Was Capt Smith lost in a daze during the sinking?


Tarn Stephanos

I believe that Capt. Smith, as depicted in the Cameron film, was lost in a daze of shock and disbelief during the sinking. His leadership abilities having collapsed, the officers took over his leadership role. Ive read little evidence to suggest Capt Smith did anything particularly constructive during the sinking. What do you all think? The true heroic officers of that night were Murdoch, Wilde and Moody....


Tarn Stephanos
I do believe that the fact that the Titanic would sink hit the man hard; it would any captain. However, I do not believe he was in such a state as he did not seem to know where he was, as he appears in "Titanic."
Yes agreed Brandon. Smith was probally a little less dazed than he was in Cameron's film, that night. I do think the officers were the heros, as you said Tarn. They were the ones working as hard as they good to get the lifeboats away, but Smith did oversee that, which you can give him some credit too. So in all, I think Smith was a tad dazed, but not as much as depicted in the movie.
Off and on over the night, Capt. Smith was involved with loading and launching #8, #16 and #2, in addition to being reported at #6, #7 and D. Not to mention, his several reported visits to the Marconi Room. Does this sound like someone "lost in a daze of shock and disbelief during the sinking"?

Not in my opinion it doesn't.
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I'm afraid I'm with Tarn to some extent. Smith seems to have been rather ineffective and indecisive. Think of the delay in sending CQD (about 35 mins) and firing socket signals (about one hour). Lightoller had to go to his Captain for orders that should have been given to him from the start. There's his extraordinary order to Seaman Jones to row to the distant light and row back again. Jones didn't even have a decent crew. Certainly he helped with the boats and at one stage even tailed on a fall himself, but that was hardly the Master's proper role. He must also have stood by while half-empty boats were lowered. I fear that we have here a typical case of death excusing much.
Let me add something into the mix. There isn't much left for a Captain to do once he has given the order to abandon his ship. At this point (and in Smith's case wait to meet his fate) the Captain is no longer really a figure of stability. He orders Senior Officers to take charge of the two sides of the ship and then just ensures that everything that can be done is done.

Mr. Gittin said: I fear that we have here a typical case of death excusing much.

I can't say that I agree with that in it's entirety but I will agree that Smith had a lot to feel guilty for. Whether he was "in a daze" during the evcaution or not I think speaks to the knowledge that he would probably die and never see his family again, that would hit any human hard. But loosing a ship hits a captain hard as well.
I have to disagree that Captain Smith acted as if he were in a daze. In my view, he acquitted himself quite well after the iceberg.

He appears to have moved his ship closer to the shipping lanes where, presumably, distress rockets would have been more effective. Remember, it was 1912 and more ships were not radio-equpped than carried radio receivers. Prudent seamanship required getting Titanic within visual range of the shipping lanes before the flooding made moving the vessel impossible.

Smith made a thorough sounding of the ship, which early on gave the appearance to be floating on its pumps. Despite this reassurance, he ordered radio distress calls but not rockets. In effect, Titanic could manufacture an unlimted number of radio distress messages, the actual number only being cut off by the eventual foundering.

However, Captain Smith did not waste distress rockets on an empty horizon. One rule of pyrotechnic signals is not to shoot them until you see a potential rescue vessel. Californian was not seen immediately, and the decision to first use the Morse light after spotting that ship was prudent in view of the uncertainty of what was being seen. Had Californian been steaming across the horizon, I am sure that the firing of rockets would have begun immediately. Under the circumstances, however, Captain Smith showed good discipline in the use of his limited pyrotechnic resources. Once a rocket was fired, it could not be used again.

E.J. Smith's biggest decision of the night was also the hardest of his life. It was to not do do the one thing that most people would think was imperative under the circumstances. Smith prudently chose not issue an "abandon ship" order.

He knew the panic that had resulted on other sinking ships and wanted to avoid it for as long as possible on Titanic. The 700+ lives saved may be in large part the result of maintaining order on the boat deck. This meant that only those people who were smart enough to go to the lifeboats...and who found their way (a problem for third class)...were available to board. Rather than wait, Smith got the boats down and saved those people he could. It was a gut-wrenching decision that saved lives even though it was counter-intuitive.

Captain Smith's shining hour came when he realized that he had to let die those who he could not save, and instead he had to concentrate on the few people that he had the resources to save. If he had acted from his heart--and ordered "abandon ship"--instead of from his head and logic, the chaos might have limited the survivors to no more than a lucky handful.

Smith's instructions for the lifeboats to "row for the light" (apparently Californian) was also smart leadership. The mission was impossible, the light was too far away for a lifeboat to reach, let alone reach and return. However, ordering the boats to row toward the light was an effective way of geting them away from the ship, away from the eventual panic as it foundered, and away from the scene of possibly 1,500 people dying on the water that he knew was coming. The captain undoubtedly knew the boats could not reach that light--he just wanted to give them a target to organize their efforts and prevent panic from occuring within the lifeboats as Titanic foundered.

Captain Smith wisely stayed within his cadre of officers and seaman. He knew that his very presence could be a catalyst for panic within the passenger accommodations. It was best that he face questions from passengers because everything he might say or do (or not say, or not do) could incite panic.

