Titanic's Supreme Survivor


Mar 22, 2003
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In his new article, Senan Molony makes reference to a document in the Public Records Office in Kew, London, that describes action taken by the principal surveyor regarding the bulkheads of the SS Olympic. It is stated that on April 25, 1910, a surveyor sent plans of the new ship to Principal Surveyor Archer, where it was noted that the collision bulkhead did not go up to 'D' Deck as required, but terminated at 'E' deck. In addition, a forward bulkhead was located too near the stem, being only 33 feet aft. A memo written by Archer said that he advised the Board of Trade (BOT) on the 30th of April, 1910, that they should inform the builders, Messrs. Harland & Wolff (H&W), that the collision bulkhead must be carried up to 'D' Deck, and that no part of it should be nearer the ship’s stem than 1/20th the length of the vessel. It was also pointed out that suggestions made to the White Star Line resulted in a reply that said that the recommendations would be very difficult to carry out.

In his analysis, Senan goes on to say that as a result nothing was done to correct the situation, and concludes that somehow it "culminated in the Titanic sinking that much quicker." It is with this allegation that I must strongly disagree.

This particular issue concerning the placement of the collision bulkhead had come up during the British Inquiry following the Titanic disaster. The surveyor that sent the bulkhead plans for the new ship to London was Francis Carruthers, a surveyor with over 20 years experience. In a sketch submitted to William David Archer, the Principal Ship Surveyor for the BOT, Carruthers pointed out that the collision bulkhead was carried forward six frame spaces on what was marked as 'E' Deck instead of being carried right up to 'D' Deck. Messrs. Harland and Wolff were contending that they were meeting the requirements of the BOT in their design, but Carruthers thought they were wrong. As it turned out, Archer agreed with Carruthers that the bulkhead should have gone straight up to 'D' Deck, and should not have been carried forward on 'E' Deck as was done.

Before continuing, let us be very clear as to the issue that Carruthers was talking about. The Olympic and Titanic were built with a total of 15 transverse watertight bulkheads that divided the ship into 16 major watertight compartments. The requirements of the BOT for vessels of their type, called a "shelter deck vessel" by the BOT, was that the first bulkhead, called the collision bulkhead, was to be carried up to 'D' Deck, the deck just below the Shelter deck. Because of the large freeboard of these vessels at their load waterline, the bulkheads aft of the collision bulkhead were only required to be carried up to 'E' Deck as far aft as the forward engine room bulkhead, and to 'D' Deck abaft that. In the design of the Olympic and Titanic, H&W placed the collision bulkhead (labeled bulkhead A) at a distance from the ship’s stem that met the BOT recommendation of not less than 1/20th the length of the vessel, a minimum distance of just over 42 feet. However, H&W carried that bulkhead at that location only to the level of 'E' Deck, at which point they stepped it forward towards the bow by 6 frame lengths before carrying it up to 'D' deck as required. It was this stepping forward of the bulkhead between decks 'E' and 'D', space used to accommodate 24 trimmers, that Carruthers and Archer objected to (BI 24439). Their concern, of course, was that the bulkhead might be more easily damaged in a head-on collision if it were located too close to the bow, and therefore would not be as effective as it could be.

Was the alteration that Carruthers and Archer wanted carried out? No it wasn't. However, something else was done instead (BI 25325-25328). An alternate arrangement was submitted and approved, which more than compensated for H&W's stepped design to the collision bulkhead. As shown below, that arrangement was to carry the bulkhead immediately aft of the collision bulkhead (i.e., the bulkhead labeled B) up to the level of 'D' deck, one deck higher than required by the BOT for the ship’s load waterline. Carruthers clearly stated to the Court that this compensating arrangement was approved by the London office, and that he also agreed to the arrangement that was finally made (BI 23897-23902). So it is not quite accurate to say “that nothing was done” with regard to this bulkhead issue. Not only did the Olympic and Titanic carry the first two bulkheads up to 'D' Deck, but also the last six bulkheads as well. The spaces where the shaft tunnels were, between bulkheads M through P, was covered with a watertight deck at the Orlop level. As it turned out, these ships could float with any 3 out of the first 5 compartments flooded, and would float even if the first 4 compartments were open to the sea.

