Captain Smith's role in the disaster


Jan 6, 2005
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Bob:

Thank you very much for some much-needed oil upon the water. I still think I should be absent from these pages for a bit, because I am having a lot of trouble with the didacticism I get whenever I touch upon the subject of the Cameron film.

Like it or not, that film is part of Titanic's cultural significance, because it is the main source of information most people have about the event of her sinking. Whether or not it is accurate in every least detail is certainly cause for informed discussion, but I can get a little tired of the blasts that come my way when I mention it.

For Mr. Standart: The eyewitness accounts of Captain Smith's conduct during the sinking are extremely valuable, but I consider them only one piece of a very large and very complex puzzle. It should be recalled that a number of eyewitness accounts - including Lightoller's - had Titanic sinking intact, leading to both the Senate's and the Board of Trade's finding that she sank intact, a view rather thoroughly disproved by later exploration and analysis.

I leave all of you for a little while, and I hope to be back sooner rather than later.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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>> I still think I should be absent from these pages for a bit, because I am having a lot of trouble with the didacticism I get whenever I touch upon the subject of the Cameron film.<<

Sandy, this is a forum for discussion and debate. What you're getting is not "didacticism." It is discussion, and debate. Point and counterpoint. NONE of us gets to have all our way. (By the way, for a definition of didacticism, see Didacticism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia )

If you're getting the impression that this is hostile on some level, I would invite you to check out the debates we've had in the past on both the Californian and reincarnation. Those were hostile.

>>For Mr. Standart: The eyewitness accounts of Captain Smith's conduct during the sinking are extremely valuable, but I consider them only one piece of a very large and very complex puzzle. <<

And movies play no part in it on any level. At best, they reflect the levels of either understanding or the misunderstanding of the legend by the producer.

>>It should be recalled that a number of eyewitness accounts - including Lightoller's - had Titanic sinking intact, leading to both the Senate's and the Board of Trade's finding that she sank intact, a view rather thoroughly disproved by later exploration and analysis.<<

Yes they did. What of it?

The way you trump evidence is with better testable evidence which falsifies what you had before.

Movies don't get you there.
 

Adam Went

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Apr 28, 2003
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Here's the dilemma. Movies like JC's are absolutely brilliant so far as raising awareness and interest in the Titanic goes - aside from obviously being great value for Hollywood itself. However, they should never be taken as historical fact. That's how good script writers earn their crusts - they take realistic/plausible scenarios and embellish them.

And that is where the dilemma occurs - such movies bring a huge influx of people into the Titanic world, but they unfortunately have gleaned most of their knowledge about the ship from the movie only. The best advice I can give is to watch the movies but couple them with historically factual accounts of the Titanic sinking, so that one is capable of deciphering the difference between fact, exaggeration and fiction.

Sandy, there's nothing wrong with holding the views you do about Captain Smith and expressing them - this is, after all, a public forum. You will find, as I have repeatedly in my 11 years here that there are certain senior members who hold very strong views on a range of issues and will not be swayed from them. That is their prerogative but please don't allow it to drive you away from being interested in and discussing the Titanic.

It would be boring if we all held the same views, after all!

Cheers,
Adam.
 

Jim Currie

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Apr 16, 2008
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Hello Adam et al.

I'm afraid I must confess guilt to the crime of didacticism. I very frequently pontificate too but my doctor is working on it.

Having publicly confessed my guilt, allow me to offer mitigating circumstances and excuses.

As some of you probably know; for 55 years from the age of 15, I was very actively engaged in the sea-faring world. During those long years, I served on ships similar to Titanic and many other ship types. I worked throught the evolution of merchant shipping right up until the year 2006. That included having been in many tight situations and seeing how men reacted to them.
Although I thoroughly enjoy such films, I cannot hold my tongue. Consequently, my wife will not sit through a sea-faring film with me. I do not visit public film theaters. Otherwise I would have heavy medical bills. If I see something that I think needs correcting or guidance in these pages and I have something to offer in the way of clarification then again; I can't keep my opinion to myself.

As for this forum; I thoroughly enjoy reading the opinions of all who post in these pages - professionals or otherwise. Both groups have a lot to offer. The one thing I have to offer is personal experience. It is my sincere hope that in offering it in an anecdotal way, I do not offend anyone.. particularly you Sandy. Like Bob, I enjoy your well balanced contributions

Jim C.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Jim, I find you not guilty. In your postings you do not patronise or belittle the contributions of us landlubbers, even though your knowledge and experience of the sea and ships far outweighs that of some others who do. When an armchair sailor (like myself!) reveals his or her misconceptions you do not scoff or berate. You patiently explain, always with good humour. And long may you continue to do so!
 

