Eerie flat calm sea proceeding Titanic disaster


Jan C. Nielsen

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Dec 12, 1999
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One of the most haunting facts surrounding the Titanic disaster is the "flat calm" sea which the ship encountered just prior to its collision with the ice berg. This is something one has to experience, to appreciate. Further, I don't think the mood that such a sea evokes was captured effectively in James Cameron's "Titanic," which is unfortunate because if the "flat calm" had been effectively portrayed it would have fit well with the ghostlike pictures of the ship shown at the beginning. Many years ago I traveled across the English Channel from Southampton to Le Harve. Normally, the English Channel's seas are very rough. However, the ocean was absolutely flat with no waves whatsoever. It seemed as if the ocean liner just plowed through. As far as one could see, there were no other ships around, the water looked kind of brownish and "dead" - - the experience was something akin to the Twilight Zone. At the time, the sailors on board said they had never seen the sea so exceedingly calm. Truly, the "flat calm" adds a superstitious dimension to the disaster that I think a lot of writers, movie makers and others have failed to fully appreciate. Have any other vistors to this site experienced such seas on a voyage? Can you relate anything about it?
 

Mike Herbold

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Feb 13, 2001
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Joe:
Nice description. I've never had the opportunity to go on a ship, other than the calm Queen Mary parked in Long Beach, and some L.A. and Long Beach harbor cruises and the Red and White Fleet up in San Francisco Bay by you. What ship did you go on?
Mike
 

Jan C. Nielsen

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Dec 12, 1999
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Mike:
I traveled on the Holland America Line's Ryndam II, which is now the Copa Casino in Gulfport, Mississippi. An unfortunate end to a fine ship. My family traveled many years ago when ocean liners still made North Atlantic crossings. Most of the time, the seas were very rough, not a "flat calm," and I became seasick. One thing I've always wondered, and maybe some vistor to this site can answer, is whether the Holland America Line dock at Southampton, where I came in, is anywhere near the wharf where Titanic was docked. I recall that the wharf I docked looked similar to Titanic's. Does anyone know?
 

Robert Hauser

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Aug 18, 2005
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>>One of the most haunting facts surrounding the Titanic disaster is the "flat calm" sea which the ship encountered just prior to its collision with the ice berg.<<

Hey Joe,

I too have also found the element of the flat calm one of the more intriguing circumstances surrounding the incident. David Brown, in his book called "Last Log of the Titanic" is the only author that I have run across who attempts an in depth explanation of this phenomenon. As he is a former Coast Guard Commander, it is often interesting to hear the opinion of someone who has actual experience as a sailor.

Brown attributes the flat calm to something that occurs when water is just on the borderline of freezing, but has not yet turned to ice. Apparently, seawater in this state first begins to congeal into a multitude of tiny ice particle called "spicules". It is this that produces the oily, viscous sort of membrane on the surface, as has been universally recalled by survivors.

Another consideration was the ship's proximity to a giant belt of ice that was some 70 miles long, and 5 miles wide. This might have tended to form an enormous jetty that dampened wave action for several miles.

What a sight it must have been, huh? Wish I had a time machine.

Rob H.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Robert--

Thanks for the praise, but I have to keep the record straight. I'm not a former U.S. Coast Guard commander. What I am is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed master and of small ships at that.

The presences of a large amount of ice would tend to dampen wave action. This is the idea behind floating tire breakwaters used to protect small boat harbors...er, harbours...these days.

-- David G. Brown
 
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Adam Tarzwell

Guest
The eerie flat calm before the collision and during the sinking has always been one of the pieces of Titanic information that has interested me the most. Survivors described that sitting in the lifeboats felt as if they were rowing on a millpond. I specifically referring to Ruth Becker (god rest her soul) as she made that description in the A&E Death of a Dream Special. It is really creepy because in April you'd think the seas would be quite choppy but nope... weird. Perhaps if it had been choppy the life boats would have floated further away and would be further scatters perhaps hampering the rescue efforts from the Carpathia.
 

Pam Kennedy

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Oct 24, 2005
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If I'm not mistaken, the flat calm may have contributed (amongst many other things) to the collision with the iceberg.

In a typical ocean, the lookouts would have been able to see waves crashing onto the bergs ... no waves (and no binoculars, etc., etc) made it almost impossible for the iceberg to be seen until Titanic was practically on top of it.

I have been in dead calm seas, altho' not on a ship. When I was scuba diving, every now & then we would experience a dead calm in Atlantic Ocean waters off the US East Coast in North Carolina. I never really found it eerie -- it was actually kind of cool, because the ocean literally became a swimming pool. And as a person who gets nauseated just thinking about the mal de mer, I loved it!

However, warm, flat, bluish waters in the height of summertime would probably have a much different feeling to cold, flat black water in the North Atlantic in early spring
sad.gif


Really, a Hollywood producer couldn't have imagined an eerier, more dramatic backdrop to the story of a tragic ship sinking.
 
Feb 24, 2004
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Hi, Adam!

>>Perhaps if it had been choppy the life boats would have floated further away and would be further scatters perhaps hampering the rescue efforts from the Carpathia.

If it had been too typically choppy, they'd have had trouble even launching the lifeboats. The death toll would have been considerably higher than it was. As far as launching lifeboats goes, they could hardly have wished for a more perfect night - except for the freezing temperature, of course.

