On this date in 1912, Titanic departed Southampton on her maiden voyage. As she was leaving, suction from Titanic’s propellers caused a nearby ship, the New York, to loose its moorings. Quick action by a tug and extra speed from Titanic averted a collision. This incident confirmed a theory put forth by the British Navy in legal action against White Star about such suctions. Ironically the captain of the ship involved was Edward J. Smith.
In 1911 the Olympic had two such incidents. The first, according to Walter Lord, occurred on 11 June as Olympic was docking. The tug O.L. Hollenbeck was near the stern when a sudden burst from Olympic’s starboard sucked it against the ship. Hollenbeck’s stern frame, rudder, and wheel shaft was cut off. The press played down the incident but the tug owner sued White Star for $10,000. White Star countersued but the legal action was dismissed for lack of evidence. Lord writes: “No one saw the incident for what it really was: a disturbing lesson in the difficulty of managing a steamer of the Olympic’s unprecedented size.”
A few months later a more ominous event occurred. Olympic and the Royal Navy cruiser Hawke collided in the Spithead, a body of water near Isle of Wight. Hawke was running parallel to Titanic, several times her size, and both ships were at 15 knots. Suddenly Hawke veered to port and headed straight for Olympic’s starboard quarter. The cruiser rammed the liner’s hull and fortunately no one was killed. Hawke’s bow was badly crumpled. Olympic had a double gash in the stern and two compartments flooded. Olympic’s passengers were taken off by tender and the ship limped back to port in Southampton and then to Belfast for repairs.
Everyone thought Hawke was at fault. After all, it had suddenly rammed Olympic. Interviews in the press praised Captain Smith and laid blame on the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy (RN) was not amused and sued for damages. Here is where it gets interesting. Normally the argument is over who had the right of way. Instead the RN argued that suction from Olympic’s propellers had drawn Hawke in. Using models to show how displaced water works, they argued Hawke was the victim and not the aggressor. The court ruled in their favor to the displeasure of many maritime experts. The use of models was dismissed along with the theories used. The ruling stood and White Star had to pay damages.
The findings were dismissed by many since it relied on models. White Star must have agreed since it kept Smith on and made him captain of Titanic. The incident with New York, which matched what happened with Hawke, suddenly made the theory of hydrodynamic forces acceptable. The theory was that a ship moving forward displaces water on either side of the hull. This displaced water then surges back to the stern and into the vessels wake. Any small object that is afloat nearby will be sucked in. The pull increases with the size of the ship, its speed, and proximity. Olympic was a 45,000 ton ship and much too close to Hawke (200 feet) considering her speed against the 7.500 ton Hawke.
Smith likely did not realize this. His experience was on smaller vessels for his entire maritime career. Ships like Olympic and Titanic were totally new to him and everyone else. After the incident with New York, Lord notes Captain Smith did something odd. After leaving Cherbourg, he ordered practice turns for the ship. He apparently realized he needed to find out more about Titanic. Sadly, of course, Smith perished when Titanic went down on 15 April.