Murdoch's orders after sighting the iceberg


Arun Vajpey

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One aspect that no one, not even the many sailors that I have specifically asked, has clearly answered the question about how the Titanic's stern 'swung clear' of the iceberg after the latter bumped and scraped along the bow to a point just beyond the 5th compartment. While most accounts now agree that First Officer William Murdoch followed up his 'Hard-a-Starboard' order with a 'Hard-a-Port' one, there seems to be some confusion about when exactly that second order was given.

Based on Hitchens' and a few other accounts, Murdoch allegedly answered Captain Smith's query by saying 'An iceberg, sir. I hard-a-starboarded and was going to port around it but it was too close. She hit it'....or something similar. In any case, Murdoch's statement gives the impression to a casual listener that he only gave the hard-a-starboard order (which would have turned the Titanic to port) and had no time to complete the porting around manoeuvre before the ship struck the berg. But was that really so?

We all know that in order to have successfully completed the 'porting around' manoeuvre, Murdoch had to give the follow-up hard-a-port order, thus turning the ship to starboard and so swinging the stern clear of danger. It is now accepted that he did give that order at some stage, and to some extent it worked because the stern of the ship DID swing clear of the iceberg. But could that have happened when the bow was right against the iceberg and so unable to turn starboard? I don't think so.

On page 72 of Paul Quinn's excellent book Dusk to Dawn, there is a picture of Titanic's wake while making sharp turns. This photo was really taken on the Titanic (and not experimentally on the Olympic) by Father Browne during the voyage from Cherbourg to Queenstown. Moreover, Titanic was almost certainly moving more slowly at the time (and so with a larger turning circle) than the 22.5 knots it was doing just before it struck the iceberg. As Quinn clearly explains, that puts paid to any theory that the Titanic was 'under-ruddered' and so unable to turn sharply.

But the one thing that the Titanic could NOT have done was to slow down quickly from a speed of 22.5 knots. At around 70,000 tons displacement and at that speed, shutting down and even reversing the engines would not have had any significant effect on the great ship's forward momentum in the short time it took to reach the iceberg. Unlike a lorry on a road, the Titanic was on water and so there was very little 'braking' effect.

Another thing that we have to remember is that of the 3 protagonists involved the collision - the ocean, the ship and the iceberg - two were definite objects and one indefinite. The sea was a vast, flat and on that night very calm body of water; the Titanic was ship of well known shape and dimensions; but no one knows precisely the shape of the underwater bulk of the iceberg apart from the fact that it was about 8 times larger than the part above the water. As an experienced seaman, Murdoch would have known that the part of the iceberg that he could see on the water surface was an illusion and the more important (and bulkier) underwater part was almost certainly closer to the ship below the waterline. And since the ship was a still relatively fast-moving long object in displaceable water, turning the bow to port (by his first hard-a-starboard order) would also swing the stern to starboard and so towards the berg. Therefore, he had to give a hard-a-port order when he considered appropriate to turn the bow to starboard and thereby swing the stern to port and so clear of the berg.

But we have already seen that the bow was bumping along the bulk of the iceberg and so could not possibly have turned any more to starboard in response the second order. But the stern did somehow swing clear of the berg and did not sustain any damage. How could this have happened?

The only explanation seems to be that Murdoch gave the second hard-a-port order BEFORE the Titanic actually struck the iceberg. Upon sighting the iceberg, he made a quick decision to 'port-around' it and so gave the Hard-a-starboard order, thereby turning the Titanic's bow to port. With its continued forward motion, I think the ship's bow actually avoided the berg during this initial port turn. During this part of the manoeuvre, the ship's bow would have just missed hitting the 7 O'Clock part of the berg (viewed from Murdoch's perspective).

But at some point (as mentioned above) Murdoch had to try to get the stern clear and so gave the Hard-a-port order. This turned the bow to starboard and towards the berg while the stern swung clear. But it did not work out the way Murdoch had hoped; because of the ship's continued forward movement in relation to the iceberg, the (now) starboard turning bow would have come-up against a different underwater part of the iceberg - something like its 11 O'Clock part (relative to Murdoch's ORIGINAL perspective)- which was closer to the Titanic and so damaged the ship's bow by bumping and scraping along it. Since the stern was already swinging clear when the collision occurred, the berg seemed to 'move away' from the ship as mentioned by several eyewitnesses moments later.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Arun.

