To the Lifeboats — Evacuating Titanic
As mighty Titanic took on water, thousand of lives hung in the balance while a crew with a shortage of experienced officers struggled with life and death decisions.
Consider the following scenario. You have a sinking ship, four hundred miles from the nearest land. The only responding rescue ship will not arrive for four hours, and the ship will not stay afloat for half that time. The water temperature is twenty eight degrees Fahrenheit. Anyone attempting to swim for it will freeze to death within minutes.
There are more than 2200 passengers and crew on board, and you have boats with a total capacity for 1180. No official boat drill has ever been conducted during the voyage. The bottom line is that well over a thousand people have nowhere to go.
This was the nightmare scenario facing the officers on board the Titanic after her collision with the iceberg. You can effectively forget Captain Smith from this stage. Once he gave the order of ‘women and children first’, everything else was left to the efforts of a handful of men labouring under the most desperate, intense pressure that anyone could conceive.
The evacuation of the Titanic was inevitably botched, a series of mistakes and compromises that resulted in the boats leaving the sinking ship with only 705 souls. There were, incredibly, almost 500 empty seats in the pathetic armada of boats that tottered down the flood lit flanks of the sinking ship. How could such a thing come to pass?
The location of the boats played a huge part in the conundrum. The Titanic carried sixteen five ton wooden lifeboats, capable of holding seventy people each, in two groups of four on each side. The exception was the forward boat on each side, which had a capacity of forty. Of these, one group was located forward near the bridge, and the other at the aft end of the same deck down both port and starboard sides.
There was also a nest of four collapsible boats, stored on or near the roof of the nearby officer’s quarters. They were good for around forty-six people each. They had canvas sides that had to be erected first. These could only be lowered once the main body of lifeboats was clear of the ship.
The launch gear for all of these was state of the art. The davits were designed by a Swede named Axel Welin. Each pair of davits had the ability to lower several groups of lifeboats from the same spot. They were personally approved by Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic. He envisaged installing forty-eight boats under these davits.
Andrews was over-ruled by Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star line. He regarded so many boats as superfluous.
Those Welin davits could be operated either electrically or manually. All things considered they were a huge advance on anything else available at that time.
They worked exactly as planned on the night of the disaster. But it would be a full hour after the collision before the first lifeboat left the Titanic. Boat number seven, capacity seventy souls, left the Titanic carrying just twenty-eight.
It has to be remembered that it took some time to coerce the first and second class passengers out onto the deck at all. On the one hand, they were being lulled with genteel ragtime in the warm, sumptuous interiors, while those in third class were deliberately kept below decks by a series of locked gates. Many of these had woken to find water seeping into their cabins, and they would have been only too happy to pour into the lifeboats that their better heeled shipmates declined at first.
Smith and his officers were all too aware that there might be a mass panic when third class passengers made it on deck, and panic was the one thing they were determined to avoid at any cost. They believed that such a panic might result in the deaths of many. Preventing it seemed to be the only coherent line of thinking aboard Titanic after the collision.
As the ship sank by the head, it became vital to get the forward boats away first. These would be closest to the rising water as the ship succumbed to her wounds. It was to these that two main players turned their initial efforts that night.
On the starboard side of the ship, First Officer Bill Murdoch set to work. Captain Smith had ordered ‘women and children first’ in regard to leaving the ship. Murdoch interpreted that to mean that women and children embarked first and, if there were any empty spaces, any nearby men could then follow.
On the port side, Second Officer Charles Lightoller saw it differently. He allowed women and children only into the boats, and no men at all. Thus there was a fatal disparity from the start; a contrast that the stunned, shell shocked Captain Smith neither recognised nor rectified. A man’s life could very well depend on which side of the ship he happened to be standing on at the time.
Lightoller did allow one man into a boat. He was a Canadian called Arthur Peuchen, and he was an experienced yachtsman. Peuchen, with Lightoller’s permission, lowered himself down a rope hanging from one of the davits, and into a half full boat that was already halfway down to the sea. His experience was vital at a moment like this.
There were pitifully few trained seamen on board the Titanic; a total of sixty five from a complement of over nine hundred men and women. This handful of men had to lower, load and, in theory row the lifeboats in the event of an emergency. In addition they had to carry out the myriad of other tasks involved with the safe navigation of the ship when she was at sea.
The problem here was one of perception. The Titanic was run like the Ritz, at least in first class, and she was staffed accordingly. There were literally hundreds of stewards, waiters, bellboys and stewardesses, as well as hundreds of stokers and engineers. There were lift operators, mail men, a squash court attendant and even a gardener.
All of this was all well and fine under normal conditions. But for all her finery, the Titanic was still a ship. When her moment of greatest need came, there were simply nowhere near enough trained, experienced seamen to do everything on board.
