Captain Smith's crucial decision making


James Kinlaw III

did captain smith make the decision to pick up the speed despite the warnings of icebergs on his own or did he let the pressure of someone else do the talking?

Not sure if Capt smith decided to speed up on his own but the titanic was increasing speed each day she was at sea and therefore covered more miles each day. it was agreed that they (Ismay and Smith)would put her at full speed on Mon)( Bruce Ismay testified to that at the US inquiry) It is rumoured Bruce was putting pressure on Smith to make headlines. It was thought that they wanted to beat the Cunard record for the fastest run but that's not likely since White Line built slower, bigger ships, Cunard built smaller faster ships. It's thought that maybe the record that Ismay wanted to beat was the Olympic's maiden voyage. I believe that ismay did put pressure on Smith because he showed Ismay the warning and had to retrieve an ice warning from ISMAY THAT HE SHOWED HIM EARLIER
Ismay undoubtedly wanted Titanic to beat Olympic's maiden voyage speed. Even in 1913, shipping companies wanted their latest vessels to be bigger and better than older bottoms in the fleet. Increasing Titanic's tonnage through the use of those "Ismay Screens" and other minor changes were part of this concept. Titanic was virtually identical to Olympic in every meaningful way, but was made to be "bigger" just for appearances sake. Undoubtedly, Britannic would have come out even "bigger" than Titanic and made an even faster maiden crossing.

Beating Olympic's maiden voyage was well within Titanic's capability. But, that alone would not have required taking any unnecessary chances. After all, Olympic's maiden voyage speed was nothing to write home about. It wasn't even close to a speed record for the North Atlantic. So, while there was probably great desire for Titanic to be faster than Olympic on its maiden voyage, there was little necessity.

That said, we know Titanic's speed was increased throughout the voyage as the machinery was increasingly "run in." This was normal procedure. (Most people under 30 don't remember the day when you had to "break in" a new car by running in slowly and at varying speeds for 3,000 miles.) By Monday the engines would have been ready for Ismays great speed stunt.

But, the accident happened on Sunday evening. At the time Titanic was making 22 1/2 knots. That's not a breathaking speed for a trans-Atlantic liner in 1913. In fact, an overall speed of 22 knots is needed to keep the sailing schedule demanded by White Star. So, Titanic cannot be said to have been "speeding" across the ocean at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. It was simply making the speed demanded by the route.

As late on April 14 as the second before the accident, Titanic was being operated in the normal manner for a trans-Atlantic liner. Those ships did not reduce speed just because there might be danger ahead because the passengers demaned fast passage.

Looking back from a safe distance of 90 years, we have a tendency to say, "He should have known." But, what should he have known -- that Titanic would run over an iceberg? That it would sink before dawn? We know those things, but what we know as facts were future events unknowable to Captain E.J. Smith. We cannot ask him to have changed his decisions based upon foreknowledge of future events. Titanic was making 22 1/2 knots because that's what its builders, its owners, its passengers, and its captain wanted it to be doing at 11:39 p.m. on April 14, 1912.

-- David G. Brown
What you say makes perfect sense, except that it is not just "from a safe distance of 90 years" that people have questioned Smith's wisdom. Many at the time thought it would have been prudent for him to reduce speed. Other ships that night did just that - Californian for example stopped completely(and yes I appreciate that she was not a passenger liner). No less a person than the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was called to the American Inquiry as an "ice expert", was certainly of this opinion.It is also interesting that he was of the opinion that Smith was pressurised by the wishes of the owners and was critical of the fact that owners exercised so much influence over ships masters. Smith it should be remembered was the senior White Star captain, a position that would have been impossible to attain in class ridden, elitist Edwardian society without licking a bit of ass.Smith "should have known" and did know that ice had been reported in the general area that his vessel was in,and even without these warnings Shackleton was of the opinion that given the sea and air conditions on that fateful night a captain of Smith's experience should have been able to judge things better. What the builders, owners and passengers want is one thing, but they are not professional sailors, the safety of the ship at the end of the day is the skipper's responsibility AND HIS ALONE.On that night this responsibility was Smith's and he blew it. That may sound brutal but it is I'm afraid the sad truth.Smith with his bearded, "amiable seadog" image is often portrayed as a likeable, innocent old chap. I feel that the truth is somewhat different.
James Maxwell.
James -- The captain is always responsible. He cannot be separated from his ship. My point is that Titanic was following what is quaintly termed "the ordinary practice of seamen" on that fateful night. And, we cannot expect that Captain Smith should have exercised better judgement based on what we know 90 years after the fact.