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The alternate arrangement that was agreed to for the first two watertight bulkheads in the bow of these vessels actually gave these ships slightly better protection for survivability than they would have had under the plan that Carruthers and Archer were suggesting. Archer actually wanted H&W to trunk No. 1 hatch and to trunk the firemen’s spiral staircase all the way up to ‘D’ Deck. His concern was that if bulkhead A was damaged because of head-on collision and its location stepped forward as it was, that the flooding would go down the hatchway and also down the spiral stairway into the firemen’s tunnel. However, it was pointed out to him that even if such an event would happen, the ship would only trim down by 2 ½ feet at the bow, and he ascertained himself that the top of the bulkhead would remain a good 15 ½ feet above the water (BI 24452-24457). Archer was also convinced that his suggested modifications to the vessel would have had no bearing on the sinking of the Titanic. As he said in testimony, “Not the very slightest effect.” He was also asked if the ship would have been any safer if they had carried bulkhead B one deck higher to ‘C’ deck (BI 24496-24497). Archer’s reply was, “It would have been safer under certain eventualities, but not any safer under the damage that was done to her on this occasion.”

To say that the Titanic sank “that much quicker” as a result of nothing being done with regard to this matter is entirely unfounded and somewhat irresponsible. The raising of bulkhead B to the level of ‘D’ deck effectively gave the ship an effective collision bulkhead in a location that mattered most. If the Titanic would have crashed head-on into the iceberg at 22 knots instead of an allision along its starboard side, the ship would most probably have survived (BI 20275-20284). Bulkhead A would have been crushed completely, but bulkhead B might have held if the impact could be absorbed within about the first 90 feet aft of the ship’s stem, a crush distance that fell within the range estimated by Edward Wilding of H&W’s design office.

Mr. Molony also said that Archer, the Principal Ship Surveyor for the BOT and internal critic, testified before the British Inquiry where he gave as his view that the Titanic had not complied with bulkhead requirements under Rule 12 that provided for lifeboat exemptions, and that the ship “was not ‘its own lifeboat’ – even in theory!” Is Mr. Molony’s implying that the Titanic was not capable of acting as its own lifeboat because of a failure to comply with Rule 12? That somehow the ship would have remained afloat for all to be saved if it had? Certainly the Titanic was not required to comply with Rule 12 unless an exemption was being sought to allow fewer lifeboats to be carried. To my knowledge, no such exemption was ever contemplated. Quite the opposite. If you look at the rules that were in effect at that time, the Titanic was required to have enough boats that would have a capacity of 9,625 cubic feet, of which at least 16 boats had to placed under davits. As built by Harland & Wolff, the Titanic had a total lifeboat capacity of 11,325 cubic feet, obviously in excess of BOT requirements in effect at the time, but entirely inadequate in terms of the number of people that she was certified to carry. As Senan Molony correctly points out in his article, carrying enough boats for all was not in the best interest of the steamship companies who seemed to be more concerned with having uncluttered decks than carrying addition life savings appliances.

So what does it mean to be its own lifeboat? Despite common perception, the Titanic was not built to be unsinkable, nor was any other practical vessel built at that time or, for that matter, even today. Titanic was built to survive a collision at the juncture of any two watertight compartments. In fact the Titanic for the most part exceeded that goal and was close to being a 3 compartment vessel. If the accident would have been confined to the first 4 compartments, or any 3 of the first 5 compartments, the ship would have remained afloat, and most likely all would have been saved. What Mr. Molony failed to say is that there were no large vessels constructed around that time that would have been found exempt under Rule 12. As Archer said before the British Inquiry when quoting from his own memorandum of 28th February, 1911 (BI 24248), “Owing, no doubt, to the very small reduction of life-saving appliances at present sanctioned by this Rule, none of the large vessels recently constructed have complied with the recommendations of the Bulkhead Committee, although they are thought to be most reasonable in the case of vessels which have boat capacity for only a proportion of the persons carried.“ Of course following the Titanic disaster even Archer modified his earlier views and support the notion that a ship should carry enough lifeboats for all on board, subdivision notwithstanding.

