Maitland: Lessons of the Titanic 1912-2012, Part 1


On Sept. 17 in Banff, Alberta, I gave a presentation at the World Maritime Day observance “Titanic and the Arctic.”* My talk was based on the following manuscript, which Professional Mariner is presenting here as a four-part series:

Part 1: Introduction; Design; Evacuation, Survival and Rescue

The night of April 14, 1912 – the famous “night to remember”, chosen by Walter Lord as the title of his excellent history – presents us with many questions that will probably never be answered. Most of these are technical: the “what ifs” that, in one form or another, haunt us after, but usually not before, a disaster at sea.

The importance of safety at sea is shown by the pictures available since 1985, showing the broken fragments of wreckage lying on the ocean floor south of Cape Race.  Since the wreckage was located, we can see the pairs of empty shoes and boots that mark where human remains once lay.  

The TITANIC facts are familiar: at 11:40 P.M. on April 14, 1912, she collided with an iceberg. Two hours and 40 minutes later, the pride of the White Star Line began her two-mile plunge to the bottom of the North Atlantic.  Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, only 710 survived.  While there have been sea disasters that produced greater loss of life, the sinking of TITANIC is probably the most famous and far-reaching maritime disaster in history.

While the loss of TITANIC has been described as “perhaps the most documented and least commonly understood marine casualty in maritime history”, a positive result of the TITANIC disaster, and of course many other tragedies at sea that have occurred since, has been to establish a formal protocol of goals and procedures for analysis and investigation. These goals, from the point of view of the investigator/flag state, other governments, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and other regulators, is the identification of unsafe conditions, in order to identify them in advance of future disasters. Today, responsible regimes charged with administration of the safety of life at sea are said to follow a philosophy of prevention first and, then, response.  

The 1985 discovery of the wreck of the TITANIC sparked a new round of forensic investigation. The bow section was found largely intact with the stern section in hundreds of pieces approximately 2,000 feet away. The realization that TITANIC’s hull had broken at some point during the sinking added a new understanding of the already famous disaster. The discovery of the wreck also provided new forensic evidence in the form of recovered artifacts and detailed surveys.  It was these new clues and advances in computer-driven engineering tools that gave rise to a revision of previously held beliefs.

The significance of the TITANIC, and the events that led to such a large loss of life, remain with us today.  

1. Design

A great deal has been learned about the fate of the TITANIC since the location of its wreck by an expedition led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, then of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER in early September, 1985. The ship was a remarkable example of early 20th century technology. Designed by Thomas Andrews and Alexander Carlisle, the ship had a double-bottom.  She had 15 transverse bulkheads, creating 16 watertight compartments.  These bulkheads, however, did not extend all the way to the top deck.  There were 14 watertight doors that were designed to close automatically when the water level rose above six inches in a compartment. These doors could also be closed electrically from the bridge of manually by a member of the crew. All these features gave rise to the belief that the ship was “unsinkable”.  

The transition of ships from wood to iron and steel in the second half of the 19th century came in a time when maritime design was rapidly changing. In the early 19th century, design requirements provided for a strength that prevented only fundamental structural failures. During this transition, however, processes and designs that had been developed through centuries of personal experience were giving place to a more rigorous analysis and application of scientific and physical principles.

While new building materials weighed significantly more than the wood that had been the shipbuilder’s staple, they offset that disadvantage by being able to be constructed with much thinner units.  They also permitted increased length of structural members; and, consequently, larger ships, because iron and steel joints (even in the time of rivets) were much stronger than wood had been.

Over the twentieth century, international requirements for ship structures, and the evolution of stability requirements, kept pace with technological advances undreamt of in 1912. Stability regulations became based on a complete performance-based analysis of each individual ship.  Today’s stability standards are defined by an evaluation of the probability of numerous failure scenarios. This is known as “probabilistic” stability criteria.  The 1948, 1960 and 1974 SOLAS Conventions reflected this approach, based on an awareness that older vessel designs, common to an earlier era, were no longer adequate. Intact stability standards for passenger ships laid the groundwork for developing a revolutionary approach to evaluation, of subdivision and damage stability.

2. Evacuation, Survival and Rescue

The TITANIC, as fitted out, proved deficient in at least one important item: lifeboats.  Despite the fact that TITANIC’s davits had the space to carry 64 wooden lifeboats, the ship was only intended to carry 32. In the event, it sailed with only 16.

Instead of carrying the additional lifeboats, it had been decided to add more first class cabins and suites.  In addition to the 16 lifeboats, TITANIC carried four “collapsible” lifeboats.  All told, the lifeboat capacity of the 20 boats was 1,178.

