Monday, September 26, 2011

Arse over Titanic

In the final scene of the 1953 film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, second mate Charles Herbert Lightoller (played by Kenneth More) ruminates on the cause of the sinking. “There were quite a lot of ifs about it,” he said. “If we’d be steaming a few knots slower, or if we’d sighted that berg a few seconds earlier...if we carried enough lifeboats for the size of the ship...” This sinking was different, he concludes. “Because we were so sure, because even though it has happened it is still unbelievable.” The reluctance of many passengers to leave the ship, believing that it was unsinkable meant nearly all the lifeboats were lowered away without their full complement of passengers. The sinking of the Titanic was the shattering of the belief in the human harnessing of technology for good that was the beginning of the end for modernism.

Expect a deluge of commemoration in April next year for the 100th year anniversary of the sinking. 1502 people died in the North Atlantic on 15 April 1912 when Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage. It was the worst disaster at sea ever and it remains among the top peacetime sinking today behind only the Filipino Dona Paz (1987) and the Senegalese La Joola (2002) disasters.

Neither of these Third World tragedies have a cultural affinity in the west worthy of a Hollywood movie. Similarly unknown is the worst marine disaster ever the Nazi ship Wilhelm Gustloff which was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in 1945 for a loss of 7,000 lives. What too about the unheralded British Troopship Lancastria which sunk in 1940 for the loss of over 3,000 lives but whose official record has been classified until 2040 possibly because the captain ignored maximum loading capacity instructions?

The Lancastria is a mystery but the Titanic has become a myth. The reason it sank is for reasons familiar today: the law not keeping up with communication, technology and corporate greed. While fitted with wireless, it was unregulated and not unknown for rival companies to jam each other. Meanwhile the law the Titanic was sailing under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. The relevant section about the number of life-boats, life-jackets, life-rafts and life-buoys on British ships was a matter delegated to the Board of Trade “according to the class in which they are arranged”. The Board, guided by ship owners, judged the number of lifeboats to be a function of tonnage not of total passengers. By law Titanic needed to have a lifeboat capacity for 1060 people but carried 20 lifeboats, enough for 1178 people including all of first class. She could carry three times that many people.

The last time the Board had regulated on the matter was 1896. At the time the law was passed, the largest ship afloat was the 12,950 ton vessel RMS Lucania. Identical in dimensions and specifications to Cunard sister ship RMS Campania, the Lucania was the joint largest passenger liner afloat when she entered service in 1893. But the Germans outstripped the Cunard ships with the 14,400 ton Norddeutsche Lloyd vessel Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, and further ruffled British feathers by winning the Blue Riband for the record speed in an Atlantic crossing averaging 22.3 knots, half a knot faster than Lucania.

White Star line then seriously upped the ante with vessels such as the Oceanic (1899), Celtic (1901), Baltic (1905) and Olympic (1911) trebling the tonnage. A year later their Titanic weighed in at a new record 46,329 tons, almost four times as heavy as the law aimed for Lucania. White Star’s ships were built for comfort and style not speed. Cunard continued to dominate the Blue Riband, despite their smaller ships. White Star was cutting corners of a different kind.

In 1912 White Star was owned by the International Mercantile Marine company owned by monopolist J.P. Morgan. At the time, IMM was overleveraged and suffered from inadequate cash flow that would eventually cause it to default on bond interest payments in 1914. At the British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster Sir Alfred Chalmers of the Board of Trade was asked about the lifeboat regulations. Sir Alfred made a strange claim.

He said if there were fewer lifeboats on Titanic then more people would have been saved. He said if there had been fewer lifeboats then more people would have realised the danger and rushed to the boats filling more to capacity. This claim has superficial validity as in theory the lifeboats could have saved 1,187 but only 710 survived. But then he gave the real reasons: The latest boats were stronger than ever and had watertight compartments making them unlikely to require any lifeboats, sea routes used were well-travelled meaning that the likelihood of a collision was minimal, the availability of wireless technology, the difficulties of loading more than 16 boats, and ultimately it was a matter for the ship owners.

Those owners were well served by the highest ranking surviving officer Second Mate Lightoller - the hero of A Night to Remember. Lightoller somehow guided his upturned boat through four hours of increasingly choppy seas to safety. In his testimony to the London Board of Inquiry said it was “very necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush”. That meant giving careful answers to sharp questions “if one was to avoid a pitfall, carefully and subtly dug, leading to a pinning down of blame on to someone’s luckless shoulders.” His job was to defend the work of the Board of Trade and White Star Lines and he succeeded admirably.

But his testimony did force a change of the rules. Lightoller himself admitted the pendulum had swung “to the other extreme and the margin of safety reached the ridiculous.” But then he would remember the “long drawn out battle of wits, where it seemed that I must hold that unenviable position of whipping boy to the whole lot of them.” The only other thing that bothered him was that White Star never thanked the whipping boy. Perhaps they had others things on their mind. Although the Line survived the tragedy, both IMM and Morgan went under - just like their most famous ship.

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