Encyclopedia Titanica

The Average Lifeboat


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“THERE are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

- Mark Twain, Autobiography

But there are also, when dealing with statistics, some damning truths to be found, should one wish to find them. Never more so than with the RMS Titanic.

The British Inquiry report is awash with statistics. Their presence could be taken to suggest that this disaster has been comprehensively analysed, which would reflect rather well on the Court of Inquiry.

There are tables of percentage survival rates by age, sex and class.

There are even approximations of the make-up of the individual lifeboats. These, being based on reductions from testimony, are highly unreliable. They actually total 914 survivors!

Lord Mersey remarked apologetically; “There was a tendency in the evidence to exaggerate the numbers in each boat… to exaggerate the proportion of women to men and to diminish the number of crew.”

It would seem that, by providing such a mass of statistical information, the British Inquiry went out of its way to be exhaustive.

But in fact – despite the snowstorm of numbers - it failed to offer a simple statistical model that could have disclosed much more.

Percentages can reveal reality. They can also be used to disguise it.

The British Inquiry report invited readers to look through the wrong end of the telescope. It did this, whether by design or no, through the context of its statistics.

The Inquiry report expressed the survival rates as percentages of the total of various categories aboard the Titanic .

This indicated that there were imbalances certainly, but the context was that each gender, every age group, and every class had suffered horrendous loss of life.

They were “all in the same boat” in that respect. Such was the overall impression conveyed by the context.

But if they had reduced matters to that “one boat” – to the statistically average Titanic lifeboat – then a clearer and very different picture would have emerged. One that is closer to the extant photographs of sparsely-filled boats approaching Carpathia.

This new picture jumps into focus when one concentrates on the key factor of the uptake of lifeboat places in general. Who got those vital lifeboat places, when all was said and done?

The British Inquiry did not model such a statistical analysis. Yet lifeboat availability in general, and availability by each class and category in particular, was one of the most important aspects it had been asked to adjudicate upon.

THERE were 712 Titanic survivors, according to modern research.

Eighteen lifeboats reached the Carpathia . Of the 20 that left the ship (16 lifeboats and four collapsibles ), two were abandoned after their survivors were taken aboard others during the morning. These cast-offs were collapsibles A and B, and their evacuation reduced the number of occupied craft to eighteen.

The total number of survivors (712), divided by the total number of lifeboats to reach the Carpathia (18), shows that the average lifeboat contained 39½ souls.

[Of course there is no such thing as half a person, but the division of 712 by 18 is almost exact at 39.55 recurring.]

Fig 1. The Average Lifeboat

Now imagine you are a passenger on the Carpathia . You have been summoned from your cabin in the early morning by sensational news. You rush to the ship's side and peer over at an arriving lifeboat:

This is an actual photo of a Titanic boat (one of the smaller ‘emergency' cutters, either #1 or #2). It has been stripped out of an image of its being overhauled onto Carpathia 's deck and adapted for use here because of the camera angle.

14 out of the 18 lifeboats that reached the Cunarder were standard lifeboats of the larger size. They were each certified to carry 65 adults. Fifth Officer Lowe was more precise, insisting it was 65.5 persons, but Lightoller and others worked off 65.

Two additional cutters were certified to carry 40 persons each, and the two continuing collapsibles (C&D) 47 apiece. The average capacity of each ‘surviving' lifeboat was therefore 60.22 persons.

So you are asked to imagine that here is a Titanic lifeboat coming towards you with 39½ persons and more than 20 empty places.

The lifeboat is less than two-thirds full. (Fill quotient of each, on average: 65.68pc)

And, since this is the average boat, all of the seventeen other boats will be exactly the same.

Those with more, and those with less, are evened out. All Titanic' s lifeboats were, statistically, less than two-thirds full.

That is a plain fact.

While one or two of Titanic 's late-departing boats carried significantly in excess of 100pc capacity, the average cannot be gainsaid. For every full boat, there was one spectacularly more empty than the next.

