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I’ve been avoiding this for – well, years. I’ve thought for ages that the whole Titanic thing was overblown nonsense, but this year there’s no way of avoiding it. Hopefully this year will also see the end of it.

What annoys me most is the way in which popular culture has elevated Titanic into something quite unique: as if her construction was a single, one-of, hubristic act of constructing the most unfeasibly large ship they could conceive, complete with all the fatal flaws that any hubristic act has to contain. I’m sure there are many people who not only believe that Titanic was the biggest ship of the time, but that she has never been surpassed in size. Although Titanic was the biggest ship in the world, it was only just. Her sister ship Olympic, the name ship of the class, had a gross tonnage of 45,323 but Titanic had a very slight higher gross tonnage of 46,328. In addition to the Olympic class, there was also Cunard’s Acquitania at a gross tonnage 45,657, and the great German trio – Imperator, Vaterland and Bismarck – the last of which reached a gross tonnage of over 50,000. (All of these came into service between 1911 and the beginning of the WWI.) So Titanic was simply one of a number of ships which were being built to a new larger size in order to meet the commercial demands of the North Atlantic service. Since then, of course, passenger ship sizes have increased greatly – today a ship of Titanic’s tonnage would be regarded as quite small. There are ferries with a greater gross tonnage than Titanic!

Nor was her design fatally and inherently flawed. Her sister ship Olympic had a long and successful career, and was only scrapped in 1935, after 25 years’ service. Other ships of the time did as well: Acquitania sailed until after the second world war, and two of the German ships (which after WWI were passed to White Star and Cunard as reparations) had careers as long. There’s no reason to think that Titanic wouldn’t have done the same.

What about the lifeboats, I hear you ask? Well, the weasel answer is that Titanic, like all the ships of that generation, met the regulations. The problem was that these were out of date. They were were based on ships’ tonnages, but had failed to keep step with the great increase in tonnages that had occurred. The relevant regulations seem to have dated from 1894, and required ships greater than 10,000grt to carry 16 lifeboats on davits. Titanic had fourteen standard lifeboats plus two cutters on davits, plus a further four collapsible lifeboats; she therefore met the regulations. My view would be that if the regulations were inadequate then that’s the fault, and responsibility, of the regulators: it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial organisations to incur costs that it doesn’t have to.

But – she sank. Of course, there’s no mystery as to why or how: she hit an iceberg a glancing blow which opened up her plates below the waterline along a huge length of the hull. I believe that any other ship of the day would have suffered the same sort of fatal damage from a similar collision. The whole affair comes down to how the ship was captained and handled on the night, and not how she was built; it’s a story about captaincy and management, not about technology. The recent Costa Concordia sinking shows that it does’t matter how much technology is available, it’s all about the actions of those in charge.

(I ought to say that after avoiding the story like the plague for years this I’ve read several books about it. I especially enjoyed Mark Chirnside’s “The ‘Olympic’ class ships”, which covers the construction and history of all three of the class, not just Titanic, and thereby puts each ship into its context; and also “Titanic Lives” by Richard Davenport-Hines, which tells the story of many of the people on board, passengers and crew: who they were, and how they came to be there.)

One Response to “It's time to talk about Titanic”

  1. Malcolm Oliver says:

    It’s quite difficult to understand why the Titanic story endures so well.

    Imagine if the story was not real and you were trying to ‘pitch’ it to a Hollywood film director: “The biggest ship in 1912 hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage, sank and many of the passengers died”. I’m sure the director would say “…and so? What else happens?”

    Never the less, the story goes on and many people have made a small fortune from Book, Movies, music and Museums/exhibitions about the ship.

    Clive Palmer says that he is going to build a new Titanic. Personally I was very sceptical, but I now believe him!

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