The problem for the experienced handful of seamen was compounded even further by the need to lower the lifeboats manually. As the ship foundered, engineers below decks routed what remained of the slowly failing power supply to keeping on the deck lights, while maintaining a supply for the wireless. They shut down everything else now regarded as useless to string out what they had. That included the electricity that could have lowered the boats far quicker and more easily.
This meant that a minimum of two men were needed to lower each of the boats. In addition, each boat was supposed to be manned and rowed by trained seamen. As Titanic succumbed like a slaughtered beast, there were nowhere near enough bodies to go round.
All of these factors combine with the initial reluctance of first and second class passengers to explain the botched evacuation of the Titanic that night. Faced with an insurmountable shortage of trained seamen, both Murdoch and Lightoller had no choice but to flesh out the crews of each boat with stewards.
The problem was that most of these had never even held an oar in their lives, never mind rowed with one. Once afloat, they bumped and bobbed about awkwardly on the darkened ocean. Only the incredibly calm conditions prevented a complete catastrophe overtaking the shivering handfuls huddled in those boats.
At 12.45, an hour after the collision, the first boat finally left Titanic. It was less than half full. Lightoller continued this process with the boats under his charge until reprimanded by Thomas Andrews.
Lightoller was afraid that lowering the boats completely full might cause them to buckle in the middle under the weight. Why he would think thus was never specified. This infuriated the designer, who knew full well that two of the same boats had been safely lowered and raised back in Belfast, with weights equivalent to seventy people in each. From that moment on, Lightoller stepped up his game.
No-one can say for sure if Lightoller had been aware of the trial run; he certainly should have been kept in the loop. But he was also working to a hastily conceived emergency plan of his own.
Lightoller’s idea was that the first boats would be set afloat. Once that was done, they would return to the side of the ship and fill up from a gangway door that he would have opened. He did indeed send a bosun and a team of men to open one of the lower gangway doors, but it seems that the rising water poured over the rim as they did so. All these men — badly needed on the slanting boat deck of Titanic — were lost in the attempt.
Whether a whole host of increasingly frightened passengers could have been coerced back into the depths of a sinking ship to embark through an open gangway door is problematical at best. But there is no doubt about what was happening in those same lifeboats that were by now afloat.
They could see that the Titanic was slowly and irreversibly going down by the bow. And it was a logical assumption that anything close to her would be dragged down by suction when she plunged. Those in the half full boats did the only thing that guaranteed their self preservation. They rowed as far away from their husbands and sons still crowding the floodlit decks as they could. It really was every man, woman and child for themselves by this stage.
On the starboard side, Murdoch sent away lifeboat number one, capacity forty, with just twelve people in it. Six of these were crew. He was obviously concerned that the rising water would soon swamp the davits, and he also needed those same davits to launch the collapsible boats still lashed to the roof of the officer’s quarters. Time was running out fast and so he sent the boat away just over a quarter full. The story of boat number one, with it’s handful of inhabitants, remains one of the most highly charged of all the emotional lightning rods that make up the Titanic disaster.
At 1.30, it became clear that the third class passengers kept below would soon swarm topside. All the officers still on Titanic were issued with loaded revolvers to deal with the full scale panic they dreaded more than anything else.
The sight that greeted that frightened horde from steerage when they finally made it topside was a boat deck almost totally devoid of boats. Having been locked below with the water snapping at their heels, it is little wonder that there were incidents of panic.
At one boat, a seaman had to use a lifeboat rudder to beat back a swarm of desperate humanity, before an officer fired a revolver in the air to restore order. They were not the first — or last — shots fired that night.
Stories later surfaced in the press about hysterical passengers being shot by officers desperately trying to evacuate whatever women and children they could. No one living can ever verify or refute these. On a sinking ship, anything can happen.
The end result was that appalling shortfall of five hundred empty seats in the Titanic lifeboats. There was no cohesive plan of evacuation, and nothing cohesive happened in the ensuing disaster.
Never before, or mercifully since, has anybody had to arrange and carry through the complete evacuation of a ship sinking four hundred miles from land, with life saving equipment for only half the people on board and the nearest approaching rescue ship too far away. With the benefit of hindsight we can surgically dissect the desperate, botched events on board that night, and understand why things unfolded as they did.
What we cannot do, now or ever, is put ourselves in the nightmare position of the handful of officers left to make these life or death decisions in scant seconds, without guidance from a captain who had, to all intents and purposes, imploded mentally. And nobody pondering the sequence of events that night can do no better than remember the words of the later Walter Lord;
“It is a rash man indeed who would set himself up as final arbiter of events the incredible night the Titanic went down.”
What can safely be said is that the owners of the Titanic did almost everything imaginable for the comfort and enjoyment of their passengers, and next to nothing at all for their safety in the event of disaster.