Officer competence


Hello,

This is my first post, and am well aware that I'm in the company of folks who know far more about Titanic than me.

I have a question about the abilities of the watch officers on the Titanic, with special reference to Pilot orders.

Given the Olympic collision with HMS Hawke and the Titanic's near miss with the New York, even though ultimate responsibility for the ship was with Captain Smith, was George Bowyer incompetent to any degree with the faulty navigation of the ships?

In reading these pages for a time, I'm inclined to believe in the 'port around' theory regarding the collision with the iceberg. Murdoch was a seaman who understood that the schedule and the company was king and probably steered a ship through many tight spots in his time. I'm inclined to believe that he, and all the officers on the Titanic were effectively Formula 1 navigators, used to running at full tilt through all manner of navigational hazards.

Seamen of this high calibre had a full understanding of their ship's handling capabilities ( as evidenced by the tight 'S' bends that Father Brown photographed) and the hydrodynamic phenomena they encountered on a regular basis. Even if the did not comprehend the true physics, they surely understood the handling characteristics of their ships and how to cope with the very frequent hazards they surely encountered in their 'normal' working lives.

Was Captain Smith negligent by being absent from the watch in absurdly abnormal conditions?

Was Murdoch compromised by the speed set by the Captain on this night?

Or was he caught out this one time by a set of circumstances beyond his knowledge?

My understanding of Titanic matters has come from reading books and I've been interested in the ship for 25 years. Please correct any misunderstandings I have.

Thanks in advance for your responses.
 
>>was George Bowyer incompetent to any degree with the faulty navigation of the ships?<<

In my opinion, no. The point you have to keep in mind was that in dealing with really large vessels and their handling characteristics, everybody was on a learning curve. Even with the Lusitania and Mauritania, the actual body of experience with handling sizable vessels was a rather small one. While I think these people understood it, not everybody else did.

I wouldn't read too much in the Olympic vs. Hawke collision since the apportionment of "Blame" was more a legal stand then one that could be called entirely realistic. The evidence would tend to indicate that Hawke was at least as much to blame if not more because of a confusion over the Olympic's intentions and the fact that they simply got too close for their own good.

>>In reading these pages for a time, I'm inclined to believe in the 'port around' theory regarding the collision with the iceberg.<<

While this can't be disposed of in toto you might want to check out the discussions we've had in the Collisions/sinkings folder. It's a lot more complicated then simply stating that Murdoch did or did not attempt to "port around" the berg.

>>Was Captain Smith negligent by being absent from the watch in absurdly abnormal conditions?<<

I'm not convinced he was absent. He appeared out on the bridge waaaaayyyyy too quickly in my opinion. He certainly wasn't asleep in his cabin. Check out the inquiry transcripts to see what I mean. I think it's more likely that statements that he was in his room were a reference to the chart room.

>>Was Murdoch compromised by the speed set by the Captain on this night?

Or was he caught out this one time by a set of circumstances beyond his knowledge?<<

More likely then not, it was both. In my opinion of course. When you get down to it, Titanic was not operated any differently then any of the crack mailboats of the time. They gradually worked their way up to what would have been their normal in service speed at the time of the accident.

The problem in this case appears to be that they overestimated their ability to see ice in time to avoid it.
 
Dear Michael,

Thanks for your prompt and cordial reply. I've been reading some of the threads you pointed out for a few weeks now have enjoyed the voluble discussions and been impressed with many of the contributors, yourself included.

Unlike yourself, the extent of my seafaring adventures has been in the capacity as a musician and I sometimes play on ferries. I was on the 'Norsea' when the engine room caught fire in 2002 which left the vessel drifting among sandbars and oil rigs in the North Sea. Lifeboats were swung out and everyone was standing by through the night in readiness to abandon ship. Happily, the engine room was sealed, filled with CO2 and the great flames shooting from the smokestacks abated. The ship regained power and limped into Bruges. I was deeply impressed at the total competence of the crew.

Forgive the salty digression.

Back to Bowyer, I see what you mean that he and Smith had far more understanding of the behavior of large vessels than the captains of smaller ships, who probably cut things a bit fine when in close proximity.

My opinions are not set in stone, not that they mean very much anyway. This is a great resource and I hope to make a valid contribution to this community.

Thanks again for your response.
 
>>My opinions are not set in stone,<<

Nor are mine. By now you're aware that a lot of us having been playing with and debating various theories for years, and we've all seen a lot of them end up in the dustbin for when some new piece of evidence...or something old which was overlooked...has cropped up to send us back to that unholy drawing board.

I've had the pleasure to be part of a loosely knit group which has lately been calling itself The Scotland Road Irregulars which has forensics issues at the top of it's de facto agenda. We've had informal meets and we've been a part of at least one formal academic symposium to discuss these issues. One thing I've learned over the years is that very little is set in stone. Another is that anyone can make a contribution if they take the time to do their homework or just plain think.