In my opinion, if Murdoch gave that hard-aport order before the ship struck the ice, then the stern would have pulled well clear of the berg by time the berg was passing the stern. That is not what was observed. QM Rowe out on poop deck testified the berg was within 10-20 ft of ship's side as passed by where he was. It was so close he thought at first it was going to hit the docking bridge there.
 

Arun Vajpey

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But it is all relative, isn't it? No one knows the shape of the underwater part of that iceberg, which was a 3-dimensional object. As I mentioned before, the stern could not have moved clear with the bow bumping against the berg. Remember that the iceberg had a long east-west axis too, as measured parallel to the movement of the Titanic.

The 'further' part of the underwater portion of iceberg could have been closer to the ship's longitudinal axis as a result. Therefore, my argument is that it only took a small arc of starboard movement of the bow (in response to the second hard-a-port order) to cause the impact but at the same time the corresponding movement of the stern to port swung it clear. 20 feet is not an insignificant distance and QM Rowe in the poop was guessing based on the bulk of the iceberg towering seemingly so close to him. It could easily have been more - say 35 to 40 feet (the length of a medium sized house from front to back) and still appeared very close.
 

Arun Vajpey

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To illustrate what I am trying to say a bit more clearly (I hope!), consider only the (eventually) damaged section of the Titanic's bow in relation to the manoeuvres of the entire ship. When Murdoch gave the first hard-a-starboard order, this part of the ship would have swung away from the iceberg and avoided collision. But by the time Murdoch gave the second hard-a-port order maybe 10 to 15 seconds later, the ship would have continued to move forward. So, when that part of the bow swung starboard, it would have come up against a different underwater part of the iceberg, which was closer to the ship because of the berg's irregular shape. This therefore resulted in the impact but the stern just stayed clear because of its own port movement (going the opposite way to the bow).
 

Jim Currie

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Arun,

There has been quite a bit written about this already. You have answered your own concerns about this in your first post.
The manoeuvre of hard left then hard right is doubtless the classic, common sense way to avoid contact.
Murdoch was a professional to his finger-tips and would have known exactly how Titanic was going to handle under the circumstances of speed and time. That was part of the zig-zagging bits in the photographs you mentioned. It was not unknown for senior officers to 'test' a new ship to find out the handling properties.
The basic fact is that Murdoch did not have time to do other than take immediate evasive action. The Quarter Master on the wheel testified to this. His watch-mate testified to the fact that the reverse helm order was given after impact when the berg had passed astern.
However, your different underwater part contact theory is interesting. I visualise it like this:
 

Arun Vajpey

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Thanks Jim. That picture of yours - with the grey parts of the iceberg as the presumed underwater bit looked from above, is exactly what I was trying to say.

Let me get one thing straight. I am extremely supportive of Murdoch and to quote Susanne Stormer, he "made the best of a bad situation". I do not believe that any other officer, least of all Lightoller, could have done better unless by pure luck. The ship was moving too fast and the berg was simply too close by the time Murdoch could take action.

A lot of the correlation between Murdoch's orders and the ships manoeuvres during the impact are based on QM Hitchens' statements. Boxhall was not in an ideal position to make this correlation and both Moody and Murdoch died during that night.

I am sure that Hitchens was himself an experienced and capable sailor but there is a question mark about his personality - especially his cavalier attitude later in Lifeboat 6. Even if you discount Margaret Brown's accusations, over the years I have heard other reports that suggest that Hitchens was not averse to a bit of drama. That being the case, could you rely completely on his account about the orders and the ships manoeuvres?

Another important thing is that Hitchens would have been only too aware during later investigations that he himself was the man at the wheel when the Titanic struck the berg. Sure, Murdoch, as the officer on watch would bear the eventual reponsibility but it was Hitchens' role to respond to the First Officer's orders.