Roy
 
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Adam Tarzwell

Guest
Hi Roy
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Yes most certainly so they were lucky in a sense the water was calm. I cannot imagine how cold it must have been. I get a chill just thinking about it.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>If it had been too typically choppy, they'd have had trouble even launching the lifeboats.<<

I would point out that had the normal sort of conditions existed on the Atlantic that night, they may not have been able to launch the boats at all. Storms in that region are the norm at that time of year. The sort where boats would have been dashed to splinters against the side of the ship. Thanks to wireless, everybody would have known about what was going on, but precious few if any would have lived to tell about it.
 

matthew ewing

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Oct 10, 2005
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I thought that James Cameron did good when it came to the sea. He made it the "flat calm" sea witout making it look like a fake. You should remember that no matter how calm an ocean gets, or any type of water, it's still going to have some waves in it. But the way that the Iceburg popped up, was also really good, it gave you the sense of the Titanic meeting it's destiny.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>You should remember that no matter how calm an ocean gets, or any type of water, it's still going to have some waves in it.<<

That's not entirely accurate I'm afraid. Ever been to the Indian Ocean during the winter monsoons? I have, and the glassy dead flat calm is something you have to see to believe. It's also known to happen in the lee of ice fields where the ice acts as a breakwater.
 
Feb 24, 2004
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>>But the way that the Iceburg popped up, was also really good, it gave you the sense of the Titanic meeting it's destiny.

Except that's not the way it really happened. In particular, Fleet and Lee weren't being distracted by a couple of horny kids making out down on the well deck. There's considerable discussion over what actually took place between 11.15 and 11.40 that night and it doesn't resemble the movie at all.

Roy
 
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Adam Tarzwell

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Well the movie still demonstrated that they wouldn't have been able to see the berg until it was too late anyway.... and also no binoculars for whatever reason that would have also contributed. With no breaking water at the base the bergs would be virtually invisiable from a long distance. I also recall people saying the berg was defined as a blue berg, a berg that toppled exposing the clear ice that would normally be under the water. I remember someone saying that in Death of a Dream.... if so then at the speed Titanic was going it didn't have a chance in hell. So many things fell into place it really was god at work if you ask me. Fate as it were.
 

Pam Kennedy

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Oct 24, 2005
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In modern accident investigations (e.g., airplane crashes), rarely -- if ever -- is the conclusion made that one incidence of mechanical or human failure caused the tragedy. It is always a combination of several or many factors. Clearly, this was also the case with Titanic. Even removing one or two factors probably would not have influenced the final outcome. Is this fate? I don't know.
 
Feb 24, 2004
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Hi, Adam!

>>Well the movie still demonstrated that they wouldn't have been able to see the berg until it was too late anyway....

Read Olliver and Scarrott's testimony and try to account for the 5 to 8 minutes in between the 3-bell warning and the actual collision.

>>and also no binoculars for whatever reason that would have also contributed.

There's plenty of testimony that binoculars were only effective as a backup for the naked eye. The object would be spotted first and then the binoculars would be used to identify it (read Shackleton). 1912 binoculars weren't the optical marvels they are today.

>>With no breaking water at the base the bergs would be virtually invisiable from a long distance

Again, there's testimony that even on a dark, still night, an iceberg could be seen about a mile ahead - certainly in time to get out of the way. Remember also, that the lookouts both described seeing a "haze" in the distance. If that haze really existed, it was most likely the dull glow ("ice blink") from the big ice field they were coming up on. An iceberg, white or blue, would have been silhouetted by it much as it would have been by the stars.

>>if so then at the speed Titanic was going it didn't have a chance in hell.

Speed certainly contributed, but an over-all attitude check would have done wonders insofar as getting them out of their predicament before they ever got into it.

Fate? Well, perhaps - in the Kismet sense. But in terms of what they could have and should have done, hardly.

Roy
 
Feb 24, 2004
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Adam, I should add, though, that those poor, unfortunate lookouts were staring unprotected into a sub-freezing, 25+ mph, ship-generated wind. One thing binoculars would have been good for was shielding their eyes! It's certainly not the kind of duty I'd enjoy performing. . . .

Roy
 
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Adam Tarzwell

Guest
Thanks for your insight Roy
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Oh for sure that cold air I just get chills thinking about it. The if they did what they should have done we would not be hear today marvelling in story of the Titanic 93 years later.... but they didn't do what they should have and for whatever reason settled into history and the fascination of millions of people in the years to come.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Well the movie still demonstrated that they wouldn't have been able to see the berg until it was too late anyway<<

I'm afraid that movies seldom demonstrate much of anything. At best they can show what is known to have happened provided the producers got the history right. Even in the darkest of nights on the ocean, once your eyes have adjusted, you might be surprised at how far you can see. Mariners on the North Atlantic seldom had a problem spotting dangers in time to see and avoid on a clear night and the Carpathia managed that well enough on her run to the Titanic's position that night.

What's overlooked however is the sheer speed of the ships involved. Most of the body of experience was with ships capable of between 13 to 17 knots.

The Titanic was capable of a 21 knot service speed and had the horsepower to do more, and this changed the whole dynamic. Everyone was used to having the extra time to see and avoid possible with a slower ship, but a faster ship could cover more distance in less time, and that translated into less time to react.

>>and also no binoculars for whatever reason that would have also contributed.<<

Roy nailed this one. I've stood lookouts in adverse conditions of low visibility at night and while I had binoculars available, I never had much use for them. They may magnify something but they also severely restricted my field of vision and they were impossible to effectively search with. More experienced hands could do it, but seldom ever did. Binoculars typically come into use only after a target of interest has been spotted.

>>So many things fell into place it really was god at work if you ask me. Fate as it were.<<

I have to disagree with that. It wasn't fate but a long string of errors as well as bad navigational practice which led to Titanic's demise. A common thread in almost all casualties on the land, the sea, or in the air. Given the practice of cracking on in all conditions no matter what, it was a wonder that such accidents didn't happen more frequently. Divine intervention was not essential to any of that when people by their own mistakes cheerfully do all the dirty work.
 

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