After the Titanic sunk in the early hours of 14th April 1912 the British and American governments both held inquiries into the disaster which led to the modern day Safety of Lives at Sea regulations.
British flagged Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic was owned by the White Star Line itself recently purchased by the US Morgan banking giant, and had a president rather than a chairman as its head of board.
Both the British and US governments claimed jurisdiction and held separate inquiries into the disaster.
The facts were stark. The White Star line had ordered Titanic, the latest and most up to date liner in the world, from Belfast ship builders Harland and Wolfe.
Titanic was launched and then handed over to its new owners after only eight and half hours of sea trials. The ship then sailed to Southampton where she embarked passengers and set sail on her maiden voyage for New York.
Four days later at approximately 11pm she struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sank with the loss of over 1,500 lives. The 705 survivors were picked up at daybreak by RMS Carpathia, a White Star sister ship and taken on to New York.
The disaster was the greatest loss of life at sea and its news sent shock waves around the world. Paradoxically the Titanic became known as ‘unsinkable’ only after it had sunk and this phrase was coined by American pressmen some days after the actual sinking.
The blame was leveled at Titanic’s captain Edwards, who was lost on the night of the disaster and Bruce Ismay, president of White Star, travelling as a passenger and among those rescued.
In the wake of the subsequent enquiries the SOLAS regulations were drawn up which became the corner stone of our modern international safety at sea procedures relevant to professional seamen and amateur yachtsmen alike.
It has been recognised that accidents at sea can be the result of separate incidents compounding one and another and therefore we need to look back to the original launch of Titanic and the lack of sufficient sea trials.
When the iceberg was first spotted on that fateful night, the officer of the watch immediately ordered the engines thrown into reverse and the helm put hard over.
It was subsequently revealed that Titanic had three propellers, the main centre one didn’t do reverse, it was designed to propel the ship forwards only. The outside two did have a reverse gear, but only intended to assist harbour tugs in docking.
It has been subsequently suggested by various authorities that if Titanic had only kept going it would have been able to simply steer around the obstruction and continue on into the night.
We will never know whether this was true or not, however what was clear was that there hadn’t been sufficient sea trials for the deck officers to fully understand Titanic’s handling characteristics.
I recall waiting, outside France’s Honfleur harbour on my UFO 31 together with some other yachts, for the tide to rise sufficiently for us to enter.
Suddenly a ship came tearing up the narrow River Seine channel with its siren blaring.
We yachtsmen initially froze, and then like the three blind mice, ran in every direction.
The ship evidently decided it needed to stop, which it did by letting go its starboard anchor. The anchor went under the ship with sparks flying across its deck.
Then suddenly, just as the anchor was about to bite the helm was put hard over to port.
The anchor caught at the same moment resulting in the ship rolling over so sharply that I thought it was lost when the rail touched the surface.
But then it righted itself, and was stationary.
‘So that’s how you do an emergency stop,’ I thought, ‘This guy has must have done it before.’
The incident in the River Seine scarred me as I’d never seen a ship go out of control before. I knew I had about 7 knots available at full power and planned to head for the shallow water close to the river bank in the hope the ship would run aground before it hit us.
Another ship laid down at the same time as Titanic was HMS Repulse, a 35,000 ton warship nearly as long as the luxury liner.
HMS Repulse was lost on 10th December 1941 off the coast of Malaya due to enemy air attacks.
Survivors told how Captain Tennant threw the huge battlecruiser around like a nibble destroyer as he dodged so less than 19 torpedo attacks before being overwhelmed.
In contrast Titanic failed to steer around a large, stationary iceberg on a clear night in the middle of the ocean.
Any new boat, whatever the size, needs thorough sea trials to discover its capabilities under power including its stopping distance and turning circle.
Another area the Titanic enquiries examined was the provision of safety equipment. Much has been written about Titanic’s lack of lifeboats. Less so about the availability of crew to man them.
Apparently the majority of Titanic’s crew were aboard to wait on the passengers and surprisingly few seamen crew available to launch and man the lifeboats.
During the two subsequent World Wars able bodied passengers were co-opted into manning lifeboats during practice drills so as to be able to help row them in an emergency.
The modern yachtsman needs to regularly examine his safety equipment and aquaint himself with it.
I recall taking my friend’s child out for the day in my dinghy. Just off the harbour’s little beach I asked the girl to swim a little distance away so I could throw her a life jacket all carefully sealed up in its packet.
“What do I do with this?” she asked me treading water.
“Read the instructions on the side,” I replied, adding somewhat tongue in cheek, “and then work out how to put it on.”
She found this rather difficult, even in broad daylight.
So she climbed back onboard, and we worked how to put it on, adjusted the straps, and inflated it.
After jumping back in, we both agreed it was much better to put on a lifejacket before entering the water.
Titanic had one lifeboat drill scheduled for the whole trip, and that was cancelled the day before
The crew had to launch the lifeboats for the first and only time in an emergency and in the dark.
Yachtsmen are understandably reluctant to inflate liferafts as they have to be sent off to be repacked, and there are numerous restrictions over the use of distress flares on shore, and again are expensive to replace.
However, most lifeboat stations around the country have open days where they will demonstrate the correct use of the various safety items, also there are numerous internet videos available to watch online.
Titanic was also beset with communication problems with other ships. Radios were in their infancy, messages about icebergs weren’t passed on and distress calls not picked up.
Today, a working marine radio is the most important item of a yacht’s safety equipment. The Coastguard provides a 24 hour listening service bringing help and advice immediately to the stricken sailor.
It is a legal requirement that a radio operators’ licence is obtained, and this is done by attending a short, shore based course.
The VHF radio should be turned on every time the yacht leaves harbour and it’s easy to hear the chatter of other users so we know that it is receiving.
If we have new crew onboard, I try to remember to radio the harbour control for a test, so I know the radio is working and so do the crew.
And if it all goes wrong, who gets the blame?
‘The captain goes down with his ship,’ is an old saying. He is certainly in charge and ultimately responsible.
Captain Tennant of HMS Repulse was rescued in 1941 and went on to become a distinguished admiral.
However on Titanic, 62 year old Captain Edward J Smith heroically stayed onboard to the last and didn’t survive.
Whereas White Star Line president Bruce Ismay was rescued. By the time Carpathia arrived in New York four days later a crowd of hysterical relatives had gathered on the quayside.
Ismay, described by eye witnesses as having the appearance of a broken man, had to be escorted by Police through the mob waiting for him.
He lived on until the age of 74, dying in 1937. Vilified in the press at the time his family later stated he never recovered and retreated into a world of silence having had ‘the misfortune to survive’.
He dedicated his last years to working hard for seamen’s charities, and to his credit stayed on at White Star line to ensure all the relatives’ compensation and insurance claims were paid when he could have so easily resigned and walked away.
The modern yacht skipper needs to pause for a moment to reflect on the wisdom of putting out to sea.
Has the weather forecast been checked? Is the radio working? Does he have enough experienced crew for the voyage?
If he calls it off at the last moment the crew will always be disappointed, but far better to be safe than dead.