True Course

Dec 4, 2000
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This paper is a succinct discussion of compass navigation in the 1912 era. As such, it is "must" reading for anyone trying to de-mystify the various courses and headings given in the testimonies.

However, this paper has a much more important aspect. Under the heading "Titanic's Compass and Procedures," it contains the underlying cause of the accident. Titanic's fatal flaw was not brittle steel nor sulfur inclusions in the rivets. The fatal flaw had nothing to do with bulkheads or watertight doors. Titanic's sinking was the direct result of the design of the ship's bridge with regard to the standard compass.

More than a year ago, Captain Erik Wood and I were able to deduce that Titanic was involved in a maneuver of some sort at the time of the accident. It was only when Nate Robison placed a copy of the IMM handbook in our hands that we found proof of our supposition.

Based on the requirements for the ship to be steadied every half hour on the standard compass, it is easy to place the officers and quartermasters at 11:30 p.m.

Murdoch -- on the forebridge
Boxhall -- compass platform
Moody -- wheelhouse
Hichens -- wheelhouse
Olliver -- compass platform
Rowe -- poop/docking bridge

The navigational requirements imposed upon the officers of the watch by IMM/White Star regulations (and good watchkeeping practices) explain why both Boxhall and Olliver were aft, away from the bridge at the time when the lookouts rang their bell for the fatal iceberg.

The layout of the bridge put Murdoch alone on the forebridge at the critical moment. In theory, he was in charge. In reality, he was deprived of the communications necessary to know what was happening. He had no direct link to Boxhall who was about 250 feet from the bridge. Nor could he hear or sea activity inside the shuttered wheelhouse. Murdoch had to turn over control of the ship to Boxhall during the "steadying" of the ship using the standard compass. Yet, Boxhall had no view forward because of two massive funnels. This was a situation ripe for disaster.

It is curious that the standard compasses of other ships were seldom placed so far from their bridges. That is, on ships of other lines the standard compasses were closer to the senior watch officer. White Star was unique in its attempt to place standard compasses near amidships, probably in an attempt to reduce deviation. It was far more typical to place the standard compass on the roof of the wheelhouse/bridge structure. This gave the possibility of direct communications either by shouting, speaking tube, deck hatch, or whatever.

Note the photograph of the model of Titanic. The most significant thing about the top of the officers quarters is nothing--nothing on top of the wheelhouse. It is quite obvious that Harland & Wolff intended something to go there, but that "something" was never built. I note that after Titanic's accident a standard compass was installed on Olympic's wheelhouse. Photos of Britannic show a true "flying bridge" structure on the wheelhouse. The best Olympic ever got was a sort of "monkey bridge" rail around the compass.

There is no doubt in my mind that the placement of the standard compass on Titanic was the single most significant factor in the disaster. It explains the locations of the crew at the time of the accident and gives the reason why Murdoch was forced to delay his reaction to the fatal berg.

There is additional information which I am currently trying to whip into shape. My goal is to present the full story of Titanic's standard compass at Captain Charlie's April meeting at the Maine Maritime Academy.

-- David G. Brown
 
Dec 6, 2000
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David - forgive my confusion. Where was Wilde was all this was going on? I don't recall if at some point you thought he was also on the bridge, or if I ran across this comment elsewhere.

How did Murdoch 'turn over' control of the bridge to Boxhall, if Boxhall was back at the compass?
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Bill -- Wilde was off duty and (presumably) in his room at the time of the accident. He played no role in events until immediately following the iceberg.

Your question about "turning over command" is right on the money. The man doing the steadying of the ship on the standard compass worked from the platform. (At 11:30 p.m. that would have been Boxhall.) A one-way bell pull was used to signal the wheelhouse to turn left or right until the ship was on the specified course. Then, another signal would synchronize a "hack" of the compass readings. The wheelhouse compass would always be different from the standard compass, but things were OK as long as the difference remained the same (assuming the heading did not change).

During the process of steadying on the standard compass all helm instructions came from the platform. For practical purposes, the officer on the platform was conning the ship even though he had no view of dangers forward.

Quite obviously, the senior officer of the watch could not issue any helm commands during the steadying process without interrupting the work. Making matters all the worse the senior officer was isolated from the whole operation. He was on the bridge wing outside the shuttered wheelhouse where he could not hear the signal bell or observe the performance of the compass operations. So, as Titanic steamed into danger the man in charge was in aviation terms, "Out of the loop" regarding the maneuvering of the ship.

-- David G. Brown
 
Dec 6, 2000
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Thanks for the explanation, David. Would they still have done this, *if* they had know they were in amongst the icebergs?