So, as you look down from the Carpathia and see more and more boats arriving in the same sparse condition, does a thought not occur to you as to the level of performance in filling the boats?

They had more than two hours to fill these craft from the moment they knew that the ship must sink.

Two hours, as against fourteen minutes for the Empress of Ireland and eighteen minutes for the Lusitania , both of which successfully launched some lifeboats despite swift and staggering starboard lists.

There are other factors at play in the survival numbers for these 1914 and 1915 sinkings (higher water temperature in both cases, daylight for the Lusitania , Storstad boats lowered in the night for Empress passengers), but the point is not lost.

The Titanic should surely have done much, much better.

They had a relatively stable launch platform, and up to eight times longer.

It is no good to blame early passenger reluctance. The Officers and command of the Titanic knew from ten minutes past midnight that their ship must sink. This was not a drill, and therefore all means – such as orders at gunpoint, if necessary, even an early shot in the air - should have been taken to ensure that idling passengers were galvanized and all boats adequately filled.

Passengers should not have allowed the luxury of making up their own minds, particularly when they were obviously not in possession of the full facts.


So who are these wave-borne survivors washing to the side of your ship?

The raw numbers of survivors have been used to allocate to the average lifeboat its figure of 39½. occupants.

Those filled seats can be now further identified, based pro-rata on the overall make-up of survivors.

This means the average Titanic lifeboat contains 12 crew, 7 male passengers, 17.5 women passengers and three children.

Fig 2. Gender balance of the Average Lifeboat

Look down from the Carpathia at this average lifeboat. Look at the sex breakdown of the occupants:

Nearly half the average Titanic lifeboat complement is made up of men (over 45pc), rather than women and children.

But excluding the three children in the average boat, men are practically as populous as women, at 18 to 18½.*


They are all like this!

* The lone woman surrounded by male figures in the diagram represents a female member of crew - a stewardess - one of whom, statistically, must be allocated to the average lifeboat.

Yet adding all crew to male passengers (in other words treating the stewardess as a ‘crewman') gives this near-total male bloc a clear majority in every boat over women passengers and their children - 19 to 17½.

The number of men has admittedly been slightly swollen by the average dispersal of those picked up from the sea or plucked from collapsibles A and B.

Only one woman (Rhoda Abbott) was saved in this way. The rest of those later rescued seem to have all been men, being better able to withstand the exposure.

The British Inquiry reckoned that 60 persons were taken into the boats after the ship had gone down.

Thus, “of the 712 persons saved only 652 can have left the Titanic in boats, or an average of about 36 per boat,” Lord Mersey reported.

His figures are broadly right (36.22pc).

The sixty swimmers or collapsible escapees are all men (well, 98.33pc male to be exact). They are distributed three to a boat on average (3.33, actually), bringing the total complement up from 36.22 to that figure of 39½ souls.

Thus, even excluding those taken aboard later (statistically males), the indications are that the average boat was lowered with close to the same number of men as women!

Fifteen men to 18½ women.

Meanwhile Second Officer Lightoller , launching the boats on the port side, thought four crewmen sufficient to handle each craft. (Br. 14257).

Yet there are, on average, twelve crew to a boat. Not four.

Of course some of these crew were not there when the boat was lowered, but were taken in afterwards. It would seem (and here one has to enter a caveat of approximation) that those taken from A, B and the sea were twice as likely to be crew as passengers.

The three men per boat distributed from the aftermath can therefore be hazarded, from overall survival rates by category, as being a steward, a stoker, and a steerage male.

This in turn suggests that the average boat, when lowered, contained ten crew.

That is significantly more than Lightoller deemed sufficient when he was filling port side boats.


The component identity of occupants in the average lifeboat is indeed revealing.

Again distributing pro-rata based on categories of total survivors, we can see that the dozen crew in the typical lifeboat is made up of four stokers, two ABs , five stewards, and one stewardess.

