What was going through Captain Smith's mind?


Erik Wood

As some in the this board know I am in the very slow process of writing a book. A friend of mine mentioned that I should add my own experiences and relate what Smith may have been thinking at the time the ship sank and while she was sinking. The most obvious problem with that is that nobody really knows what Smith was thinking. All of this talk about him being almost lathargic to me is more of finding someone to take the blame rather then truth.

So the intent of this board is gain a consense on what we would be experiencing had it been us in Smith's shoes.

I think once it was clear to me that my ship was doomed and unless help came earlier then expected there was no hope for me or at least half of my passengers then more of a shock and disbelief would have set in. I refuse to believe that he was a bad leader as some have claimed. He did give the order to fill and lower the boats, he did give the order to call for help (which is a very hard thing for a Captain to do) So after he could do no more he just died waited and died.

Just my opinion.

It appears from the evidence that after the collision, Smith fulfilled all the responsibilites required of a Captain, with one possible exception. As you well know, Erik, a ship's master really has nothing to do once his subordinates are carrying out his orders to abandon ship. Oversight of the lowering of boats was delegated to and being dutifully carried out by his Chief Officer, as it should have been. Smith ensured the distress calls were being sent out, and for all we know, probably closed out Titanic's log. The one duty that he might have neglected was that of looking after the third class...he should have ensured that all barriers were down, so that free egress was available to all. However, a concerted effort to remove the barriers would have required men otherwise needed to lower the boats and might have prematurely fueled a panic, so it's conceiveable that he considered the problem and made the decision to do nothing in favour of maintaining order on the decks.

He may have been in shock, but was not incapacitated, as some claim. The available evidence indicates that he carried out his duties and let his crew work the problem, as was proper. Imagine the reaction if passengers saw Smith at individual lifeboat stations, urging the crew to lower away, as did Ismay. As Master, Smith had to stay removed and present the image of a calm, controlled leader.

At any rate, that's my take on Smith.


Smith put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. He was neither hero nor villian that night, just a man doing the best he could under the circumstances.

To me, there are two Captain Smiths. One is prior to midnight. This is the E.J. Smith who could not conceive of a major catastrophe to a modern ship. The other man was Captain Smith who made the tough decisions necessary to save about 70% of the people for whom he had lifeboats.

Good luck with your project. Set aside a period of time every day to work. Think of it as a "watch." One paragraph is great progress for a day--a page is success beyond belief. And, have others read and criticize your work, but never let that criticism undermine your self confidence.

-- David G. Brown
Thanks David and Parks,

However I think I am going to attempt to relate how I would have done although that will be extremely hard to do. I most whole heartly agree with Parks in the sense that after "he gave the orders there was really nothing for him to do but die" that was a quotation from the beginings of my book. But I think it is hard for any of us to half away imagine what Smith was going through. I also think that the look of calm can also be translated in the moment of distress as in action. Rather then bark orders and yell fruitlessly he may have been quiet after the majority of his orders were given. I have read that Lightoller (the info was not from Lightoller) had to ask twice the first time Smith looked at him and second firmly gave the order. If this is so I think this shows that Smith at that moment in time realized that he was ordering the abandoment of a brand new ship that was said to be "unsinkable". I don't think was lathargic until there was nothing for him to do but die.


Good luck on your book; it sounds like an exciting project. And I echo David's advice--set a "watch" each day and get something (no matter how small it seem) done. Progress on a worthwhile writing project involves steady, eventimes slow, work. And try not to get discouraged.

Concerning Captain Smith, Lightoller's testimony was that he had to ask the captain twice whether to fill and lower the boats. He said he cupped his hands over Captain Smith's ear and shouted his question. Smith's only response was a nod of the head. I have never interpreted this as a sign of "fear" or "shock." I think it was just an old captain's resignation to his final, fatal responsibilities. And I'm certain that he was asking himself again and again what he could have done differently to have avoided the tragedy.

I can't blame Captain Smith; despite having a spotty safety record on the ships he had captained, he believed he was operating his ship "safely," as the word was defined at the time (Remember, Titanic hadn't happened yet.) but he wouldn't have been human if he didn't react to the situation and feel it as a man who was entrusted the safety of these people and could not--no matter what he did--save many more than half of them.

And I agree with the others--he gave all the necessary and required orders; saw to it that they were carried out; then waited, showing one and all a calm exterior, for the result he had anticipated, but could not stop.

My best,
A calm exterior that was hidding a more then likely horrified man. As a Captain I would tend to believe that if Smith saw Lightoller and most likely Wilde then he knew what was about to be asked especially seeing as he had given the order to prepare the boats. However there is to much specutlation. I think shock and disbelief may have been running through Smiths mind and maybe the loud noise of the steam escaping required Lightoller to give that extra shout for a response. But Smith most likely was having a hard time coming to grips with the end of his ship.

