The Titanic's stokers provide the key to launch times of the middle boats

The timing of the middle boats : the Mount Everest of challenges for Titanic researchers.


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The timing of the middle boats has always been the Mount Everest of challenges for Titanic researchers.

It encompasses fully half the lifeboats on the ship, lifeboats leaving from multiple decks, lifeboats both fore and aft, port and starboard on the stricken vessel, with few reliable time references to serve as guides.

It seemed an insurmountable problem until one day, by serendipity, the solution appeared as I was digging through the Titanic inquiries for any mentions of time at all that could be coordinated with the launching of the middle boats.  It only took another 18 months to nail it down. Here, with false starts included, is that analysis:

The key lay with the stokers, and the times they abandoned the boiler rooms to make their way to the lifeboats up top.

The answer of the riddle of the middle boats starts with 28-year-old Frederick Barrett, lead stoker in Boiler Room 6.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg, Boiler Room 6 quickly flooded. Its occupants fled. Some, like Barrett, wound up in the adjacent Boiler Room 5. He testified at the British inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic to the dramatic efforts to keep the boilers functioning. Eventually, however, ocean water began gushing into Boiler Room 5 and the engineers relieved the men of their duty and sent them topside to save themselves.

Barrett testified he left the boiler room at 1:10 a.m. (April 15, 1912).  He headed for the lifeboats, stopping on A deck where he came upon Boat No. 13, loaded and ready to launch.  He jumped in, followed, he said, by three other men just before the lifeboat was lowered.

Senate Inquiry:

Q. Was there any objection to your getting in the boat? - A. No, sir.

Q. Where was it loaded? - A. At A deck. It was lowered to A deck. They were very full up when we got in.

Q. Was there an officer there at the time? - A. No, sir.

Q. You got in and took charge of the boat and remained in charge until you got chilled? - A. Yes.

British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry:

2156. After you got up to her did any more people get in?
- Yes, there were about three more got in after I got in, and the order was given from the boat deck, "Let no more in that boat; the falls will break."

It would take only seconds for four grown men to jump into a lifeboat. So, it's fair to say that, for research purposes, we can assume that the time he arrived at No. 13 is about equal to the minute the boat was lowered.

But what time was it?  Barrett couldn't say.

2148. (The Solicitor-General.) Are you able to tell us the time when you got to No. 13?
- No. As a Rule a stoker never carries a watch when he is at work.

The time it took Barrett to get to No. 13 is a crucial clue as you shall see. Was there any way to approximate it.

The British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry explored the movements of Titanic's crew in greater detail than the Senate Inquiry, and two witnesses provided invaluable evidence.

A discussion of the time it took to reach the upper decks was part of the questioning of able seaman William Lucas.

Lucas said he was in his quarters on C deck when the collision happened. He heard the quartermaster's call for All Hands and went up 3 decks to the boat deck.

1762. How long did it take you to get from your quarters to the boat deck?
- I should say about five minutes.

The commissioner was incredulous. Five minutes!?  He admonished the witness, referencing his own guided tour of the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic.

1767. In ordinary circumstances, or what I conceive to be ordinary circumstances, do you mean to tell me it takes five minutes to get from your quarters in the fore part of the ship up to the boat deck? Just think about it?
- It took me close on that. I never knew my way properly upon the boat deck.

1768. Do you mean to say that you were groping about in places that you knew nothing about?
- Yes.

1769. Had you never been up before?  - Yes, I had been on the boat deck every watch.

1770. And had not you then learnt your way?
- Yes, I had learnt my way.

1771. Then having learnt your way how long did it take you to go your way to get to the boat deck? Five minutes seems a very long time. I should have said half-a-minute?
- It is rather long, my Lord.

The Commissioner:
I came up those stairs in the "
Olympic" yesterday. It is quite true I was shown the way but five minutes seems an extraordinary length of time.

Half-a-minute by the Commissioner's time-sense?  That averaged to climbing each deck in 10 seconds.

Putting Barrett on that brisk pace would mean he would trek the eight decks from the boiler rooms to A deck in roughly a minute and a half, allowing for some slowing down at the end of a long stair climb.  Assuming some fatigue after a hard shift of stoking coal, you can argue the trip to the boats would take two minutes or more. And if you add time to find a lifebelt, it  becomes just a guessing game.

Was there any way to eliminate or reduce the guesswork?

The experience of greaser Frederick Scott would have been closer to Barrett's.  He worked in an adjacent boiler room until 1:20, he told the British Inquiry.  Before going up to the lifeboats, he and the others with him were sent to a storage closet in the steerage quarters at the rear of the ship where they were each given a lifebelt.

5765. How did you get from the third class sleeping apartments to the boat deck?
- I went to the third class compartments and up the staircase.