[One says typical, rather than average, in this case because the fragmentary representation of surviving officers, cooks, is statistically unimportant. The definition of stoker includes firemen, trimmers and greasers.

The serious statistician will point out that the most accurate reflection is actually four stokers, two and a half ABs , four and a half stewards, and one stewardess, although the lay reader will probably have had enough of halves.]

The two ABs may be a significant measure of accuracy – White Star Line regulations were that there had to be two sailors to each lifeboat. When the boat list went up after leaving Queenstown, that is how they were apportioned.

And a succession of witnesses told of two ABs being allocated during the crisis to each boat – being Jewell Br. 95; Lucas, Br. 1743; Poingdestre Br 2955; Hendrickson Br 5004; Morris Br. 5316, Joughin Br. 5996, Mackay Br 10777; Wheat Br 13209, and Crawford Br 17933.]

Five stewards and four stokers joined those two ABs in each lifeboat, by “rounding” of occupations.

Take away the two crewmen rescued afterwards, and still seven additional male members of crew managed to muscle their way into every single means of escape on the Boat Deck

There they joined the ABs and the stewardess, one of the latter told to take her place because she was a woman. Nine crewmen before lowering – more than twice as many as the four thought adequate to handle the boat

These are statistical facts. We can look behind them, to imagine one's “mates” bunking in, or being beckoned in, when an Officer's back is turned.

Meanwhile it is common to imagine from the context of the British Inquiry's analysis of Lost and Saved that the crew were particularly hard done by, since less than 24pc survived.

This has fostered the notion that the crew sacrificed some of their own places in order to save saloon passengers.

But the crew were not “entitled” to any lifeboat places at all. The lifeboats were implicitly (although not explicitly) for passengers, and the crew to handle each boat would be told off only as a necessity by the supervising Officer.

It is against this background that we should judge the question. And the question is not of the high numbers of crew lost, but of the high numbers saved.

Fig. 3 Class composition of the Average Lifeboat

The diagram shows how the crew comfortably outnumbered the number of steerage (both men and women) saved.

This, on the face of it, appears a shameful statistic.

There were 12 crew saved to ten Third Class passengers in the average lifeboat.

Only nine steerage made it into the average boat before it left the Titanic – with one extra being taken in afterwards.

To venture into the area of interpretation, one could say that the statistics indicate that a significant number of the crew ranked themselves ahead of steerage. It is possible, even probable, that for many this idea of their place in the pecking order operated at a subconscious level.

Fireman Charles Judd declared 50 years after the event that “a British life above all others” was the “word passed around.” A seaman said it to him personally, he declared in an interview in 1962. Judd gave a deposition in 1912, but was never called.

The crew numbers now mathematically ‘visible' in the boats strongly suggest that some jumped in ahead of emigrants, whether or not those crewmen knew that steerage passengers were available to take their seats.

But how could they not know, particularly with the last few boats?

The bald statistics here are telling a story that was not told in any courtroom, but one which is nonetheless plainly evident.

This is not, however, to depict a large swathe of crew as guilty in any criminal sense (no more than people ordered to enter lifeboats should be breveted for doing so), but to deduce that individuals can be expected to act in accordance with human nature and basic instinct when presented with opportunities.

Meanwhile there are 11 First Class passengers saved in the average lifeboat, and 6½ Second Class passengers.

So the crew, with 12 occupants, are the Kings of Representation in the average lifeboat – a far cry from the British Inquiry's portrayal of them as the least favoured and most slaughtered.

Statistics can be a double-edged sword, and both these characterisations (luckiest/unluckiest) are true. The British Report highlighted the one that was most comforting to the general public. Was this mere happenstance? Hardly!

Turn to the Third Class. Steerage made up 35.66pc of the Titanic 's complement (or more than one-in-three aboard ship), but claimed only a quarter of the lifeboat spaces by the time the average vessel reached Carpathia .