In conclusion, I can only assume that Mr. Molony may not have been aware that a compensating arrangement had been reached and approved by the BOT. It certainly is incorrect to say that nothing was done, and to suggest that the Titanic would have stayed afloat any longer than she actually did because they did not implement what Carruthers and Archer originally wanted then to do.

I hope this puts to rest the allegation that nothing was done in this matter with the result that Titanic sank faster than it needed to.
 

Tad G. Fitch

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Great post Sam! I don't really understand the claim in this article that the lack of changes resulted in the Titanic sinking faster, particularly given the type and extent of damage that had been done. Your article is well-written and the technical information easy to understand, even for a non-techie such as myself, haha!

Take care,
Tad
 

Tad G. Fitch

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Sam,
A thought just struck me about this latest article: Anyone attempting to pass the blame on to those in question as is the case in this article is no more correct or right than people who have wrongfully tried to blame Captain Lord for the loss of life on the Titanic, or those who have vilified Bruce Ismay for not going down with the vessel. This is particularly true, since the changes in the design would not have resulted in the vessel surviving any longer, given the distribution of the damage and flooding along so many compartments. Just thought this was an interesting contradiction in logic.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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You know, hindsight is always 20/20. It's easy to point fingers after the fact and say "You should have known this" but one has to wonder where all these people with the brilliant insights were before dsomething bad happens.

Ship design is nothing if not a study in compromise and Titanic was no different. The Olympic class...like a lot of vessels built at the time and since then...was designed to survive a collision with another vessel which would leave two compartments open to the sea. The reason for this was straightforward enough: It was the most common sort of accident. Large vessels having encounters with ice on the open ocean weren't exactly rare, but the sort of accident which happened to the Titanic...ipso facto...an alliding/grounding/glancing blow sort of accident which tore holes into up to six watertight sections was. Nobody envisioned it because it never happened, or if it did, nobody survived to tell about it.

Mr. Archer can hardly be blamed for not foreseeing something that nobody else did. By the standards and understanding of the time, there was nothing wrong with the Titanic's design. And as has been pointed out on this forum on several occasions, the watertight protection offered by an Olympic class ship would still be considerably in excess of modern day requirements.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Folks, please keep in mind the article written by Senan Molony was aimed for the most part on how the head of the BOT managed to come out of all of this with a promotion. Senan was trying to make the point that the right thing for Buxton to do was to resign after the Titanic disaster because he was the head of an organization responsible for requirements dealing with life saving appliances on vessels, requirements know to be inadequate for a very long time. Boxton knew that the BOT's requirements were long outdated, and in fact had several proposals already on the table, that would have, if acted upon, saved considerably more lives. The failure for Buxton to act unless pressured is the point that Senan was trying to bring out. In short, the paper dealt mostly with lifeboat requirements and the complacent attitude and delaying tactics of those most responsible in the BOT at the time to do something that might have resulted in a more lives saved.

Yes, I happen to agree with Senan, Buxton should have resigned just like Michael Brown, head of FEMA here in the US, was forced to resign following the lack of responsiveness of his organization following the Hurricane Katrina disaster last year.

My post above took issue with some specific information and conclusion that Senan presented regarding changes that were identified to H&W concerning the bulkhead plan on these ships. I will leave it at that.
 

Inger Sheil

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Have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the article - as always, I thought it was both thought-provoking and readable. Often I find his most provocative work his most interesting.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Hi Inger:

Good hearing from you. You said:

"I thought it was both thought-provoking and readable."

No argument about that. Same is true about his books. But I also find that he tends to make certain allegations that are not well founded if not downright misleading.
 

Inger Sheil

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Hallo Sam - good to see you too. I've been a bit flat-out of late, but have had time to work on a few Titanic related projects!

I don't detect Senan having a tedency to make 'misleading' statements more than any other researcher - because he is so prolific in his output, and because he does tend to plough into new ground rather than confine himself to the same old furroughs, no doubt those who disagree with him find more to criticise in his writing. I know he often has criticisms of his own in regards to those who fault some of his work.

He's willing to push the envelope, which I suspect is why people (often the same group of people) find elements of his work to disagree with. Personally I have absolutely no doubt either or his brilliance or his integrity, and I'm profoundly grateful that he is so generous in sharing the results of his research (even when I don't agree with all his interpretations).
 

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