Smith had good company that night. Captain Lord of Californian did not stop because there was ice ahead of his ship -- he stopped only after running into the ice and discovering that it could not be penetrated safely. Three nights earlier Niagara did not stop until it smashed head-on into an iceberg. Captain Affeld testified that Red Star Line ships contined at speed through the ice that night, except for one that was forced to slow because of conditions similar to those faced by Californian.

Here in 2001 we have a cultural perception that everything should be "safe." But, ocean travel is by its very nature a dangerous undertaking. If Captain Smith had done everything possible to avoid danger, Titanic would have rusted away in the graving dock. Even there, it might have been in danger from falling off the blocking. Bubble wrap was 70 years in the future and cosmoline was a military item. Yes, it's silly to think that Titanic could have been protected against all dangers--including icebergs. It was built to cross the Atlantic on a 7-day trip, which is what it was doing.

But, just because responsibility for the accident with an iceberg must be Captain Smith's, that should not make him shoulder the full blame for the quick foundering. The captain did not design or build a ship that had several fatal flaws. He did not put that firemen's tunnel into the bow that gave water potential access to four compartments from a single injury. Smith did not build the watertight bulkheads a deck too low. He did not use rivets with high amounts of slag. The good captain had no say in deciding the number of lifeboats.

So, if we want to play the modern blame game, I have no trouble in saying that Captain Smith was responsible for the original iceberg accident. But he cannot and should not be forced to carry sole blame for the sinking of the ship. Pirrie, Ismay, Andrews, and Wilding (among others) must carry the burden of a flawed design on their shoulders. They could have prevented or delayed the sinking of Titanic when the ship was still pencil lines on paper. A few strokes with an eraser...a few more sketched lines...and there might have been no reason for this web site.

As I have said many times previously, history is unfortunately not a record of what might have been. E.J. Smith was not perfect, but I am coming to see the man as a far better captain than I gave him credit for in my book.

-- David G. Brown
While it is not like me to disagree with Captain Brown I have a couple of different look at this whole thing I think.

It is my view that Captain Smith and Smith alone is responsible for the death of his ship and those that he was intrusted to carry. As a passenger ship Captain I realize that this is a mightly hard view. Captain Smith may have not been responsible for the design but he was responsible for the safe and prudent navigation of his vessel. Regardless of any of the circumstances leading up to and during the disaster Captain Smith must shoulder full and sole responsibility for the outcome. For he was the ships master. Much like the King in a monarchy he is responsible for all that occurs. Whether his decisions were influenced by anyone or not it does not matter. The design would not be in question if the accident hadn't happened.

I would fully and completely agree with Captain Browns assesment of Smith during and after the accident. He was far from "zombie like". He was an active commander. He made several extremely difficult decisions that needed to be made and did them with out pomp and circumstance. He did what needed to be done.

It is also my view that Captain Smith was a outstanding commander as well as a skill Master Mariner. The above is a daily dose of I think badly needed reality. What happened is Smiths responsiblity. However, everybody is human. There has been talk of him being pressured into going fast by Ismay. If that is so that was still Smiths decision not Ismays.

The warnings are a whole other can of worms. A warning is just that. A warning. Much like Captains of today who receive on average of 60 different types of warnings in one 7 day trip. Everything from weather, to missing or broken aids to navigation, from tides, to piracy and just about anything else. Smith had a job to do. Get his ship from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

Captain Brown has several good points above. Risk is part of the business and Smith knew that. He took that risk. The same risk that Captain Turner of the Lusitania took when he decided to stop his zig zagging. He had a job to do and he did it.

Part of being a good "money making..." ship commander is assessing and taking risk. The other part is nature born leadership. Something that Smith had plenty of.

There is enough evidence to show that Smith was far from "zombie like" during the evacuation of the ship, or before it was decided that evcuation was necessary. The thought that Murdoch worked two telegraphs alone on the bridge that night and that Smith allowed for his ship to be navigated through a known icefield at night with only two trained lookouts and his Senior Watch Officer looking ahead is just plain not true. But implies that Smith was incompatent and that is as far from the truth as you can get.

It is rarely realized just how a ship works and no one seems to be able to account for the "missing hour". Captain Brown and myself are working hard to, for lack of a better word clear Captain Smiths good name. The actions of those on the bridge that night are far from known and far from unknown. Some day sometime somebody will come out with a new look at things. That someday maybe soon.

The point of this entire post is to show that as a Captain and Master Mariner I feel and know that had Captain Smith survived he would have taken full and complete responsiblity for the sinking of the ship. Because the ship would not have sank if certain precautions had been taken. However, the amount of lifeboats although not Smiths fault are something that he should have and probably did take into account in his decision not to do certain things. He can not be blamed for the amount of those that died but he can be held responsible for that fact that some died.