Actually, the steerage obtained a smaller share still of the occupied places in the average boat as it was being lowered , a very poor return on both their proportionate numbers and their supposedly favoured status as paying customers.

[The crew made up 40pc of those aboard Titanic , and received 30pc of the lifeboat spaces. Not bad going for those theoretically entitled to nothing, although they might practically expect around 10pc.]

Second class, on the other hand, made up only 14pc of those on board Titanic . Their share of the lifeboat spaces was 16.5pc, slightly more than they should have received on a proportional share-out basis.

But this improvement is more to do with the “inefficiency” of saving the steerage than it is to do with the natural access of Second Class to the Boat Deck.

First class made up 15pc of the souls aboard the Titanic .

Yet their share of the lifeboat places was proportionately nearly double, at 28pc.

[Class percentages total only 99.5pc because of roundings ]

There is abundant statistical proof therefore that both sets of saloon passengers enjoyed a greater chance of being saved than their numbers warranted. The advantage was doubled if one happened to be in First Class. Any First Class woman that wanted to be saved was saved (97pc+).

Of these “more civilized” classes, then, did the gentlemen stand back?

They obviously had the choice, with the boats there in front of them,

Many of the First Class did indeed, among them the noble, the cocksure, and the socially straitjacketed. But an important percentage did not – and entered boats in a kind of “Bruce Ismay Syndrome.” The average craft contains three First Class male passengers, accompanying eight First Class women.

Second Class men adhered much better to the idea of heroic sacrifice. The standardised lifeboat contains less than one Second Class man (seven-tenths of a man to be perfectly accurate!), with the remainder of the average Second Class complement of 6½ souls per boat being women and children.

All Second Class children were saved, along with 86pc of their women, but only 8.33pc of their menfolk .

Fig 4. Children Lost and Saved

Let us consider the children.

There is no excuse for this statistic.

Looking over the side of the Carpathia , you can see three children, of all classes, saved in the average lifeboat.

What you cannot see are the three steerage children who should be in there among them.

Women and children first!

The figures make a bitter and ugly mockery of that old shibboleth.

Fifty-three children died, and all but one of those (Lorraine Allison from First Class, a statistical aberration) was from Third Class.

Not one of them should have lost their short lives. The Titanic command had over two hours to save the women and children, and what woman would not have put her child first, passed the little one up over the heads of adults if necessary?

Those who want to see evidence of steerage maltreatment need not look for guns or locked barriers. They need only look here.

All First Class children and all Second Class children, apart from the Allison girl, were safely stowed in the boats. These escaped.

Yet no-one of the high and mighty invited the steerage to send up their youngsters, as they certainly should have done, had the evacuation been humanely managed.

There is an argument that follows about the paucity of officers, lack of a coherent chain of command for a mass undertaking, and absence of any pre-planning for a major event. These are mitigating factors for what happened on the night, but they are not wholly exculpatory. There was, quite simply, an inexcusable failure of leadership.

Only 27 steerage children lived, out of 79 aboard. That's barely more than one in three (34pc). Emigrant children last!

“The Third Class passengers… were not unfairly treated,” declared Lord Mersey, as he absolved Mr Ismay and Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon of the sin of being saved.

If all those lost steerage waifs had been allowed into the boats, there would have been nearly an extra three (2.88) to the average lifeboat.

Instead 52 steerage children died, and there are still twenty empty seats in the average lifeboat, which, as we have seen, is every lifeboat. And of course, the boats could have carried much more than their stated capacity, and did so in isolated cases.

So, Carpathia passenger, look into that boat below.

Do you still think the Titanic Officers and crew, in the soothing words of Lord Mersey, “all worked admirably”?