Let us assume that the collision occurred exactly in the way I theorised and you illustrated above. In Hitchens mind, there would be the feeling that he steered the ship to its collision, even though it was only in response to the orders that he was given by Murdoch. With Murdoch dead, it would not be surprising if Hitchens felt that the version he told the courts of enquiry was the best option. I do not believe it would have made a difference to Hitchens either way, but he perhaps thought differently.

PS: May I ask your permission to save and use your illustration to explain my theory to other Titanic friends? I'll see that you get the credit for it.
 

Arun Vajpey

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Thank Jim. While on the subject of Murdoch, I received some hitherto unpublished information back in 1985 while I was living in Burton-on-Trent. Unfortunately, I did not seriously follow it up until 1999 by which time the trail had gone rather cold. Still, I have done some interesting research on it and narrowed down the possibilities. Without supporting evidence however, I do not want to reveal anything on a public forum but would be happy to discuss its merits with you in private if I can have your e-mail.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Arun and Jim,

The problem I have with this scenario is that it does not match eyewitness accounts. To fleet and Lee it appeared that when the ship struck, the visible part of the berg was just ahead of the foremast where there were located. It also left chunks of ice below and just behind them in the well deck which obviously came from the visual portion of the berg. QM Olliver said he heard the grinding sound of the collision before he saw the berg passed aft of the bridge. The known underwater damage extended to about abeam of the 1st funnel. If anything, it is more likely that the underwater contour was pointing more toward the 7 to 8 o'clock position in you diagram, not 11 o'clock.
 

Arun Vajpey

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Sam, I do not think that proves anything. If the Titanic was porting around the berg in the manner shown by Jim's illustration, the relative positions of the foremast and bridge to the berg itself would depend to some extent on the position of the observer. Furthermore, with the ship making such a manoeuvre around the irregular berg, 'ahead' loses its meaning for a short time, again because of the perspective.

As I said before, the iceberg is the only unknown quantity in the collision. It was an irregular 3-dimensional object and some part of it struck the starboard side of the bow part of the Titanic. It is just as possible for the same damage to have occurred with the ship moving forward and turning starboard at the bow, which is the only manoeuvre that explains why the stern swung clear.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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The location of all eyewitnesses are known. The turning radius and other turning characteristics of the ship travelling at full speed are known. There is no way for the ship to do as you said and agree with what witnesses claimed they saw and heard. Jim's drawing was an attempt to explain what you described. He has long argued that the hard-aport order came after the berg had moved well aft of the stern, long after the damage was produced. I have tried to present the view that it came about the time the peak of the berg had just passed aft of the forebridge, after most of the underwater damage took place and ship still turning left, to port. You are suggesting the damage did not start until the ship's head was actually turning to the right, to starboard. Do you have any idea how long it takes for the ship's left turn to be checked once the helm was thrown over to the opposite side, let alone for the head to be swinging over to starboard?
 

Arun Vajpey

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>>You are suggesting the damage did not start until the ship's head was actually turning to the right, to starboard. Do you have any idea how long it takes for the ship's left turn to be checked once the helm was thrown over to the opposite side, let alone for the head to be swinging over to starboard?<<

Timeframes around the time of the collision seem to have become subject to argument. Most earlier accounts mentioned that upon sighting the iceberg, Fleet rang the bell 3 times and then (immediately) picked up the telephone to call the bridge. But in Dusk to Dawn, Paul Quinn suggests, based on survivor accounts, that there was a time lag, maybe as long as a minute, before Fleet, worried that the ship seemed to be still heading towards the berg, called the Bridge to check what was happening. Even then, Moody momentarily ignored the ringing before finally answering.

Murdoch himself believed that the ship could port around the berg; if it was as impossible as you suggest, I don't think a man of Murdoch's experience would have tried it. His report to the Captain after the impact suggests that Murdoch believed that he could pull it off when he tried it. All I am saying is that he nearly did.

In any case, mine is just another theory. It may or may not have happened that way but at least I am not suggesting that the Titanic never sank or was hit by a torpedo from a submarine.
 

