, or would he have to wake up Captain Smith and bother him with this change? Could this have made the difference in the thought process between "Wow, we need to slow down" and "I know the Captain has had a hard day and I don't want to second guess his orders."
Thank you again.
I forgot a couple of things in my above post but Dave fixed it for me. When it comes down to the owner wanting to do something unsafe and the Captain refuses the captain will win in law all the time. It is also unlawful for the Captain to take the companies ship where the company doesn't want it to go, the only exception to that rule, is if where the captain wants to go is for the safety of the ship.

For some reason something hit me when I read Dave's last post. He is right. With the acception of the Lusitania and Mauetania 22 knots was a novelty. Testing out the new speed and getting used to it and how the ship would manuver around it hadn't really come up yet. However, if 14 knots was full speed to a vessel, then 14 knots was to fast to be going.

Dave and I should teach a class on how to be a Captain, oh wait... Dave already does.

Erik, David - thank you for leaping in with amplification and clarity.

Let me postulate a little further. As I said - the owner is overall in charge and <can> dismiss the captain at any time. Whilst I'm not suggesting that Ismay threatened this, I <am> suggesting that Smith would be well aware that he could. I would suggest that a reading of Smith's previous record indicates that his position as commodore at WSL was arrived at by something other than his exemplary seamanship.

However, Smith had been captain of the Olympic and was, therefore, acquainted with "high" speeds. The charge of speeding (as a new item)can't really stick as he must have been up to these kinds of speeds before.

Question - would Ismay have <nade> Smith go faster? The available evidence is that he (Ismay) told Smith to slow down and not to arrive in New York early as IMM/WSL would have arranged heavy press coverage for the arrival. This is corroborated by the WSL historian and archivist. However, the 3 sister liners were originally conceived as more luxurious, but slower, than the competition. What if Ismay had taken the notion that not only could they be luxurious but also fast? How much of an edge would that have given WSL over the competition? And, as this was Smith's retirement voyage, what a fantastic note to go out on....

I would postulate further - Ismay had some kind of mental breakdown, according to Rostron and his crew. Could that breakdown have been caused, not only by the loss of the ship but also by remorse over the number of deaths caused by Ismay's orders?

In regard to Murdoch's failure - there is evidence that he didn't react quickly enough to the warnings and also some evidence that his understanding of the Titanic's engines was such that his actions weren't necessarily the best in the circumstances. However, we come back to Smith again because WSL standing orders specifically required the Captain of the vessel to be on the bridge in the ice field situation. Smith had left orders to be called in the event of ice being sighted (if we believe the evidence) but he had left the bridge.

I would point out that all this took place in 1912, when a master/servant role was much more clearly defined than it is now. Erik's assertion that the captain will win in law may be true now - but I'd bet a pound to a brass farthing that it wouldn't have happened then.

And perhaps the 2 captains could clarify something that has been touched on (under current law)? If Ismay had "removed" Smith and replaced him with Wilde then surely Titanic would still have had a qualified captain in charge?

I'm also curious about the "mail boat" charge. Specifically because I cannot find any record of the point that Titanic became "RMS". She wasn't RMS when launched in Belfast but apparently was when she sailed from Southampton. The "Royal Mail" appellation is given specifically to vessels (and, nowadays, planes) but I can't find any mention of the specifics of this in the case of Titanic. I'd be grateful if anyone has any information.



Technically, if Ismay "fired" Captain Smith he had several more "captains" standing in the wings. Most of the ship's officers were legally qualified to take command. However, if Ismay's motivation was to require the master to do something unsafe...and E.J. Smith refused...the other licensed officers would have had to do the same thing. Dangerous is dangerous. I seriously doubt that Wilde, Murdoch, Lightoller, etc. would have accepted command upon the condition that their first order be to place the vessel in jeopardy.

From a practical standpoint, once a ship sails it is the captain's personal vessel. Even in 1912 the courts would have favored the captain's responsibilities over the rights of the owners -- provided that the captain was behaving in a prudent manner and conducting the voyage to its intended destination.

I must disagree that Ismay wanted the slow the Titanic. It is quite obvious that Ismay wanted a faster voyage than Olympic's maiden crossing. And, Ismay admitted during the U.S. hearings that some sort of speed "stunt" (my word) was planned for the Monday that never dawned. On the night of the accident, Titanic was actually consuming coal at a faster rate than her bunkers could have sustained for a full 7 days. Fortunately, the first part of the trip was slower and there was barely enough coal for a safe passage.

Captain Smith handed that famous Marconigram from the Baltic regarding the ship Deutschland to Ismay because it pointed out the folly of burning more coal than the bunkers contained. The Deutschland was out of coal...a drifting derelict...and as such was a menace to navigation. In effect, Smith used that Marconigram to tell Ismay that he was not going to get a high speed trip all the way to New York. Historians have mistaken the Baltic memo as an ice warning because it mentioned some ice. However, the real message was about a drifting ship where none ought to be.

Smith did not "leave the bridge" while the ship was in the ice. That is another distortion resulting from landlubber historians. (Not to offend anyone, but most books about the ship contain huge mistakes regarding the way ships operate.) Boxhall was very specific that the captain remained in the "rough square" formed by the chart room, forebridge, and the captain's private navigation room the whole evening. And, Smith was on the bridge during the final moments of the accident--this confirmed by Olliver and Boxhall. It is a myth that he was "off duty" in his cabin. He was very much part of the management of Titanic after about 9:45 p.m. that night.

The captain's job is not to take over every detail of conning the ship. Rather, he is to oversee the performance of his officers and crew. A good captain does not sit like a vulture on the bridge waiting to pounce on a bad decision. He gives his men some "breathing room," but stays in contact with events. A captain needs to have some distance from the minute-by-minute operations in order to make judgements of a more global nature.

Smith's actions throughout the evening were those of a prudent captain. He came on the bridge just as Lightoller was ending his watch. This was also the hour when the ship was expecting to enter the ice zone. Smith questioned Lightoller about the sitution...and then held a similar discussion with Murdoch. This ensured continuity of command across the change of watch. It also brought Captain Smith "up to speed" on the general situation.

Later, Smith did his own plotting of Lightoller's 7:30 p.m. star sights. This is unusual for a captain. Normally, that work would have been done by one of the officers and checked by the captain. However, Smith did it himself. This indicates that he had some concern over the ship's position, probably relative to the ice (and maybe to Deutschland).

Smiths famous instruction to, "Call me if it becomes doubtful," is a classic captainspeak. He was reminding everyone that he was the captain and they were to keep him advised. It was not necessarily the statement of a man on his way to bed. He would have said the same thing if he were going inside the chart room for several minutes. (I've used a similar phrase when leaving the wheelhouse for the necessary room.)

Regarding Ismay's "breakdown" aboard Carpathia. Maybe it happened, but I'm not convinced. Ismay could not have walked out of that cabin without risk of being attacked by several hundred newly-made widows. To the survivors, he was "Mr. White Star."

Beyond that, Lightoller admitted both in testimony and in his autobiography that he and Ismay concocted plans to get the surviving crew out of the United States before they could be questioned. What else went on in that room? Is that where the officers came up with the story that the ship sank intact? What about those coded Marconigrams? Oh, to be a fly on the bulkhead of that cabin.

Mail ships held contracts to carry the mails. To earn those contracts they had to be able to maintain certain minimum speeds. Need I say more?

--David G. Brown