The Average Lifeboat

12 crew (30.3pc) [Four stokers, two ABs, five stewards, one stewardess]
7 male passengers (17.7pc) [Three first class, one second class, three steerage]
17.5 women (44.3pc) [Eight first class, four and a half second class, five steerage]
3 children (7.7pc) [one second class, one steerage, one mixed]


39.5 (100pc) (39.55 x 18 boats successfully launched = 712)

* Note: This article has been revised to reflect modern refinements to 1912 raw data.

For further corrections to 1912 official Inquiry figures, please see the ET Research article Statistics of a Disaster by Lester Mitcham.

Text and Images copyrighted © Senan Molony 2004

Senan Molony's latest book "Lusitania: An Irish Tragedy" is now available.


Senan Molony, Ireland


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  1. Lester Mitcham

    Lester Mitcham said:

    Having a passing interest in the statistics of the Titanic Disaster overall [even if his calculations are based on the outdated British Inquiry figures] I applaud the thrust of Senan's paper and its highlighting of the inadequate loading of Titanic's lifeboats. However: 1] I am puzzled when Senan states: "THERE were 712 Titanic survivors, according to the British Inquiry. The more correct figure, widely accepted today, is 711. (The discrepancy is represented by Lorraine Allison, the Inquiry believing that all First Class children had been saved.)" My copy of the British Report says 711 survivors. That number includes Lorraine Allison - First Class: Female children (all saved) ..... 1 It has also now been proved that there were in fact 712 survivors. 2] I am equally puzzled by: "16 out of the 18 lifeboats that reached the Cunarder were standard lifeboats of the larger size. They were each certified to carry 65 adults." That is wrong. There were fourteen 65

  2. David Billnitzer

    David Billnitzer said:

    I read this 'statistical' analysis with some puzzlement. Senan chose as his base (ie, the denominator for the calcs) the number of those saved - not the number of persons who embarked. So true, the 212 crew saved made up 29.8% of the 712 saved, but that's still *less* than the overall average of 32.2% (711 out of 2201). And the crew overall still had the lowest survival rate at 23.9% (212 out of 885). Third Class had a slightly higher survival rate at 25.2% (178 out of 706). In general terms one still had a slightly better chance as a Third Class passenger than as a member of the crew. So I don't really get the point here -- other than it proves the adage that numbers will confess to anything, if you twist and torture them long enough. Dave Billnitzer

  3. Bill Wormstedt

    Bill Wormstedt said:

    Dave - which is exactly how many large corporations handle their books!

  4. David Billnitzer

    David Billnitzer said:

    Bill - I wish I could do my income taxes this way! ;-) Dave

  5. Susan Alby

    Susan Alby said:

    What did you think of "The Average Lifeboat" by Senan Molony? In case you haven't read it yet, here is the link https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/item.php?id=4247 I was surprised at the high pc of crew that got a place on the lifeboats instead of passengers, especially those in 3rd class. 'So the crew, with 12 occupants [in each lifeboat], are the Kings of Representation in the average lifeboat — a far cry from the British Inquiry’s portrayal of them as the least favoured and most slaughtered.' And if 'Women and Children' were indeed first, why did 52 children from steerage perish in the sinking while there were still many empty seats in the lifeboats? Molony blames this on the 'lack of a coherent chain of command for a mass undertaking' as the culprit and 'an inexcusable failure of leadership'. Ouch!

  6. David Billnitzer

    David Billnitzer said:

    Susan: Crew on board: 885 Crew saved: 212 (24%) Third Class children on board: 76 Third Class children saved: 23 (30%) Granted neither group fared particularly well, but would you prefer to have taken your chances on the Titanic as a member of the crew, or as a Third Class child? The reason that surviving crew outnumbered Third class children in the boats is that the crew outnumbered Third Class children on board by a factor of 11.x to begin with. In survival rates, the crew did indeed fare the worst of all, as Lord Mersey's report correctly concluded. Molony's analysis looks at the mix of lifeboat occupants, but not the survival rate of each class of travellers. The math behind it might be perfectly correct, but it's a misleading use of statistics. Dave Billnitzer

  7. Susan Alby

    Susan Alby said:

    Dave- Yes, certainly the crew nor the third class children fared very well in the sinking. But the point that Molony made in his article was the Lifeboats were intended to be used for the Paying Passengers, the Crew was only supposed to board them if it was necessary.