If Captain Edward John Smith is that man that I and hundreds of other mariners think of him. He would have taken responsibility for the loss of his ship but would have also made it known other things that needed to be known. Such as who pressured him into doing certain things. Where he was and other key people where and why. His word would have told the story.

Now before anybody tries to burn me at the steak these are just observations and in some cases reality. I could be wrong, Captain Brown could be wrong. None of us where there. I just thought that I would write a post that gives a hard reality check. Something that sometimes needs to be done.

Capt. E.D. Wood
Capt. Erik -- We agree that Captain Smith was responsible for the accident. And, we agree that he did a much better job of evacuating his ship than he is given credit.

My point is that by pinning all the blame on the dead captain, the investigators and the 1912 news media were able to sidestep a lot of issues regarding the inherent safety of the Olympic Class of ships. Two-thirds of the ships built to that design were lost to essentially the same damage. If two-thirds of the Boeing 747s or the Concorde supersonic airliners had crashed for the same reason, wouldn't we want to know what was wrong with the design? Essentially, that's what happened to the Olympic Class and until now there has never been a serious investigation into the design factors that contributed to the losses of those ships.

Everyone who know me knows that I am betting on the firemen's tunnel and associated stair tower and vestibule as the real design flaw. I know there are others just as positive that bad rivets were the fatal factor. Unfortunately, although the disaster has been discussed and written about for 90 years, it is only in the past few months that serious research has been focused in this direction. I do not want to see that focus lost by simply blaming Captain Smith and letting it go at that.

-- David G. Brown
Capt. Brown,

I agree completely that a better look at the entire disaster needs to be undertaken. Blaming Smith serves not purpose either. I would agree that in order to learn more we need to investigate and research all of the incidents and possible incidents involved. Captain Smith does not deserve the blame but as you and I both know that is how it goes.

I would further agree that blame does not need to be placed. Rather a reason for the class of liner's demise be brought forth. I know how much you think of the firemans tunnel and I have to say that I agree.

My main point was that Smith was not extactly a scape goat. He was responsible. However, efforts should have been and should be more concentrated on the technical aspects of the ships sinking. There are a lot of hidden secrets.

Capts. David and Erik,
It is fascinating to read the thoughts of two mariners in relation to this matter. I am not a sailor, but I have spent extended periods at sea over a number of years as a scientific officer on board research vessels in Antarctic waters and in the Southern Ocean. This has given me the opportunity to discuss Titanic with many experienced sailors, including some very experienced ice pilots. The vast weight of opinion that I have received from these men is that in their view Titanic was just travelling too fast given the information available to the master and the conditions on that night. This was Smith's responsibilty and his alone. This was also the thrust of Ernest Shackleton's testimony at the American enquiry following the disaster, and remember that Shackleton was also a merchant officer, who would be aware of "the Ordinary practice of seamen" as much as anyone. Neither do I think that Shackleton would have been comfortable with criticism of a fellow officer, something which I think both of you would understand.Nevertheless he felt he had to make the point. He also felt it necessary to make the point about the undue influence exercised by owners over their captains.
I said in my previous post that Smith would have had to "lick some ass" to attain his position and I am convinced that this is true given the known history of Edwardian England. I also think however that he would also have needed to have been a master of considerable ability, which he probably was. I say this only to assure you both that I was not trying to portray Smith as a "zombie" He was an experienced ship's master who like all the rest of us had human failings, failings that were sadly and cruelly exposed on that awful night.
I would also agree with Erik when he says that Smith was not particularly made a scapegoat for the happenings on the night in question. Stanley Lord was made much more of a scapegoat than Smith, and while I'm not going to reopen that can of worms I would simply say that both masters were culpable in their own ways.
I would also agree with Erik when he says that questions of design failings are irrelevant when it comes to deciding how much Smith's actions were influenced by others. Nothing has ever been designed even in this "more technological advanced" age that does not have design failings -i.e. space shuttle Challenger and The Herald of Free Enterprise to mention only two examples. These questions have however nothing to do with Smith's decisions as to how his vessel was handled. It is terribly sad that Capt. Smith died with his ship - he could have provided many answers. It is also terribly sad that 1500 people, with no opportunity to influence anyone either Master or designer also died that night.
It is also my view that Captain Smith for the most part made no errors in his decision making from the time the ship was known to be damage (1141 when Murdoch gave Smith the low down). There is only so much a Captain can do. After the orders are given there isn't much for him to do but watch and die.

It should also be made clear I think that Smith although completely responsible for the safe and prudent navigation of his ship, was only practicing what every passenger captain in every fleet of the time practiced. Getting from Point A to B in the fastest way possible. There is some testimony from a fellow Captain somwhere to support this. Hopefully either Captain Brown or one of the other researchers will be able to get me the passage.