5766. Was that the most direct way?
- Yes.

5767. Had you any difficulty in getting up?
- No.

5768. None at all?
- No.

5769. Did all the other members of the crew follow you?
- Yes.

5770. The 40 firemen?
- Yes.


5774. How long were you occupied in getting these lifebelts?
- Not long.

5775. It is at any rate an appreciable distance from the sleeping apartments of the third class passengers to the deck, is it not?
- I should say we would get up in five minutes in a case like that.

Scott's answer is almost identical to Lucas.  Five minutes.  Given the discrepancy in distance travelled by each man, its obvious they are using the term as shorthand to mean "a short while, not long" rather than an actual measure of time.

So let's take them at their word.  Five minutes to reach the boat deck doesn't look like such an outrageous estimate.  Remember, its foolhardy to claim accuracy down to the exact minute after almost 100 years.  Broad estimates, say in five minute segments, allow for minor mistakes to average themselves out over time.

If Barrett left boiler room No. 5 at 1:10 a.m., and took about five minutes to climb to A deck (possibly stopping along the way to get a lifebelt), he would arrive at Lifeboat No. 13 at 1:15 a.m.

No. 13 was lowered seconds later, and had the most terrifying trip down of all the lifeboats.  That  gives us the first reasonable approximation of the launch of one of the middle boats: No. 13 at 1:15 a.m.

Philip Mock, first-cabin passenger, was saved in Lifeboat No. 11  which preceeded No. 13 down.  He wrote Archibald Gracie a letter (cited in Gracie's book The Truth About the Titanic) wherein he said (p.253, Winocour):

"I at no time saw any panic and not much confusion. I can positively assert this as I was near every boat lowered on the starboard side up to the time No. 11 was lowered. With the exception of some stokers who pushed their way into boat No. 3 and No. 5, I saw no man or woman force entry into a lifeboat. One of these was No. 13 going down, before we touched the water."

His observation was corroborated by bathroom steward Charles D. Mackay at the British Inquiry:

British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry

Day 9

10842. When No. 11 was lowered, was No 13 still on the davits?
- No; No. 13 was being lowered when we were on the water's edge.

10843. About the same time?
- About the same time.

Using a rough estimate of five minutes to lower a lifeboat, that would have No. 11 launched five minutes before No. 13 or roughly 1:10 a.m.

Lifeboat No. 13 still had more clues to provide.

Fireman George Beauchamp also found himself in Boiler Room No. 5 with Barrett after the collision with the iceberg.  But he was dismissed earlier than Barrett. He went all the way to the boat deck where, as fate would have it, No. 13 was loading.  He assisted with the passengers, then he was ordered in just before it was lowered to A deck to continue loading there.

So if we an determine what time he left Boiler Room Five we can deduce how long it took to load No. 13, and by extension, each lifeboat.

Barrett told the British Inquiry he ordered most of the men in Boiler Room Five to leave about 15 minutes before he was ordered out himself.

2017. And you got some 15 men to help about it?
- Yes.

2018. And did they draw the fires?
- Yes.

2019. How long do you think it would take them to draw the fires?
- It would take them 20 minutes.

2020. And after they had drawn the fires what happened to them?
- I sent them up again.

2021. They went up again?
- Yes.

2022. Did you stay below?
- Yes.

2023. With Mr. Harvey?
- Yes.

2024. Then what was the next order?
- He asked me to lift the manhole plate off.


2030. And what happened then?
- Mr. Shepherd was walking across in a hurry to do something and then fell down the hole and broke his leg.

2031. He did not notice the manhole plate had been lifted?
- No.

2032. He broke his leg?
- Yes.


2036. And then you attended to Mr. Shepherd as best you could. Did you stay there after that?
- Just about a quarter of an hour after that.

2037. And during that quarter of an hour did No. 5 keep free from water?
- Yes.

2038. Then tell us what happened at the end of a quarter of an hour?
- A rush of water came through the pass - the forward end


2112.  Now then, Barrett, when all that was over, you told us you came up out of No. 5 when the rush came in?
- Yes.

2113. Where did you go to?
- Up the escape into the main alleyway.


If Barrett left the boiler room at 1:10, then Beauchamp was ordered out 15 minutes earlier at 12:55 a.m. Five minutes to reach the boat deck and he was loading about 1 a.m.  If the boat left at 1:15 a.m., it took 15 minutes to load.

Using 15 minutes as a rule-of-thumb for loading, it should be possible to work backwards and discover the times the other starboard lifeboats left the ship. So I thought.

While the loading of No. 13 overlapped with the loading of No. 11, that wasn't the case with earlier boats.  In other words, No. 9 left before No. 11 loaded and No. 1 before No.9 loaded.  

By that token, you could assume that if No. 11 left at 1:10 a.m., it started loading at 12:55 a.m. If loading started as soon as No. 9 was lowered, it put the lowering time for No. 9 at 12:55 a.m. with loading at 12:40 a.m.  

This wasn't working.

In my earlier research on the lowering of the early boats, I determined that the earliest Boat No. 6 could have been launched was 12:40 a.m.