  8. David Billnitzer

    David Billnitzer said:

    Susan - I don't believe there was a rule that lifeboats were to be used *only* by Paying Passengers. There was certainly no such White Star policy, nor international law, etc. One of several issues that arises from that rickety premise is that some Paying Passengers would not enter the lifeboats. Should the Crew have been needlessly sacrificed? Sauve qui peut. Besides, it does not follow that had the 212 surviving Crew remained on board the Titanic and died, additional Paying Passengers would have been saved. It's idle speculation. Such a practice might have only served to lengthen the list of the lost. The presence of only 212 of them in the lifeboats is still less than what we would expect if the crew had been given at least equal treatment as the passengers. Don't misconstrue what I am saying here as an apology for the lack of discipline that night; that's not my intent. I also don't intend to play God and decide who has more *right* to a seat in a lifeboat - a

  9. Dave Gittins

    Dave Gittins said:

    An interesting aspect of the story of third class is that most of the third class men saved were unattached. Not being PC, I suspect that towards the end there was a good deal of pushing in by these men, to the detriment of third class women and children. Slightly more third class men than first class were saved. If you go for a cruise today and your floating gin palace sinks, you'll find there are places in lifeboats for the passengers and the crew to manage them. On many ships, most of the crew will trust to liferafts. Times have only changed a bit.

  10. Michael H. Standart

    Michael H. Standart said:

    >>On many ships, most of the crew will trust to liferafts.

  11. Susan Alby

    Susan Alby said:

    >>One of several issues that arises from that rickety premise is that some Paying Passengers would not enter the lifeboats.

  12. Michael H. Standart

    Michael H. Standart said:

    >>A Passenger should not have had the "luxury" of choosing to enter a lifeboat for whom they were intended for when not in possession of of all the "facts".>Admittedly, the Crew should have exhausted every effort to get ALL the children on the Titanic into the lifeboats before the ship went down.

  13. David Billnitzer

    David Billnitzer said:

    Susan: Here's the closest analogy I can make to Senan's logic, and why I take issue with it. Instead of a sinking ship, let's imagine that a department store crowded with shoppers on several floors is suddenly found to be on fire. Are *all* the store employees required to stay inside the burning building while security officers are sent to round up every last shopper? And if a small percentage of employees do manage to escape (a smaller percentage than shoppers, for that matter), are they at fault for the loss of shoppers who couldn't be found, might have been trapped, thought they were safer where they were, and so on? David Billnitzer

  14. Bill Wormstedt

    Bill Wormstedt said:

    I think we also have the issue, especially with the boiler room crew, of what to do? When the third class men were flooded out of the bow area, early on, where can they go? Up to the well deck, which becomes a dead end, since they are blocked from the first class areas. Or - to the stern third class area. Where their friends and loved ones may be, and where they have a clear and easy route to. What about the firemen whose quarters are even farther forward? They really can't go into the passenger areas. And if they are not on duty, where to go? The Boat Deck is the only place I can think of. So, who is more likely to get into the lifeboats being loaded? The people who are standing there on the Boat Deck, waiting for something to happen.

  15. Susan Alby

    Susan Alby said:

    Considering all of this, here is how I think they should have done it.... The Third class should have gotten onto the lifeboats first, then Second class and and then leave First class to go down with their wealth and money. Cheers, hope everyone has a Happy Holiday!

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2005) The Average Lifeboat (Titanica!, ref: #4247, published 6 January 2005, generated 20th November 2022 07:52:06 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/the-average-lifeboat.html