>>Back to Bowyer, I see what you mean that he and Smith had far more understanding of the behavior of large vessels than the captains of smaller ships, who probably cut things a bit fine when in close proximity. <<

I'm skeptical of Bowyer's experience being a part of the problem. As a pilot, he's taken just about every liner and and out of harbour that called Southampton home. The problem was that the same couldn't be said of a lot of others and the consequence was that they tended not to treat some of the Big Boys with the respect they were due. However, I don't think this was incompetence so much as it was a part of being on the shallow end of the learning curve.
 

Erik Wood

Member
Ship handling is an art in and of itself. A good "throttle jockey" can manuver big ships and small ships in much the same manner. A great deal depends on the individual's ability to read the actions and inactions of the ship, then based on this information promptly issue orders (whether by voice or by physically handling the ship) to get the ship to do what he/she needs it to do.

Not every officer is a good ship driver. No offense to the U.S. Navy, but it's ranks are filled with officers who couldn't manuver a row boat in a circle with one oar. The merchant service is no different. You either have the ability or you don't.

Contrary to what some of my collegues may believe, I honestly don't think good competent ship driving can be learned if the person does not possess the natural skill.

I view competent leadership the same way.

Captain Smith, as Mike said would appear to have been on the bridge very quickly following the accident. That lends to the idea that although he may not have been physically standing on the bridge he was up, awake and was involved in some aspect of the ships operation.

It is important to remeber that a masters place is not always on the bridge, even during somewhat questionable sea or travel conditions. There are far more aspects to seamanship and command then standing on the bridge.
 
>>No offense to the U.S. Navy, but it's ranks are filled with officers who couldn't manuver a row boat in a circle with one oar.<<

None taken by this old sailor. You're right and I've seen a few who should have remained in their divisional spaces or stateroom.
 
This may be a bit off of the way this post is going, but I read what Mr. Standart said back in January about how he believed Captain Smith was not asleep in his cabin at the time of the iceberg collision due to his speedy prescence on the bridge. I totally agree with his statement. However, Mr. Standart said that the believed Captain Smith was in the chart room at the time of the collision. But if he were there, don't you think he would have heard Officer Moody call out "Iceberg right ahead!" from the telephone, come onto the bridge, and taken over? Not that I mean to rudely test Mr. Standart's opinion; just thinking about it.

I think he must have been in his cabin (awake though) at the time of the collision or else he would have given some orders of his own in relation to the situation.

Anyone else have an opinion on this? I find the topic fairly interesting.
 
Interesting questions Shea. Let's see what an eye witness had to say about how quickly Capt. Smith came onto the bridge.

1025. Tell us what you heard in the way of command? - [QM Hichens] Just about a minute, I suppose, after the collision, the Captain rushed out of his room and asked Mr. Murdoch what was that, and he said, "An iceberg, Sir," and he said, "Close the watertight door."
The Commissioner: Wait a minute. A minute after the collision, Captain Smith -
1026. (The Attorney-General.) Came out of his room on to the bridge do you mean? - Yes, Sir; he passed through the wheelhouse on to the bridge.
1027. He rushed out of his room through the wheelhouse on to the bridge? - Yes.
1028. And asked Murdoch, "What is that?" - Yes.
1029. And Murdoch said, "An iceberg." Is that right? - Yes.
1030. Mr. Murdoch said "An iceberg," and then? - The Captain immediately gave him orders to close the watertight doors. He said, "They are already closed." He immediately then sent for the carpenter to sound the ship.

Anyone want to speculate as why it took him "just about a minute" for him to come onto the bridge after the collision?
 
>>Anyone want to speculate as why it took him "just about a minute" for him to come onto the bridge after the collision?<<

I don't know which one it was, but it was either Captain Erik or Captain Dave who touched on this. The gist of it, as I recall, was the Captain Smith wasn't going to step in until the events had played out. Not an altogether bad idea since it avoided any potential for confusion with officers giving conflicting orders. Confusion in the middle of an ongoing crisis situation is the last thing you need on the bridge.
 
I didn't think about the confusion of orders thing before; interesting point.

Also, although we'll never know, perhaps Captain Smith was resting in his cabin and partly undressed which would have taken up some time to throw on a pair of shoes and a coat or what not.
 
>>Captain Smith wasn't going to step in until the events had played out.<<

What? You're the captain responsible for the safety of your vessel and those that sail on her. You know the ship had just struck something and say to yourself, "Hey self, I better wait until things play out before running onto the bridge to find out what happened just so I don't get people confused by giving conflicting orders."

YEA, RIGHT!
 
>>Also, although we'll never know, perhaps Captain Smith was resting in his cabin...<<

Not likely. You'll have to go over the testimony for yourself but the impression I have is that the references to His Room are to the chart room which is just behind the wheelhouse. This would make sense since few captains are ever in bed when they know their ship is transiting dangerous waters. It would also be a good place for him to be so he could be fetched up quickly...or respond quickly...if he was needed.
 
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I'll bite! Pretty much what Michael talked of above? Great Detail of that section of the ship. Are those Harland and Wolfe plans? If so or if not, where do you find such detailed layouts Sam? What I usually have seen as far as plans go will show say, the captain's room, but just label it as such with little detail etc.
 