Jim Currie

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I thank you sir for those kind words. You're an orifficer and a getelmun! I Try.
Aaar Jim Lad.JPG
No.9 will be along shortly.:D

Aaar Jim Lad.JPG
 

Adam Went

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Yes, Bob is quite right in what he says and it was not my intention to single out any particular members, especially not you Jim. However i've been around enough forums over the past decade or so to see countless researchers and other interested parties, many of an extremely high calibre, leave in frustration because of the way their views are treated by their peers - the very worst of these which we know as "keyboard warriors". Where possible, this should never be the case. It is in the best interests of the future study of historical subjects to encourage the participation of as many people as possible.

Cheers,
Adam.
 

Jay Roches

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Apr 14, 2012
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Lightoller's description of the captain's actions at the American inquiry is too long to quote here, but it may show some of the origins of the 'stunned daze' idea.

Read it with this in mind: Senator Smith is probing into whether the captain was negligent. His job is to find the reason for the sinking, and he wants to know as much as he can about the captain's actions. Lightoller is answering honestly -- the captain told him to put the women and children into the boats and lower away, and he went and did that. Lightoller only describes seeing the captain helping to lower away the last boat on the starboard side and walking on the bridge.

Senator Smith jumps to conclusions, either directly stated or implied. He also jumps around in his line of questioning and he may not be clear about the sequence of events Lightoller is describing. The senator's conclusion is that Captain Smith was negligent, and he is not about to let Lightoller's answers get in the way.
 

Shel Cooper

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Nov 8, 2013
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Given the gravity of what he was presented with, he appeared to conduct himself pretty well. Yes, he did make the mistake of not slowing down, but when the ship hit the berg I'm fairly sure that popped up in the front of his mind. (Where did I fail/trip up?) He took care of business but as he did so, it would be safe to think he did lots of reflection. He knew he wasn't going to see land again. He knew lives were going to end, he knew his career was over. He knew that things had suddenly changed in a big bad way, and he knew this big brand new ship he was standing on and trusted to command would soon be gone. Gone. He knew that his decisions and and his alone brought the ship to this point, and he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do to fix it. What a horrible place to be.
 

Jim Currie

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Given the gravity of what he was presented with, he appeared to conduct himself pretty well. Yes, he did make the mistake of not slowing down, but when the ship hit the berg I'm fairly sure that popped up in the front of his mind. (Where did I fail/trip up?) He took care of business but as he did so, it would be safe to think he did lots of reflection. He knew he wasn't going to see land again. He knew lives were going to end, he knew his career was over. He knew that things had suddenly changed in a big bad way, and he knew this big brand new ship he was standing on and trusted to command would soon be gone. Gone. He knew that his decisions and and his alone brought the ship to this point, and he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do to fix it. What a horrible place to be.

Nice summary Shel. Only a little tidying to do; principally your remark "Yes, he did make the mistake of not slowing down,"

Had Captain Smith survived, it is highly unlikely that he or any other North Atlantic captain would have reported that he considered slowing down. It simply was never done in clear weather.
In fact, the Rules stated that "every vessel shall in fog, mist, falling snow, heavy rain storms, or any other conditions similarly restricting visibility, go at a moderate speed having careful regard to the existing circumstances and conditions." The conditions that night were perfect. Visibility was as far as the human eye could see. There was not a sea nor swell. There was not a wind and seemingly more than enough visibility to avoid danger should it present itself.
Although dangerous ice had not been reported in their path; the only concern was the odd 'growler' which might damage the ship but not sink her. Smith had already expressed concern about that to Lightoller before 10pm.
Previously. his officers had plotted the general positions where ice might be encountered. The Officer of The Watch and lookouts had been straining their eyes looking for "small ice" for over an hour before Titanic hit the offending iceberg. Given the conditions and intelligence, there would not have been any obvious reason for slowing down before it was necessary to do so.

Captain Lord of the Californian did not slow down and he too had all the ice warnings.

As far as we know, only one captain, Captain Moore of the Mount Temple diverted because of the ice but like the rest; he did not slow down. He might easily have encounterd the same iceberg that captain Rostron of the Carpathia made a last minute swerve to avoid just before he found the survivors.

Jim C.
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Whenever it is suggested that Captain Smith erred by not slowing down I become angry enough to chew steel and spit rivets. This bit of conventional nonsense passes for wisdom only because so many people have experience driving motorcars and so few have any experience conning ships.

Let me point out once again that a car operates on a narrow strip of pavement lined by curbs, trees, utility poles, signs, and all manner of other things. When danger threatens there is literally nowhere to go other than the pavement, so slowing or stopping becomes the safe thing to do. But, the Atlantic ocean in 1912 (or today) has no painted centerline, no curbs, no poles, and no signposts along the shipping lanes. This means that ships were (and still are) free to maneuver – steer around – danger. It is far wiser to give plenty of sea room to a danger than slow down. After all, if you simply go slower, you'll still run into that iceberg eventually. All you're doing is delaying disaster.