My wondering where I heard that Wilde was on the bridge during the collision, may be just confusion. I though I had read it in Stormer's newer Murdoch bio, but checking, I see she thinks Capt. Smith was on the bridge, but I can't find anything about Wilde.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Bill -- Captain Smith was "on the bridge" per Boxhall's testimony. In particular, Boxhall said that the captain never left the square defined by the two chart rooms, the wheelhouse and the forebridge between when he returned from dinner and the accident. Further, Boxhall stated that the captain was beside him in the forebridge so quickly that the berg could not have been past the docking bridge after the accident.

Wilde appears to have come onto the bridge voluntarily almost immediately after the accident. There is virtually no direct testimony about his actions, only "ghost" information. He was forward on the forecastle very quickly after the accident, investigating air hissing out of a vent pipe, etc. It would appear that he took it upon himself to do a physical examination of the ship. This is the probable explanation of why Boxhall's first trip forward was focused upon the condition of the 3rd class passengers. There was no need for two officers to do the same work, yet both the ship's physical condition and the condition of the passengers had to be ascertained.

Your question about whether or not they would have done the compass check is at the heart of the accident. It takes me almost 300 pages of double-spaced typed manuscript to explain why the answer to your question is, "yes." And that's the heart of WHY Titanic struck an iceberg. Naturally, I won't be publishing a 300 page response here. However, I will be making my research available shortly--much of it at Charlies event next April in Maine.

For the moment, my view of the accident is that it was an unfortunate consequence of dilligent men doing their prudent duty for the safety of their passengers. Nevertheless, Titanic was quite deliberately aimed at the fatal iceberg because of something accident investigators (a tip o' my hat to Captain Erik) call "loss of situational awareness." This loss of awareness was partially due to 19th century procedures on a 20th century ship. But, the primary cause was the layout of Titanic's bridge--particularly the placement of the standard compass.

-- David G. Brown
 
Jan 28, 2003
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"Captain Smith was "on the bridge" per Boxhall's testimony. In particular, Boxhall said that the captain never left the square defined by the two chart rooms, the wheelhouse and the forebridge between when he returned from dinner and the accident. Further, Boxhall stated that the captain was beside him in the forebridge so quickly that the berg could not have been past the docking bridge after the accident."

Now I'm confused. If Boxhall was away aft, doing his stuff with the compass, how does he know where Capt. Smith is just before the accident?
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Monica-- excellent question.

Boxhall had seen the captain on the bridge at various times during the time period in question. In fact, the two worked closely on navigational matters. Naturally, while on the compass platform Boxhall could not have known the captain's whereabouts. That's why his comments about the captain being next to him immediately following the iceberg are important. The timing indicates that Smith could not have been farther away than the officer's chartroom at the moment of impact, which supports Boxhall's general statements about the captain's whereabouts.

There are other bits and pieces of information which corroborate this. A correct interpretation of Hichens' testimony indicates the captain went through the wheelhouse just as the ship was touching the ice. And, the timing of the ALL STOP engine orders on both telegraph systems is strong evidence the captain was on the bridge for that event. It took the four hands of two men to operate both systems. Neither Olliver nor Boxhall reported operating either telegraph. Moody's duty station was inside the wheelhouse. Murdoch could only have used one instrument. Who else was available to operate the second telegraph except for Captain Smith?

So, while the exact location on which Captain Smith had his feet planted at the time of the accident is not known, we can be reasonably certain he was "on the bridge" and active. Stories about him being asleep are untrue.

-- David G. Brown
 
Jan 28, 2003
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OK, David, got that. Even more confused now - if there are no survivors from the bridge area except Hitchens, and he says the Capt. passed through the wheelhouse just as the ship was touching ice, then where on earth did the idea come from that Smith was asleep (not that it matters that much IMO in blame terms - skippers do have to sleep after all...) Sleeping captains seems to be a bit of a motif in the whole business.
 
Jan 28, 2003
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Don't answer that - me being stupid. Lightoller, of course, when they completed their discussions about sea conditions during his watch earlier. So if what you are saying is correct, nobody actually knows the exact responsibility for orders/actions on the bridge. How much could Hitchens see / hear from the wheelhouse? Seems odd the Capt. passing through the wheelhouse (from which direction?) as it was 'just touching ice' as per your interpretation of Hitchens's evidence. Surely he would have heard and felt the effects of Moody's manoeuvre before that (telegraph clanging, vibration etc.), like so many others, and shot onto the bridge as soon as he did if he were awake, and therefore been there during the 30-something seconds while they waited for the ship to turn?
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Monica -- you are probing right into the heart of the matter. In fact, you are dangerously close to discovering the "heart" of my new book.

