Titanic still draws people to her long after she sank in 1912. There are the usual memorials in Belfast, Southampton, Halifax and other places. Each year the U.S. Coast Guard flies over the area Titanic sank to drop a wreath. Other less noticed things occur as well. Titanic themed meals are in vogue. People dress up in period outfits, attend a dinner that approximates meals served aboard ship, and learn some Titanic lore from enthusiasts. Titanic documentaries are often shown around this time along with showings of A Night To Remember (1958), a fondly remembered movie based on Walter Lord’s book. The more recent Titanic is not history but does recreate the ship wonderfully along with rich period look and feel.?
Titanic is not unlike a Greek tragedy. Such tragedies always depict the outcome as avoidable. Not so far off in Titanic’s case. Her demise was avoidable and arguably predictable. Walter Lord summarizes it as complacency on all levels: government, the ship owners, and those commanded them. No one seemed overly concerned with the lack of lifeboats. Ship owners, for reasons of economy and aesthetics, did not want too many. They knew their presence comforted passengers. The Board of Trade considered passengers cargo and cargo equals space. So lifeboats were tagged to the amount of space one took, not on the total number of passengers and crew aboard ship. Fine in small vessels but inadequate when the numbers exceeded the total capacity of lifeboats available.
Major shipwrecks were rare but not uncommon. Most ship owners believed the risk was minimal. They also believed passengers carried the risk as well. It was always a possibility, however remote, that something would go wrong resulting in injury or death. Strict liability laws made it difficult (but not impossible) to obtain judgments against them. Many became complacent about the danger of a major catastrophe. They believed in all the wondrous new technologies that made ships stronger and safer. A ship might be wounded, scraped, and battered but would remain afloat. Titanic was designed with that in mind.
Even with lifeboats, it required a trained crew to work them. And on Titanic, that was a problem. Too few were experienced in this task. Smith never had a boat drill. Boat assignments were posted after leaving Queenstown. Manning was inconsistent. Lifeboat 6 was assigned two while Lifeboat 3 had 15. Worse neither he or the senior officers had any idea how many people each lifeboat would carry. They did not know they had been throughly tested by Harland & Wolff to carry 65 persons without any sign of strain. Harland & Wolff never mentioned it, according to Walter Lord, because they assumed Smith and his officers knew this “as a matter of general knowledge.”
Captain Smith was experienced officer. He was widely respected amongst his peers and passengers who sailed on his ships. Yet like many others he was complacent. Until he commanded Olympic, he never had any major problems at sea. However the incident in New York with a tug and the Olympic’s collision with the Royal Navy cruiser Hawke were warnings about how differently these new large ships operated. And suction from the propellers caused the liner New York to break moorings in Southampton. Independently these events proved nothing but together form a pattern. All of them occurred while he was in command.
So his lack of action on lifeboat organization is not the work of a lazy or incompetent ship master. It is of someone who believed they would never be needed except in very rare circumstances. Unlike the depiction in A Night To Remember, Smith was not decisive and barking out orders when the crisis hit. Instead he had to be asked by his officers about lowering lifeboats and other orders like firing distress rockets. Which is why things were confusing on that night. Passengers did not know where to go and had to wait for instructions on deck. Lightoller and Murdoch operated inconsistent policies in their respective lifeboat operations. Lightoller was strict about women and children first while Murdoch allowed men on lifeboats. Smith was likely in shock about Titanic sinking and the terrible loss of life about to happen.
It was not long after Titanic’s sinking that every passenger liner put lifeboats for all and pronounced it in advertisements. No longer was it an issue of money but one of safety. The shocking numbers of those saved to those lost were the new mathematics. And ship owners complied and later maritime laws would make it mandatory along with boat drills for crew. Today most cruise passengers have to practice putting on life jackets and assemble at designated points not long after sailing. While no one crashes into icebergs these days, very rough seas can tumble ships as recent stories indicate. Complacency was certainly major element to the Titanic disaster, which is why one must never become too comfortable for the unexpected happens more often than we like to admit.