While this decision may shock us, it was well within the British Board of Trade guidelines,which required vessels of more than 10,000 tons to carry 16 lifeboats plus enough capacity in rafts and floats for 75 percent of what the lifeboats could hold – and 50 percent for ships with water-tight bulk-heads.

Therefore, the designers would have only been required to provide capacity for 756 persons had they applied the bulkhead exception.  They in fact provided much more lifeboat accommodation than was required under the BOT guidelines. Additionally, in the event of the ship sinking, it was wrongly anticipated that the lifeboats could be used to ferry passengers to rescuing vessels, because TITANIC’s watertight compartments and pumps would keep her afloat long enough to make the shuttling of passengers feasible, while – of course – the ship remained afloat.

Though they would prove of little use in the frigid North Atlantic, TITANIC also carried 3,500 life belts and 48 life rings.

Today, revised Chapter III of SOLAS, which entered into force in 1986, includes a requirement that all lifeboats and life rafts on a passenger ship to be capable of being launched in less than 30 minutes from the time of the order to abandon ship. To meet this standard, modern ship designers must consider the layout of the ship, escape routes, and locations of muster and embarkation stations.

SOLAS 1914 included requirements for each lifeboat to be attached to its own set of davits (a structure used to launch a lifeboat over the side of a ship).  This is a very significant difference from the 1912 TITANIC, which utilized “nested” lifeboats as well as some “collapsible” lifeboats stowed away from the davits, which would have had to be dragged down across decks to launch.

Nested lifeboats came to be launched individually, which considerably extended the time required to abandon ship.  In addition, any problems or equipment malfunctions with a launching appliance would affect more than one lifeboat.  By contrast, the lifeboats on a modern-day TITANIC are stowed ready for launching, attached to individual davits and wire rope falls.

Chapter VI of the 1914 SOLAS, attempted to deal with the problem of insufficient numbers of lifeboats.  Article 40 prescribed:

“At no moment of its voyage may a ship have on board a total number of persons greater than that for whom accommodation is provided in the lifeboats and the pontoon lifeboat on board.”

The TITANIC had lifeboat capacity for only about half the persons aboard. Today, a passenger ship must carry lifeboats and inflatable life rafts for 100 percent of the persons aboard, plus at least an additional 25 percent capacity in reserve.

For the primary lifesaving capacity (survival craft for 100 percent of the persons aboard), both lifeboats and inflatable life rafts are generally boarded from a deck, and are lowered into the water via davits and wire rope falls. Since the 1960 SOLAS, davit-launched inflatable life rafts have been allowed, but only to provide no more than 25 percent of the survival craft capacity on passenger ships.   

The “marine evacuation system” is a relatively recent development used for a quick evacuation. This may be in the form of an inflatable slide (similar to an aircraft evacuation slide) or a vertical fabric chute (like those used by firefighters to evacuate tall buildings). They provide fast access to an open inflatable platform at the waterline, from which multiple rafts may be quickly boarded.

There have been many improvements in emergency protocol since the days of the TITANIC. In an emergency, the first obligation of a master is to establish whether abandonment is necessary.  If so, the master then prepares all passengers and crew for muster at their prearranged assembly stations. Once the master gives the order to abandon ship, the passengers and crew assigned to each survival craft would proceed to their assigned embarkation stations with their lifejackets and commence boarding as directed by the crew.

Unlike the open, oar-propelled lifeboats on the TITANIC, most modern lifeboats are self-righting and propelled by diesel engines. To help prevent hypothermia, which claimed the lives of many aboard the fabled TITANIC, modern lifeboats are either totally enclosed, or at least partially enclosed by rigid fiberglass canopies; modern inflatable life rafts feature insulated floors and canopies.

Assuming all else went reasonably according to plan; the sinking of the 2012 TITANIC would leave no one in the water, with all the persons aboard some kind of enclosed survival craft.  In addition to the warmth provided by numerous people in an enclosed space, modern lifeboats and life rafts are equipped with thermal protective aids, which are essentially enclosed “space blankets” with sleeves. Crew members requiring more robust thermal protection, such as those supervising marine evacuation systems or crewing rescue boats, are typically provided with thermal protective immersion suits or anti-exposure suits.

Once the survival craft are launched, another modern appliance, the dedicated rescue boat, is provided on our 2012 TITANIC to “marshal” any inflatable life rafts, (pull them together and away from the ship to prevent them from being affected by the sinking of the ship and/or scattering across the sea); and to recover any persons who, despite the various means provided to prevent it, may find themselves in the water.

