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A black and white photo of the Titanic, taken from the side, sailing on the ocean.

At Sea

WEATHER

A picture of a starry night taken from the coast of an ocean. It looks much like what those aboard the Titanic would have seen.

Many questions about the sinking of the Titanic are centered around the weather of that night. Scientist Tim Molten dedicated himself to solving this mystery, and uncovered shocking details that many don’t know about the tragedy. Survivor testimonies prove that on that night, the sky was clear. However, on a clear night the Titanic should easily have been able to avoid the ice which was in its path. Molten decided to look further into what may have happened.

A possibility is that the iceberg was hidden by a mirage. Since the water was so cold, there is a possibility that the horizon had been changed by the a mirage - much in the way a desert is - to hide the ice. This phenomena would explain why the lookouts and bridge officers were unable to spot the ice in time to steer the ship out of its path. Molten looked into this possibility by visiting sailors who travel with icebergs in the water. This trip revealed that it is plausible for the Titanic to have had this problem, as he witnessed the mirages himself while in the bay. The theory is also supported by the smoke which came from the sinking ship. Survivor testimonies confirm the sight of this phenomena. Similar to the rising of the horizon through a mirage, the sky was flattened by the cold weather.

Another problem arising from the weather was the inability to properly communicate with or see other ships. On the night the Titanic sank, it was a new moon and the stars glittered. Because of this, the Titanic could not send messages to the nearby Californian ship. This cut the ship off during the evacuation, since the wireless officer - who worked with the radios, the only working communication method - aboard the Californian was off shift at the time. This also rendered their emergency flares useless, as the ones used by the Titanic were white and blended into the night sky.

THE ICEBERG COLLISION

A picure of an iceberg on the ocean.

It is common knowledge that the Titanic scraped an iceberg along the side of ts hull before sinking. With the Titanic’s skilled crew, it is thought that the tragedy was unavoidable. However, could the Titanic have had the chance not to hit the iceberg at all? At a speed of 21.5 knots (approximately 25 mph), the ship wasn’t able to change course instantly. Turns were more gradual, though they were still fast. Lookouts reported the iceberg to those on the bridge 37 seconds before a head-on collision would have happened. With this knowledge, the crew attempted to take the Titanic out of the iceberg’s path. At this speed, however, it was not possible to completely avoid the ice.

The advisability of the ship’s turn is also questionable. Due to the constriction of the Titanic, scientist Jennifer Hooper McCarty concluded that a head-on collision of the Titanic into the iceberg would not have done enough damage to sink the ship. But the detail of the iceberg being 37 seconds away is a key detail in this choice. The night of the tragedy was clear, and with such weather the lookouts should have been able to spot ice 30 minutes away, giving the bridge crew more than enough time to change course and avoid the ice. Those on bridge were unaware of the distance to the ice, and made their decision upon the theoretical timeframe. Additionally, the section of the iceberg which scraped the hull was below the surface - it was an hour before anyone realized there had been a collision at all. With this information the fault falls into a gray area, making the course change just one of many decisions which lead to the tragedy.

The question is raised, then, of what caused the lookouts not to see the iceberg until only seconds before a collision. Something many don’t know is that the lookouts didn’t have binoculars for when they were on duty. There are two possible explanations as to why. The first is that, when some of the original Titanic crew was replaced close to the departure date, including the first officer and lookouts, the previous second officer, David Blair, accidentally took with him the key to the locker in which the binoculars were stored while he was packing. The second is that the binocular were being used by bridge officers, and thus were not in the lookout’s possession. Both of these possibilities lead to the crow’s nest having no binoculars, which would limit their visibility and may have caused them not to see the iceberg.

OTHER WARNINGS

Regardless of the actions of the lookouts, the bridge crew should have been aware of ice in the area. Jack Phillips, the wireless officer on the Titanic, was in charge of the ship’s communications with other vessels. He was also responsible for passing on and receiving messages for the first-class passengers. Unfortunately, the officer’s pay came only from the passengers’ messages - so when he had a signal to receive these messages, he pushed aside the ice warnings from the SS Californian. Testimony by the wireless officer on the Californian revealed that, when told the nearby ship was stopping for the night due to an ice wall, Phillips rudely dismissed him. Shortly after, at the end of his shift, Cyril Evans, the wireless operator, went to bed. Evans was the only staff who could do his work, and as he left the Titanic lost contact with the only ship less than four hours away from its position.

In addition to the communication with other ships, Phillips put aside communication with the bridge during his shift. Historians believe that the Titanic received a total of five ice warnings to notify them of the iceberg in their path. However, only two were delivered to the captain during the voyage. It has been claimed that a third of the ice warnings was delivered to the bridge during Phillip’s shift, but because it was given to one of the lower officers instead of the captain directly, it never made it to Smith. However, there is no proof for this claim - those on the bridge remember neither seeing Jack Phillips nor getting an ice warning from him. Whether the third warning was delivered or not, the final warnings did not lead to the captain changing course, and the RMS Titanic stayed in the ice’s path.

LIFEBOATS

The lifeboats of the RMS Titanic floating near a dock. they are lined up in a single row.

Another problem for the Titanic was the number of lifeboats it had on board. Despite being much larger than other ships of the era, the Titanic followed the law for cruise ships and had only 16 lifeboats on board. A quote from Bruce Ismay, who signed the warrants for construction of the Titanic, is famous for the horrible effect it had:

“People don’t pay to look at lifeboats.”

He was quoted as saying this during a conversation in which he ordered the number of lifeboats to be changed from 48 - enough to hold all the passengers - to the number required by law. This aesthetic choice resulted in failed evacuations and the deaths of many.

In addition to the number of lifeboats, the boarding of them was inefficient and improperly practiced. At the time, the path the Titanic was traveling on was in the area of other ships. The purpose of lifeboats was not to bring survivors to shore, but to bring them to a nearby ship. Lifeboats being seen in this way led to crew and passengers not being trained in how to properly board the boats. It also led to a lack of concern as to the efficiency of the evacuation process, and so all of the machinery for these boats was hand-operated and required physical strength. Also, the evacuation happened under the order of “women and children only” boarding the lifeboats. However, the order which was given by Captain Smith was “women and children first.” Though the difference is small, the miscommunication stopped most of both crew and passengers from escaping the Titanic. This forced many of those aboard to sink with the ship as they waited for their escape.