Smith worked closely with his officers and seaman and that helped keep order among the efforts to launch lifeboats. (Ask Captain Erik about how dangerous this procedure can be.) It was a stunning accomplishment of seamanship to launch 16 boats from the slanting decks...then rig and launch collapsibles...all without serious incident. Smith's presence seemed to instill confidence among men who by doing their duty knew they might be sacrificing their lives.

Given the limited options facing him, I believe that Captain E.J. Smith performed extremely well that night during the hours after the iceberg. His actions were not perfect, but at least he did not lower himself in the first lifeboat and run away like a captain a few years back whose ship caught fire and sank. Captain Smith stayed in command of Titanic until there was nothing left to command.

-- David G. Brown
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Ok, now it is time for a more indepth post on this issue.

What Captain Dave just wrote makes a whole of sense to me. But I am not sure that all of us who haven't had the fun of launching lifeboats or being in command of a ship can understand the complexity of what Smith accomplished.

Once he gives the order to abandon ship Smith's job isn't to go around filling boats and shouting orders. The reason for this is simple, it induces panic. Think of it this way. If you saw the Captain of an airplane running around telling everybody to get off the plane what will happen. Same thing in a ship. What Smith needs to do as Captain Dave put it, is maintain command.

He needs to be a source of stability. Screaming out orders and putting people in lifeboats isn't stability. It is an introduction into chaos.

As to Smith's choice not to issue abandon ship, I agree with it, but I have 90 years of hinsight. It was a brave decision, that I wouldn't want to make.

Smith did stay with his ship, and to my knowledge at no time lost his sense. Daze during the last seconds is understandable.
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What I find astonishing is that Capt. Smith never assembled all the officers together to brief them all on the situation- that Titanic was sinking. Sadly the meeting of all the officers in the wheelhouse (as depicted in 'A Night To Remember' and Cameron's 'Titanic') was pure fiction.

Perhaps this is why Lightoller claimed later he didn't realise the situation was that serious...

Tarn Stephanos
Sometimes it's best just to give orders with no explanation. Fires and evcuations are prime examples. The less people know the more likely they are to do the job at hand without thinking.
I think Captain Smith, did die in a state of dazed shock. He would have felt guilty, for allowing the last boiler to be lit, to make the ship go faster, even though they had been given lots of iceburg warnings. Plus in that era, the captain would be known to go down with the ship.
I personally feel that Captain Smith was too busy trying to evacuate passengers without causing a general panic, locate help from any nearby ship, and assisting his engineers with keeping the ship afloat and on an even keel for as long as possible, to be wandering the bridge in a daze.
I also believe that the reason the log, charts and other official documents weren't saved is mainly due to the Captain being too busy to see that they were put on a lifeboat. When the end came, I believe the ship went from being stable but sinking, to being unstable and half sunk in so short a period of time that the captain was likely caught slightly by surprise and possibly trapped in a room near the bridge by falling objects or sudden, violent flooding. In my opinion, I can visualize him realizing that the end is upon them and them making a futile effort to reach the chart room in an attempt to recover the ships papers and documents.
My opinion is that the Captain ultimately perished when the forward funnel collapsed down upon the wheelhouse, destroying it completely.

I have a hard time accepting the notion that a veteran captain of a major shipping line, especially of that era, would be prone to paralyzing anxiety or overcome by the emotion of the moment when he is faced with an emergency onboard. I may be wrong in saying this, but I think the career path of sailors in those days was too rigorous and brutal for a man of weak composure to rise to the level of skipper.

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>>I think Captain Smith, did die in a state of dazed shock. He would have felt guilty, for allowing the last boiler to be lit, <<

If he died in a state of dazed shock, it would have been because the numbing cold of the ocean got him, not because of feelings of "guilt" over any last boilers being lit. There were no last boilers actually lit. Apparantly, it was planned to light the very last boilers, possibly with any eye towards doing a high speed run on the morning to afternoon of the 15th, but it never happened. Beyond that, Carole, you may wish to read through David Brown's last post above as his opinions tend to be a lot closer to what the evidence points to in the real history. You may also wish to read the inquiry transcripts themselves to see for yourself what there to support that view. You can do so by going to This Website.

My own take of the testimony indicates to me a man who was a lot more involved, and in control then the pop histories and Hollywood have ever been willing to give him credit for.

>>Plus in that era, the captain would be known to go down with the ship.<<

And how many captains of that era voluntarily chose to do so? Do some research into this. You may be surprised to find out that this didn't happen as often as the movies would have you believe.
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I agree somewhat with Michael and Tarn. He did seem a bit shocked, but not of the guilt-more of the fact that his unsinkable ship was sinking. After he was notified that Titanic would sink, I personally think he was in a state of denial. That might be why he didn't organize the officers right away. I still commend him for doing what he did. I just thought he could have warned the officers that it was serious.

About warning people to get off the ship and giving orders-well I think it would be good to do that, just not in a crazy way that Erik suggested. It would have been best to (instead of shouting out orders) just explain what was happening.

-Adam Lang
Except in fiction I cannot find any evidence that Captain Smith was "dazed" or lacked initiative after the accident. A dazed 1912 captain would not have made such efficient use of wireless to call for help. He organized a safe evacuation of the ship and was seen both assisting in the launching of boats and directing lifeboats with a megaphone. His only real problem was lack of resources to solve the problem at hand. It's hard to pull off a John Wayne act when you don't have any way of changing the situation.

--David G. Brown
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