Jim Currie

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Sam's right, Arun. I was merely letting you know by illustration that I clearly understood your proposition.
Sam is also correct in that I do not subscribe to the hard-a-port helm order as being part of the initial avoidance procedure.
I believe that all the professionals who were part of the UK enquiry team had the same idea as I now do. The length and nature of Hichin's questioning points to this.

You and Sam correctly interpreted the meaning of Murdoch's statement that he meant to 'port' around the berg. However, according to Boxhall, Murdoch went on to say "but she hit before I could do any more".
I think that's the key to what really happened. Because of the speed of the ship and the late-ness of the warning from the lookouts; there just was not enough time for such a text-book manoeuvre - not even enough time to use the reverse helm order to swing the stern clear.

What should also be remembered is that initially, Murdoch thought he had missed the berg - his bow had passed it and was swinging to port. By 'The Book'. his next order to the Hichins would have been 'mid-ship' followed by 'hard-a-port'.

Even after Titanic struck, all those involved thought it was a mere 'shave' and nothing serious. The engines were stopped as a precaution. I think the astern order was to stop the ship and not part of the avoidance manoeuvre. Such an order would only be given if by stopping the ship or slowing her down, damage would be avoided or kept to a minimum. Such a measure would be taken if a head-on collision had been in the cards.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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>>By 'The Book', his next order to the Hichins would have been 'mid-ship' followed by 'hard-a-port'. <<

I could understand why that would be so if Murdoch was sure that no further contact with the berg would take place as it passed aft of the bridge. But if he was not sure about that because the berg was passing very close alongside the ship's starboard side, then I believe on order for hard-aport would be given to try and check the swing of the stern toward the berg as it was passing aft. I agree with you Jim that the hard-aport order was not part of an attempt to port around because, as we were told, the berg was just too close to pull it off.
 
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Arun, have you taken the time to research what was offered in testimony at the inquiries themselves? If not, go to http://www.titanicinquiry.org/

Books such as Dusk To Dawn are nice, but the problem with any of them is that they often reflect the author's take on what was said and even the best of them tend to take some things out of context.

That's not to say that the testimony itself is an accurate reflection of reality, but at least you get the whole of what a witness claimed and in context.
 

Jim Currie

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We're just about there Sam! I only differ from you in that I'm sure Murdoch would have gone back out to the bridge wing and have a look before actually ordering the reverse helm. It would be the most natural thing to do - particularly if he did want to guage the speed of swing of the stern relative to the position of the berg itself. As I've said; he was a professional and would have a very good idea of time regarding the effectiveness or necessity of the reverse order.
I try to visualize what the sequence of events really were. Murdoch would focus his glasses briefly on the target ahead. What he saw obviously convinced him there was a chance to go round the target to port - possibly thinking he would go to port then come back onto his original course and carry on. He would be in the middle of this 'dream' watching the target as the bow moved to the left when impact took place.
At impact, I put him on the wing of the bridge and running for the telegraphs and WT doors. He was doing that when Olliver and Boxhall saw him. It seems that just then Smith appeared on the scene and demanded to know what was happening. Boxhall had just learned from Moody that they had struck a beg. I think it would be at that point that Smith & Murdoch with Boxhall in tow would move briskly to the starboard side and look aft. Murdoch's statement to Smith of 'that's all I could do' seems to bear this out.
 

Arun Vajpey

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>>Arun, have you taken the time to research what was offered in testimony at the inquiries themselves? If not, go to http://www.titanicinquiry.org/<<

Thanks Michael, I have that link on my favourites list. Another useful source is "TITANIC: The True Story" CD-Rom released a few years ago by the Public Records Office. If I recall correctly, they charged £99.99 for it!
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Well there is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately, too many claim to tell the truth, but in many cases they tell nothing more than what is drawn from hearsay items, or there own perceptions of reality. The absolute whole truth will never be known. We all need to accept that. I'd be most skeptical of anything with the word "truth" in it.
 

Arun Vajpey

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>>I'd be most skeptical of anything with the word "truth" in it.<<

I agree. Especially if it says "The Truth about the Titanic"
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