Captain Jim has quoted the International Rules regarding speed and the specific conditions when slowing the ship is required. Other sections of the rules also apply. Taken as a whole, the Rules of the Road require that ships always maneuver first to avoid danger. Only if maneuver (changing course) cannot by itself prevent a close-quarters situation is the mariner expected to reduce speed. So, the Rules by which vessels safely conduct their voyages look upon slowing as a second-choice option. Even today, Captain Smith would be correct in maintaining his speed on a night like that. He would, that is, provided that he took the precaution of maneuvering to avoid known danger such as a ice field across his bow. Which he did.

We know that Smith returned early from dinner that night. It appears he wanted to get a full report from Second Officer Lightoller on the situation before the senior officer's change of watch. The two men conversed about the cold and ice. Smith gave instructions for keeping lookout. Then, he went inside where according to Fourth Officer Boxhall the ship's master began plotting ice reports on his private chart table. This process of updating ice information continued right up to impact on the iceberg. Stories of the captain snoozing are downright lies. The evidence shows that Titanic's master was quite awake and planning a strategy to take his ship south of the ice.

Something for car enthusiasts to ponder. Slowing down would not have meant dropping from 22 to 20 knots, but rather from 22 to 11 knots or less. Every 6 minutes Titanic would have lost roughly a mile of forward progress; 10 miles every hour. But, even at that slower speed Titanic would have been forced to pick its way through the ice field – a dangerous occupation. However, by maintaining speed and maneuvering to the south Smith intended to avoid ice danger while still maintaining maximum velocity made good toward his destination. In other words, he chose what should have been the safest manner of passage that night.

Navigational evidence presented to the inquires by Fourth Officer Boxhall when combined with Titanic's two CQD distress coordinates show that Captain Smith turned left, taking his ship south of its intended track at 11:30 p.m. April 14th time. This first turn was one compass point, or 11 degrees of arc. When the 24 minute retarding of the crew clocks is taken into account this means Smith altered course for the safety of Titanic some 34 minutes prior to impact.

Yes, it can be argued that the captain's initial maneuver was too small for the circumstances. But, it is downright poppycock to suggest that a drowsy Smith “steamed blindly at high speed” into the ice. The facts do not allow such conclusions.

-- David G. Brown
 
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Shel Cooper

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Nice summary Shel. Only a little tidying to do; principally your remark "Yes, he did make the mistake of not slowing down,"

You're right, Jim. He followed the established rules and when danger came, they were too close to avoid it. Like David said, you can go slow but you'll still hit ice. The moonless night doesn't help when you're steering by eyes only. I do wonder whether binoculars would have actually been of help that night because even with them you can only see so much in the dark.
 

Jim Currie

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"I do wonder whether binoculars would have actually been of help that night because even with them you can only see so much in the dark.


There are a set of circumstances which escape the imagination. That's forgiveable for anyone who has not been at sea on a very dark night.
During daylight, we look directly at an object on the water. Our eyes are drawn to it. However at night, unless we have a target to focus on, our eyes look in a straight line directly at the horizon. But we all do not look at the same horizon. It is nearer to an observer who is low down and further away to one who is higher up. Now apply that to the lookouts and Mr. Murdoch on Titanic.
The lookouts would be staring ahead at their horizon. At the same time, Murdoch would be staring at his. Suddenly, Fleets sees a change in the line of sight. He does not know immediately what it is but keeps watching until he sees the 'dark shape'. He's been watching for 'small ice', not gigantic bergs and immediatly thinks correctly that there's 'small ice' right ahead of the ship. He leans back and gives the three bell warning then turns back to watch. Almost immediately he spots the ice and turns to the bridge phone.
Meantine, when Murdoch hears the three bells, he looks first with the naked eye. then not seeing anything, raises his binoculars. At this point he now has superior vision and a target area to use it on. Immediately he sees the ice berg and gives the legendary "hard-a-starboard" helm order. The rest is history. I do believe that if the lds in the Crow's nest had been using glasses, they migh well have seen the icebergs for what it was a little earlier but I also thing that the speed of Titanic would have eliminated any such advantage.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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Having stood lookouts underway under conditions of limited to non-existant visibility, I can well testify to just how next to useless binoculars are even in the daytime. At least for searching. Try scanning yourself sometime and see what it gets you. Your field of vision is severely restricted and if you don't scan and stop very slowly, you would be amazed at just how easy it is to miss something.

I learned very early on to use the naked eye for searching. Binoculars were of use only to identify a target AFTER it's been spotted. Any other time, it's an almost sure fire way to miss seeing it at all.
 

Jim Currie

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Absolutely! Michael.

I was taught to 'gaze' at the direction of the horizon and sweep. You will remember that if there was any anomaly at all, night or day, and you had young, healthy eyes, they were immediatelt drawn to and focussed on that anomaly, be it light or shape.

Jim C.
 

Dave Gittins

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I generally agree with Michael and Jim. One exception is that I find binoculars useful when looking for an object that I know is around and whose bearing is roughly known. A typical case is a navigational mark that is lost against the shore background.
 

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