The 3-strokes on the lookouts bell would not hve caused any concern for Captain Smith. It was a normal event for the lookouts to report dangers around the ship--that was their job. Smith would certainly have noted the sound, but not taken any action. Responding to a report by the lookouts was Murdoch's job.

By the way, the lookouts did not "warn" the bridge of the iceberg. Rather, they reported a sighting dead ahead. I make this observation because modern readers tend to believe the lookouts were pre-computer warning buzzers. They were not to warn the officer of the deck, just to report any sightings. In 1912 it was the officer's job to warn himself by keeping a sharp lookout. My conclusion from reading the testimony is that Murdoch was probably aware of the berg before the lookouts sounded their report.

The thing that would have brought the captain onto the bridge "all standing" would have been the sound of the engine room telegraph bells. Nothing...not even a shouted helm order...nothing would have said "emergency" more than the clanging of engine orders in mid-Atlantic. The timing of Murdoch's first engine order was immediately prior to the ship touching the ice, which leads naturally to Captain Smith's appearance on the bridge in keeping with Boxhall's testimony.

If we go back to Lightoller's watch, we find the seeds of the "sleeping captain" myth. Smith appeared on the bridge just before Murdoch took over from Lightoller. There was a conversation about the cold and the danger of ice before the captain told Lightoller he would be "just inside." Anyone looking at the plans of Titanic's bridge can see that both chart rooms and the wheelhouse are "just inside," while the captain's suite is deeper into the deckhouse. To me, the implication of "just inside" was exactly that--just inside the wheelhouse in one of the chart rooms.

And, Boxhall confirms that he worked on navigational matters with Captain Smith during the minutes and hours that followed.

Titanic is surrounded by a web of myths and half-truths and deliberate deceptions. Repetion has given most of them the ring of truth, but it is a false sound. Captain Smith never slept that night until he slept eternally.

Now, as to the time it took Titanic to turn, that data is immaterial. Murdoch never attempted to steer around the fatal iceberg. This can be proven by carefully placing every event into chronological order. Nate Robison originally discovered that Murdoch never issued a "hard a-starboard" helm command for the fatal berg. Yet, both Boxhall and Hichens spoke the truth about a "hard a-starboard" helm order being given prior to the accident. Myth and misdirection have merged these two separate events into a singular event that never took place.

-- David G. Brown
 

Erik Wood

Member
Apr 10, 2001
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I was unprepared for the emails I got regarding Dave's posting, but let me add and repeat that he and I agree on the subject as a whole.

The problem with recontructing an event of this type after 90+ years is that all the key players are gone. There are several key questions that do not add up. Those questions have be repeated over and over and don't need to be repeated here.

Captain Week's event in Maine will be the highlight of a about 4 years worth of research. I would be happy to and have answered all questions that I have recieved and I most definitly look forward to the coming debate.
 
Jan 28, 2003
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David,
well, I certainly don't want to pre-empt your new book! I've actually bothered to read Hitchen's' testimony to both Inquiries since your last post, and I agree it is rather at odds with the given ideas. I also have to say that Lord Mersey's attempts to clarify things to his mind unfortunately has the effect of obscuring issues to mine. He seems to have got on the Attorney General's nerves a bit too.
Seems to me the Capt. was somewhere to the rear of Hitchens, but really cannot have been asleep. Also there seems far less time between events than popularly suggested - 3 bells, followed almost immediately by simultaneous hard-a-starboard and the crushing noise, and then it stopped, and the Capt. being there during the crushing noise. Of course, people's estimates of time during crises is often unreliable. And H. says a crushing noise, not a scraping one, but you've dealt with that one before haven't you? Thinking it over, I think Lord Mersey simply didn't ask the right questions - Hitchens would not volunteer information, he would only respond to questions. Like Dave Gittins, I've done some rudimentary sums (mine, not Dave's) on the visibility of a berg on the basis of star-block, as it couldn't be visible any other way that night as you need light for it to show up white, and came to the conclusion they would not have seen it until the Titanic's own glow could illuminate it faintly - so, very very near then. Anyway, have a good time in Maine.
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Unfortunately, I have to finish one project before I can move to another. The timing of my current project is such that I can't attend the meeting in Maine, much as I would like to.

I have some distinct problems with the scenario played out here. First of all, let me state that I share Dave's belief that Smith was not asleep and that the telegraph bells are probably what first caught his attention. I also share in the belief that Murdoch was probably the first to see the berg and that Titanic's compass platform was not in the best location.

I do not, however, see justification in the testimony for the claim that Boxhall was in the compass platform just before the accident. I think we can all agree that Boxhall was away from the bridge on appointed rounds about that time and it could be that he was on the platform at some point to help calibrate the steering compass. But there's not a hint of his being on the platform during the critical time discussed here in either his or Olliver's testimony or later remembrances. In fact, the lack of mention there is significant.

