THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC
(April 14-15, 1912 – North Atlantic Ocean)
Leaving the Sinking Liner
(Illustration by Charles Dixon)
The Official Story
SINKING OF THE RMS TITANIC
(Preparing to Abandon Ship, April 15, 1912)
At 00:05 on 15 April, Captain Smith ordered the ship’s lifeboats uncovered and the passengers mustered. By now, many passengers were awaking, having noticed the engines and their accompanying vibrations had suddenly stopped. He also ordered the radio operators to begin sending distress calls, which wrongly placed the ship on the west side of the ice belt and directed rescuers to a position that turned out to be inaccurate by about 13.5 nautical miles (15.5 mi; 25.0 km). Below decks, water was pouring into the lowest levels of the ship. As the mail room flooded, the mail sorters made an ultimately futile attempt to save the 400,000 items of mail being carried aboard Titanic. Elsewhere, air could be heard being forced out by inrushing water. Above them, stewards went door to door, rousing sleeping passengers and crew – Titanic did not have a public address system – and told them to go to the boat deck.
The thoroughness of the muster was heavily dependent on the class of the passengers; the first-class stewards were in charge of only a few cabins, while those responsible for the second- and third-class passengers had to manage large numbers of people. The first-class stewards provided hands-on assistance, helping their charges to get dressed and bringing them out onto the deck. With far more people to deal with, the second- and third-class stewards mostly confined their efforts to throwing open doors and telling passengers to put on lifebelts and come up top. In third class, passengers were largely left to their own devices after being informed of the need to come on deck. Many passengers and crew were reluctant to comply, either refusing to believe that there was a problem or preferring the warmth of the ship’s interior to the bitterly cold night air. The passengers were not told that the ship was sinking, though a few noticed that she was listing.
Around 00:15, the stewards began ordering the passengers to put on their lifebelts, though again, many passengers took the order as a joke. Some set about playing an impromptu game of association football with the ice chunks that were now strewn across the foredeck. On the boat deck, as the crew began preparing the lifeboats, it was difficult to hear anything over the noise of high-pressure steam being vented from the boilers and escaping via the valves on the funnels above. Lawrence Beesley described the sound as “a harsh, deafening boom that made conversation difficult; if one imagines 20 locomotives blowing off steam in a low key it would give some idea of the unpleasant sound that met us as we climbed out on the top deck.” The noise was so loud that the crew had to use hand signals to communicate.
Titanic had a total of 20 lifeboats, comprising 16 wooden boats on davits, eight on either side of the ship, and four collapsible boats with wooden bottoms and canvas sides. The collapsibles were stored upside down with the sides folded in, and would have to be erected and moved to the davits for launching. Two were stored under the wooden boats and the other two were lashed atop the officers’ quarters. The position of the latter would make them extremely difficult to launch, as they weighed several tons each and had to be manhandled down to the boat deck. On average, the lifeboats could take up to 68 people each, and collectively they could accommodate 1,178 – barely half the number of people on board and a third of the number the ship was licensed to carry. The shortage of lifeboats was not because of a lack of space nor because of cost. Titanic had been designed to accommodate up to 68 lifeboats – enough for everyone on board – and the price of an extra 32 lifeboats would only have been some US$16,000 (equivalent to $449,000 in 2021), a tiny fraction of the $7.5 million that the company had spent on Titanic.
In an emergency, lifeboats at the time were intended to be used to transfer passengers off the distressed ship and onto a nearby vessel. It was therefore commonplace for liners to have far fewer lifeboats than needed to accommodate all their passengers and crew, and of the 39 British liners of the time of over 10,000 long tons (10,000 t), 33 had too few lifeboat places to accommodate everyone on board. The White Star Line desired the ship to have a wide promenade deck with uninterrupted views of the sea, which would have been obstructed by a continuous row of lifeboats.
Captain Smith was an experienced seaman who had served for 40 years at sea, including 27 years in command. This was the first crisis of his career, and he would have known that even if all the boats were fully occupied, more than a thousand people would remain on the ship as she went down with little or no chance of survival. Popular belief says that, upon grasping the enormity of what was about to happen, Smith became paralysed by indecision, had a mental breakdown or nervous collapse, and became lost in a trance-like daze, rendering him ineffective and inactive in attempting to mitigate the loss of life. However, according to survivors, Smith took charge and behaved coolly and calmly during the crisis. After the collision, Smith immediately began an investigation into the nature and extent of the damage, personally making two inspection trips below deck to look for damage, and preparing the wireless men for the possibility of having to call for help. He erred on the side of caution by ordering his crew to begin preparing the lifeboats for loading, and to get the passengers into their lifebelts before he was told by Andrews that the ship was sinking. Smith was observed all around the decks, personally overseeing and helping to load the lifeboats, interacting with passengers, and striking a delicate balance between trying to instil urgency to follow evacuation orders while simultaneously attempting to dissuade panic.
Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall was told by Smith at around 00:25 that the ship would sink, while Quartermaster George Rowe was so unaware of the emergency that after the evacuation had started, he phoned the bridge from his watch station to ask why he had just seen a lifeboat go past. The crew was unprepared for the emergency, as lifeboat training had been minimal. Only one lifeboat drill had been conducted while the ship was docked at Southampton. It was a cursory effort, consisting of two boats being lowered, each manned by one officer and four men who merely rowed around the dock for a few minutes before returning to the ship. The boats were supposed to be stocked with emergency supplies, but Titanic‘s passengers later found that they had only been partially provisioned despite the efforts of the ship’s chief baker, Charles Joughin, and his staff to do so. No lifeboat or fire drills had been conducted since Titanic left Southampton. A lifeboat drill had been scheduled for the Sunday morning before the ship sank, but was cancelled for unknown reasons by Captain Smith.
Lists had been posted on the ship assigning crew members to specific lifeboat stations, but few appeared to have read them or to have known what they were supposed to do. Most of the crew were not seamen, and even some of those had no prior experience of rowing a boat. They were now faced with the complex task of coordinating the lowering of 20 boats carrying a possible total of 1,100 people 70 feet (21 m) down the sides of the ship. Thomas E. Bonsall, a historian of the disaster, has commented that the evacuation was so badly organised that “even if they had the number [of] lifeboats they needed, it is impossible to see how they could have launched them” given the lack of time and poor leadership. Indeed, not all of the lifeboats on board Titanic were launched before the ship sank.
By about 00:20, 40 minutes after the collision, the loading of the lifeboats was under way. Second Officer Lightoller recalled afterwards that he had to cup both hands over Smith’s ears to communicate over the racket of escaping steam, and said, “I yelled at the top of my voice, ‘Hadn’t we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?’ He heard me and nodded reply.” Smith then ordered Lightoller and Murdoch to “put the women and children in and lower away”. Lightoller took charge of the boats on the port side and Murdoch took charge of those on the starboard side. The two officers interpreted the “women and children” evacuation order differently; Murdoch took it to mean women and children first, while Lightoller took it to mean women and children only. Lightoller lowered lifeboats with empty seats if there were no women and children waiting to board, while Murdoch allowed a limited number of men to board if all the nearby women and children had embarked.
Neither officer knew how many people could safely be carried in the boats as they were lowered and they both erred on the side of caution by not filling them. They could have been lowered quite safely with their full complement of 68 people, especially with the highly favourable weather and sea conditions. Had this been done, an additional 500 people could have been saved; instead, hundreds of people, predominantly men, were left on board as lifeboats were launched with many seats vacant.
Few passengers at first were willing to board the lifeboats and the officers in charge of the evacuation found it difficult to persuade them. Millionaire John Jacob Astor declared: “We are safer here than in that little boat.” Some passengers refused flatly to embark. J. Bruce Ismay, realising the urgency of the situation, roamed the starboard boat deck urging passengers and crew to board the boats. A trickle of women, couples and single men were persuaded to board starboard lifeboat No. 7, which became the first lifeboat to be lowered.
Charles Edward Dixon (8 December 1872 – 12 September 1934) was a British maritime painter of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose work was highly successful and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. Several of his paintings are held by the National Maritime Museum and he was a regular contributing artist to magazines and periodicals. He lived at Itchenor in Sussex and died in 1934.
Charles Dixon was born at Goring-on-Thames in December 1872, the son of Alfred Dixon, a successful genre painter, who educated his son in his trade. Charles too became a professional artist, and soon had a successful practice producing nautical scenes, both watercolours of coastal life and large oil paintings of historical or contemporary naval subjects. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and several of his paintings are now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in London. Among his work was a large body of work produced for magazines and periodicals, including The Graphic. In 1900 he was made a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. He lived at Itchenor in Sussex, where he was a keen yachtsman, and died at his home on 12 September 1934.