As a Captain historically skippers do not like to admit that there ship is sinking and that they have lost control of a situation that they were suppose to have control of. It is admitting defeat. Once the loading of lifeboats begins that signals the end of the road in a big way. That means that his ship is done for and so is his career and possibly his life if he doesn't start the ball rolling.

Hi Erik.

As Smith was totally unprepared for what happened to Titanic, he probably went through a major learning experience as the scale of the disaster became apparent.

I thought it might be helpful to share what little I know regarding how the mind copes with new learning, based on what I have been taught during my time as a Trainer. Here goes:

When anyone goes through a "new" experience, especially one for which they are unprepared and which also contains "learning" for the future, then the Transition Curve of learning can come into effect. As I understand it, the steps that Capt. Smith may have experienced whilst on that Transition Curve are as follows:

(1) Shock. Quick decisions are made, and performance can "improve" in the short term.

(2) Denial. Performance falls back to the mind's "normal" level, as it tries to deny what's happening.

(3) Incompetence. Errors are made. Even thoughts and actions which would normally be second nature to the person concerned can be badly conducted, neglected or even forgotten.

(4) Letting Go. This is where the mind can go one of two ways. It can either "give up" and surrender, or else the person can decide to do "the best they can" and work through the challenges being faced.

(5) Testing. New ideas and solutions are considered and tested in the short term, to see what does and doesn't work. Mental performance improves.

(6) Search For Meaning. The mind considers the long term implications of the event(s) and what future actions could be put into place as a result. Mental performance continues its improvement.

(7) Integration. The lessons from the new event are fully assimilated into the mind, which can now cope, should a similar event occur in the future. Mental performance is now at a higher level than prior to the learning event.

The timing of the Curve, and the depth of the fall in mental performance whilst in Steps (2) through (5), varies from person to person and is dependant upon the event in question.

I haven't gone back to my books regarding the above; it's all from memory, but I think I've remembered most of the theory okay. If anyone can add to this, or if I've made an error, please let me know.

Hope this helps, and good luck with the book!


Thanks Paul,

I have often wondered about the psygology of certian things. Especially why some peoples mind stops in the time of disaster and others excel in the time of disaster.

After reading the Smith Letters from Mystic, I have an idea that all of the above conjectures have validity but I also have no doubt he was thinking of his wife and daughter, and being a religious man, no doubt was probably doing some praying at some point. He comes across in these letters as a real family man, sometimes nostalgic and a touch sentimental, and very gallant and chivalrous. Surely he was considering the plight of the weak and helpless and his powerless inability to help the dire situation. In times like those he had to be a company man to be sure, following procedures and fulfilling his duty as Master but the private man , husband and father was operative at the same moment. To whom much is given, much is expected. I wish I knew where he was at the end-I'd like to think he died on the bridge. It's clear from Mrs.Smith's letter she believed the story about his saving the baby in the waves at the end. The letters are posted to this board and well worth reading to get a glimpse of the real man.
Erik and Paul,

I've enjoyed the posts. I suppose for clarity's sake, I should say that, of course, Lightholler had to shout and cup his hands because of the noise of the venting steam. My point above was that Lightoller had to take such an action at all; one would think that the captain would expect (and could clearly see) that his orders had been carried out and that Lightoller was returning for further orders.

I've often thought about what my reaction would have been. It's such an enormous thought that I've never been certain how I might react while staring up that sloping deck--much less a professional seaman and experienced captain--so I've always taken care not to judge Captain Smith at this time. No matter what his errors or omissions before the collision, no one should have to face such a terrible prospect.

I was also going to mention his wife and daughter. I imagine that after he did all he could do, his thoughts were of them. I would think that he mentally replayed happy memories with them, and regretted that he would never see his daughter as a grown woman. And I'm sure that he prayed that God would watch over his family after he was gone.

I found where the letters are posted (finally), and I'm looking forward to reading them. It's going to take a (little) while. This was a resource I had never seen before. Thanks.
Unimaginable loss is the key I think. Once he believed the ship was done for he did what he could do and then did nothing more. Mainly because there was nothing more for him to do.


I have another aspect that I didn't even think of. If this was Smiths last voyage perhaps is was a little eager to begin retirement hence putting on the extra speed. But more important once the ship was sinking knowing this was his last voyage he may have attempted to leave all of those around him with the best image as possible. Meaning when he ordered Rowe and Boxhall to take command of boats. When he attempted to recall boats. When he kept going back and forth from the wireless shack. Those may have been ploys to occupy time before death and get his mind off of it as well as show the I am still in charge thing that is important for a Captain in time of distress.

The legend of it being Smith's last voyage dies hard. I have never seen documentary proof of this but I have seen denials issued by White Star's NY office and reported by the US press before the disaster. I rather think that the "last voyage" story is a press invention to heighten the drama.