No. 6 left shortly before No. 1 which left before No. 9.  Anything that puts the launch of No. 9 at 12:40 has to be wrong. So it was back to the drawing board, or in this case Lifeboat No. 13.

It took a few days to realize what went wrong and why.  The evidence around Beauchamp indicates that the loading of No. 13 took about 15 minutes.  But did something interrupt the process?

An examination of the accounts from survivors who escaped in Boat 13 and Boat 15 provided the answer.

Seaman Robert Hopkins  (New York Times, April 23, 1912)

"At the saloon deck, he said, the boat was stopped in order to take aboard some more passengers.  There was some disorder at this deck, he said, especially when a number of Poles, Hungarians and Italians tried to get aboard."

Irish passenger Bertha Mulvihill: (Providence Journal, April 20, 1912)

"Some of the Italian men from way down in the steerage were screaming and fighting to get into the lifeboats. Captain Smith stood at the head of the passasgeway. He had a gun in his hand."

"Boys," he said. "You've got to do your duty here. It's the women and children first, and I'll shoot the first man who jumps into a boat."

Eugene Daly  (interviewed by Dr. Frank Blackmarr aboard the Carpathia)

"Finally some of the women and children were let up, but, as you know, we had quite a number of hot-headed Italians and other peoples who got crazy and made for the stairs. These men tried to rush the stairway, pushing and crowding and pulling women down, some of them with weapons in their hands."

There it was.  A rush on the boat witnessed by crew and passengers alike. What if 15 minutes was actually 10 minutes of loading and five minutes of restoring order?

Insert that variable and we have No. 11 launched at 1 a.m., No. 9 at 12:50 a.m. and No. 1 at 12:40 a.m.  For the second time the scenario was impossible.

Second officer Charles Lightoller wrote in his memoirs (Titanic And Other Ships) that as soon as he saw No.6 off, he was approached by Chief Office Wilde who asked him "did I know where the firearms were".

The officers' guns were the responsibility of the First Officer, wrote Lightoller, but Murdoch, who had been bumped from Chief Officer to First on the Titanic, didn't know where they were kept and Lightoller did.

"Yes, I know where they are. Come along and I'll get them for you," and into the First Officer's cabin we went--- the Chief, Murdoch, the Captain and myself---where I hauled them out, still in all their pristine newness and grease."

He distributed the weapons, and was handed one, with extra ammunition, by Wilde.  "The whole incident had not taken three minutes..." he wrote.

So if No. 6 went off at about 12:40 a.m., what time did the loading of the lifeboats resume?  Movie director Jim Cameron has estimated the time it took to cross from port to starboard based on his model of the Titanic.  "It takes thirty seconds to walk through the bridge and get across to the other side. It takes about a minute if you walk by the compass platform."

It appears then that it took about five minutes to get the officers armed and back at work.  Murdoch, in that case, would begin loading No.1 at around 12:45 a.m.

Assuming 10 minutes to load as a rule-of-thumb, No. 1 would go off at 12:55.  No. 9 loads from 12:55 a.m. to 1:05 a.m. No. 11 loads from 1:05 a.m. to 1:15.  And again, the simulation fails as we know for certain that No. 11 preceeded No. 13 which left at 1:15 a.m.

What was wrong this time?   It was easy to see.

No. 1 might have started loading at 12:45 a.m., but it didn't take 10 minutes to finish.

Lifeboat No. 1 carried only five passengers and 8 crewmen.  Five minutes was more than enough time for everyone to get aboard.  And you didn't need two officers to lower an emergency boat carrying only 13 people.  Fifth Officer Herbert Lowe told the Senate Inquiry he stayed with the boat until it reached the water. But there was no need for  First Officer Murdoch to stick around, not with half the lifeboats still to load at the rear of the ship.  

The top deck was 400 feet long.  It would take roughly two minutes to walk from the forward boats to the rear boats, meaning that if Murdoch left at about 12:50 a.m., the loading of No. 9 started about 12:52.  Ten minutes later it was being launched.

That puts the launching of No. 9 at 1:02.  Round that down to the nearest 5 minutes (which isn't improbable given that the loading of No. 1 may have finished sooner than 1:50 and the two minute estimate to traverse from bow to stern is a walking speed), and you have 1:00 a.m.

This time, the template works like a charm.

No. 11 leaves 10 minutes later---1:10 a.m.

And we're back where we began with No. 13 at 1:15.

One loose thread remains.  Lifeboat No. 8.

If Lightoller distributed the guns starting about 12:40 a.m. , he and Chief Officer Wilde would have been loading No. 8 five minutes later.  Using the rule of thumb at 10 minutes to load, No. 8 would have launched at approximately 12:55 a.m.  

And there it is, the launch times of five of the middle boats:

No. 1   12:50

No. 8   12:55

No. 9  1:00

No. 11    1:10

No. 13    1:15

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George Jacub


Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) The Titanic's stokers provide the key to launch times of the middle boats (Titanica!, ref: #13268, published 18 July 2011, generated 23rd July 2021 01:40:14 PM); URL :