The events just prior to the accident are not what they seem. They make Smith out to a very incompetent and ignorant commander. That is just plain untrue. Eventually I am sure that some research will come into to light that will show my point. James I am sure that you are a well versed researcher and I am sure that by now you have found that some things just don't make any sense. Of course I don't make sense sometimes either.

The crucial decision making that a Captain must make will be published in a article about Captain Stanley Lord which will be coming to a ET forum near you soon.

One aspect of the Titanic story that has always intrigued me is the difference between the way Captain Smith and Captain Rostran are treated with regard to the exact same imprudent and unsafe action -- namely steaming hell-bent through the ice.

I hope the romantics will forgive me, but it was just as stupid for Rostran to take Carpathia at "flank plus" speed through the ice that night as it was for Smith to run Titanic at 22+ knots through that same ice. In fact, Smith was the more prudent master because he was taking only the normal risk for a North Atlantic passenger liner. Rostran, on the other hand, was clear of the ice and chose to put his ship and his innocent passengers in harm's way. What Rostron did was directly contrary to his primary legal and moral responsibility for the safety of his ship and all who sail in it.

The difference between the two men is mostly luck and not prudence, skill, seamanship, etc. What would we be saying about Rostran if he had run Carpathia onto the ice? And, isn't it even more curious that the one captain who exercised true prudent judgement regarding the safety of his ship and its crew has been made the scapegoat of this tragedy. Of course, that mariner is the infamous Captain Lord of the Californian.

-- David G. Brown
On behalf of every Master Mariner everywhere I thank Captain Brown for that statement about Captain Lord.

There is no doubt about the fact that Lord could have been a little more forth coming with details about his decisions in both hearings. However, he did almost exactly what I would have done. He almost ran his ship into the icefield that was sinking Smiths ship. He was staying put. He had no intentions of getting his ship sunk. It was Lords right (just as it was Rostrons right to steam at flank + through the ice) to stay put. He was fullfilling his obligation to "Ensure the safe and prudent operation of the ship... as well as ensure the safety and afforded comfort of the passengers you are entrusted to carry". I have often thought of the comparison between Captains Smith and Rostrom.

The only thing that aided Rostrom was that he saved 700 people. I am not exactly sure that I would call his actions not prudent. Mainly because I am not sure of just what he knew of the icefield that he was getting into. Plus we have the fact that Rostrom did slow down once he was in the icefield and he posted extra lookouts. Smith did neither. But again, Smith was practicing what ever Captain of every ship was practicing at the time. He assesed the risk and took it. That is just how the ball bounces sometimes.

Captain Lord was made a scapegoat because he did what he suppose to do. He did not attempt to be a hero. He was a cautious Captain. If you research Lords past he was a extremely couragous man. He commaned ships in convoys in WW I.

Rostrom reacted to a situation that was beyond his control or lost what I would call his situational awareness. He saw somebodies elses problems and attempted to solove them. Where as Lord worried about his own problems. Which by law and moral obligation as Captain Brown puts it is all he was required to do. Titanic was not Rostroms situation. Titanic was Smiths situation. Reacting to people in distress is normal. But going hell bent through a ice field is boarder line. But Rostrom too assesed the situation and then reacted. He did what he thought was prudent. Maybe he was. I probably would have reacted the same way if I was in Rostroms position. I wasn't in ice. So go help at flank+. When I saw the ice I would slow down post extra lookouts and pick up who I could. Just a few thoughts.

You make a very fair point. Rostran did put his ship at risk and is often seen as the hero of the whole episode, and Lord who did nothing until daybreak is portrayed as the ogre who let 1500 people die. Of course Rostran could have justifed his actions by saying that he was rushing to save the lives of people in grave peril. As you say he was lucky to a certain extent, but he evidently thought that under the circumstances the risk was worth taking. The other point that is perhaps worth making is that neither Carpathia or Californian was capable of making anything like 221/2 knots. Carpathia's service speed is quoted as being 14 knots and perhaps she might have made a little more than this. Lord said that rushing to the scene in the morning he was making 13 knots, which brings us back to the original question - was 221/2 knots too fast for the conditions? Had Titanic been doing 14 knots would she have avoided the berg - very probably. Remember too that Smith would not have been able to justify his actions except to cite the phrase you used in an earlier post "the ordinary practice of seamen"
I doubt very much that speed had anything to do with it. Ships turn faster the faster they are moving. Californian could only do 13 knots and that was pushing it.

As a mariner yourself, you of course know far better than than I how ships handle. My point was that 14 knots would have put Titanic in a different part of the ocean in relation to the berg that was presumably drifting, and therefore avoiding action would not have been necessary