Regardless, I don't see how Boxhall's situation in any way detracted from Murdoch's watchkeeping or response time. The deck officer did not depend on the junior officers to maintain his watch and as it has been stated here, the deck officer was not directly involved in the compass calibration procedure. However, I strongly disagree with any suggestion that the deck officer passed complete control of the ship to the junior officers or was in any way "out of the loop." The compass calibration procedure was not to be conducted in such a manner that it superceded the normal responsibilities of the watch; specifically, the safety of the ship. The deck officer could very well interrupt a calibration procedure at any time and no one would fault him for it.

I also would like some help in understanding where it can be found in testimony that Murdoch did not give a starboard helm order. I thought instead that the testimony was quite clear that he -- Murdoch, I mean, not Smith -- did.

These are just some of my first thoughts that crossed my mind as I read through the argument that is developing in this thread. I don't intend to get into a full discussion or rebuttal at this time, because Dave and I both have manuscripts to finish. After I've met my deadline and the April debate has been waged, then I'll be willing to concentrate on this matter and give you a better-considered position, if you like.

Parks
 
D

David Haisman

Guest
Re David Brown and others.

''The three rings on the Lookouts Bell would not have caused any concern to Captain Smith ''

Totally wrong!

''It was a normal event for Lookouts to report dangers around the ship- That was their job.''

Wrong again!

''Smith would have certainly noted the sound, but not taken any action''

Wrong again!

''Lookouts did not warn the bridge of the iceberg''

Comment: Dear Old Fred Fleet would have liked to have heard that one!

''Lookouts were not to warn the officer on the bridge?/deck? to report any sightings''

Really!

''Murdoch was aware of the berg before the Lookouts''

Well I'm buggered!

Finally, for anyone to rely on Hitchens,no more than a glorified AB on navigational expertise reveals just how little is understood on the bridge of a British Merchantman

Over to you ''book worms'' and testimony digesters!

I look forward to some salient and experienced comments,

David
 
Mar 3, 1998
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David,

The "salient and experienced comments" you seek were given by the men who were actually involved in the collision. I'm sure you'll know where to find them.

Parks
 
Jan 28, 2003
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Slightly nervous as I am about being in such expert (if disagreeing) company, I assume that David B. inferred that Boxhall would have been on the compass platform at about 11.30 because the thing had to be steadied every half an hour, and not because Boxhall actually said anything about the subject. Anyway, nobody asked him where he was at 11.30, only where he was at the point of impact (BI).In that evidence, he said he was coming out of the officers' quarters, and I guess he could have nipped to the loo or something equally mundane on his way back from the compass platform. So far as anything to do with compasses is concerned, I shall have to bow out - I could barely understand True Course in the first place...
 
Aug 10, 2002
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Monica:
Please let me know what you don't understand in True Course, and I'd be glad to help you. The article was written to try to help people understand a rather technical subject, that would not be common knowledge. Hopefully that would help them to better understand what happened.
Regards,
Charlie Weeks
 
Jan 28, 2003
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Hello Charlie,
how very kind of you. It's not yours or Cathy's fault, it was quite clear from the article that you were trying to demystify a technical subject. It's just that when you are dealing with the lowest common denominator of technical understanding (that's me) you can't take a thing for granted. I was fine for the first few pages, great diagrams, understood the wandering pole etc. It was deviation that got me - not why it happens, but some of the terms. What is the azimuth, and I got confused about the significance of the shoreside range mark, which seemed to be a church. I got the adjustments OK, so I suppose all I'm really muddled about is a bit of the terminology and the exact significance of the shoreside range marks. If ever you want to run a future article passed the really stupid, I'm your girl....
 
Aug 10, 2002
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monica:
Your not stupid, it took me awhile to understand it also. Magnetic compasses are powered, if you like, by the interaction of the earth's magnetic field and the magnets located under the compass card. As we explained they do not always even usually point at True North. Based on our location on the earth we can determine one error, (Variation) by picking it off a Pilot Chart. The other error is Deviation, this is caused by the iron and steel in the ship and its position in regard to the compass and north. When under way we want to know how accurate our compass is so we check it. If we are in visual sight of land and can line up to objects which are also on the chart and compare the bearing of the objects as seen to the bearing on the chart. The difference is our total compass error. Which as I said before is made up of Deviation and Variation. When we are out of sight of land we take a bearing (Azimuth)of a star, planet or the sun. The difference between the observed bearing and the calculated bearing, based on time and our location is total compass error. Does that help?
Regards,
Charlie Weeks