Hi Tom. You can see the same detail on-line at the Discovery Channel Titanic Explorer site. Just click on BOAT DECK and then zoom in on the area of the bridge. These are from the Beveridge plans.

The item I pointed to is a settee where the captain can sit on or lie down on. It is unrealistic to expect the captain of a ship to remain standing on the bridge at all times even when approaching an area where he knows he may be called upon. The captain's navigation room was right alongside the wheelhouse as shown. When Smith told Lightoller at 9:30 pm “If it becomes at all doubtful let me know at once; I will be just inside,” that is the place he was talking about. Smith knew the ship was approaching ice. They talked about it. He expected it. It is unlikely he would have got himself undressed to go to sleep. But it is very possible that he was lying down on the settee in that room at the time, even expecting to be called. And he may have dozed off for all we know. Since he came onto the bridge after the ship struck and after Murdoch had already closed the WTDs, it seems he did not hear the activities that took place in the minute before the collision itself. The other possibility is that he may have been somewhat unable to come out of his quarters immediately because of being temporarily indisposed if you know what I mean. We can only speculate on this.
 
>>And he may have dozed off for all we know.<<

It possible. As treasured a commodity as sleep was and still is to an officer, even a few winks are better then none. I don't know that it would have been a very sound. Ships captains tend to be very light sleepers, especially if their ship is transiting hazardous waters.

The romance of being an officer in that day is waaaaayyyy overrated. They were the celebrities of the line but the responsibilities were enormous and the hours were brutal.
 
Thank you Sam, there are a lot of sources of material that are still on my wish list. I look forward to the above link. Your theories make a lot of sense weighted against the evidence. Michael has some great points as well. Officer Lowe's famous statement "when we sleep we die" really illustrates the four hours on, four hours off life the Junior officers led, plus the dog watches. The Marconi men also had a crazed schedule. Does anyone know what hours the Doctor, The Purser and any of the engine crew where on? I take it watches have changed today on cruise ships etc? But I'm sure, even with all the technical advances of today, crewing any ship has a lot of responsibility and tasks to be carried through each voyage.
 
>>Does anyone know what hours the Doctor, The Purser and any of the engine crew where on? <<

The engine crew were divided into 3 sections, Tom, the 8 to 12, 12 to 4, and 4 to 8. They worked 4 hours on followed by 8 hours off.
Not sure about the schedule of the doctors or pursers. Bakers also had some crazy schedules I believe. Maybe Bob Godfrey might know more?
 

Erik Wood

Member
My name is being used in vain. The conversation that Mike refers to was had by me and several other mariners in this forum at some time in the past.

Let me make it clear that the discussion revolved around Smith and what his actions should have been from my eyes. Now, part of this discussion centers around several topics and experiences in my own life.

I believe the comment in question was that a good captain does not immediately relieve the deck officer on duty when it comes to a situation they know nothing about. If Smith was indeed in the chart room, and for arguments sake overheard Mr. Moody shouting about the iceberg, when he (Smith) appeared on the bridge he would have been neglegent in taking the CONN from Murdoch.

Smith knew absoutly nothing of the situation. Murdoch was the only trained man on the ship who had even a remote chance of properly manuevering the ship around whatever the object was.

No matter your view of where the iceberg was and what manuvers the ship did or did not undertake, Smith was in no position to assume the CONN when he appeared on the bridge, he knew nothing of where the iceberg was nor would he have had a good sense of what the ship was doing.

One (again I refer to a good Captain) has to trust the officers he has in place. We have very good reason to believe that Smith had confidence in Murdoch both as an officer and as a ship driver. Smith (in the best of versions) appeared shortly after Murdoch began to issue orders in a attempt to get around the object and Smith interjecting would have been the worst possible thing for him to do.

The proper thing would have been for Smith to listen and watch and once the situation became more clear to him make decisions from that point forward.

There is evidence that this occured. Smith appeared Murdoch relayed a basic report and from what limited testimony is available on the topic Smith appears to have assumed the CONN AFTER having consulted with Murdoch.

I think it again wise to point out what a Captains responsibilities truly are. I have often used the phrase "Safe and Prudent Navigation of the Vessel". Those in the maritime world can probably quote where that is from. But Smith's responsibility is the safe and prudent navigation of this vessel, and overrulling the officer on watch who has a far better understanding of the situation at hand, goes against safe and prudent.

Having been in a similar situation as a master and as a deck officer I can appreciate this a little better then some of the other topics.

Having said all of that. Smith's duty was to take the CONN when it was appropriate for him to do so. Hearing shouting and coming out and issues orders was not that time. We have no reason to believe that Murdoch was not trusted by Smith and we also have no reason to believe that Smith was an overly micro managing type of captain.

For the record there are three shipping disasters which have been attributed to to the Master overruling decisions made by his officers with little to no understanding of the situation at hand.

2 involve tankers and the third involves a NCL boat that ran aground. Check out the NTSB website for more info.
 
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