Today, a ship in distress would draw a variety of rescue assets, including potential assistance from good samaritans. Also, the invention of modern satellite communications tools, such as the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System and GPS-guided alerting via Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are great advances.

However, mass recovery of persons from survival craft (and possibly from the water) is a problem not always easy to solve – especially in remote areas such as the Arctic, where search and rescue assets may be few and far between. Also, mariners willing to undertake heroic efforts to rescue a person in distress may fall short in cases where their vessel is not well equipped for a water recovery mission. The IMO’s Ship Design and Equipment Sub-Committee is working to improve the capability of commercial ships to assist in operations to recover people in the water.

Search and rescue operations as a whole have evolved on a national, as well as an internationally coordinated basis. The governing international agreement is the 1979 Convention on Search and Rescue, which led to a system of ship reporting, an agreement that international search and rescue would be coordinated globally; the establishment of frequencies for maritime search and rescue; development of a global maritime distress and safety system (GMDSS) and harmonization of search and rescue services with maritime meteorological services. During 2011, the United States and Canadian Coast Guards performed more than 40,000 search and rescue operations, including about 3,500 escorts and boarding of high capacity vessels, such as ferries and cruise ships.  

Much of the burden for rescue operations today falls upon specialized and trained coast guard personnel deployed in a variety of assets, including helicopters, large fixed-wing aircraft, and rigid-hull vessels. Today, much of the U.S. Coast Guard’s budget of more than $10 billion is devoted to search-and-rescue operations. In 1912, these lifesaving services lacked the resources to make a quick response at significant distances from land.

*Better and more detailed work has been done to give the subject a “modern” context, notably by the United States Coast Guard in the Summer 2012 issue of Proceedings of the Marine Safety and Security Council, vol. 69, no. 2, from which my remarks draw heavily.  I am therefore very indebted for the prodigious work done by Proceedings’ redoubtable contributors, including the following: Mr. Christopher B. Havern, Sr., Staff Historian, U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office; Dr. Donald L. Murphy, Chief Scientist, U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol; LCDR Jacob L. Cass, Information Officer, U.S Coast Guard International Ice Patrol; LT Erin Christensen, Ice Operations Officer, U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol; MSTCS John Luzader, Command Senior Chief, U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol; Mr. Koji Sekimizu, Secretary-General. International Maritime Organization; LCDR Catherine Phillips, Staff Engineer, U.S Coast Guard Naval Architecture Division; Mr. Jaideep Sirkar, Division Head, U.S Coast Guard Naval Architecture Division; LCDR Ron Caputo, Naval Architect, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards; Mr. Charles Rawson, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards; Mr. Brian Thomas, Assistant Team Leader, U.S. Coast Guard Salvage Engineering Response Team; Mr. Kurt J. Heinz, P.E., Chief, U.S. Coast Guard Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division; LCDR John H. Miller, Fire Protection Engineer, U.S. Office of Design and Engineering Standards; LCDR Leanne Lusk, Search and Rescue Program Analyst; Mr. Joe Hersey, Chief, U.S. Coast Guard, Spectrum Management and Telecommunications Policy Division; CDR Robert L. Smith Jr., Chief, Vessel and Facility Operating Standards Division, U.S. Coast Guard; Mr. Richard Bornhorst, Lead Chemical Engineer, U.S. Coast Guard Hazardous Materials Standards Division; LT Jodi Min, Chemical Engineer, U.S. Coast Guard Hazardous Materials Standards Division; LCDR Randy Jenkins, Chief, Major Vessel Branch, U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Center; Mr. Daniel F. Sheehan, P.E., Maritime Advisor, Anglo Eastern Ship Management; Capt. Charles H. Piersall, Chairman ISO Ships and Marine Technology Committee and ISO Head of Delegations to IMO; Mr. Steven McIntyre, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, American Bureau of Shipping; Mr. Karl Lumbers, Loss Prevention Director, UK P&I Club; Capt. David Fish, Chief, U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis; CDR Brian Penoyer, Deputy Chief, U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Congressional and Governmental Affairs; Mr. Timothy Farley, U.S. Merchant Marine, Chief, U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis, Marine Investigations Division; CDR Joe Raymond, U.S. Coast Guard Senate Liaison; Mr. Francis J. Sturm, Deputy Director, U.S. Coast Guard, Commercial Regulations and Standards; Mr. Jeffrey G. Lantz, Director, U.S. Coast Guard, Commercial Regulations and Standards; RDML Frederick J. Kenney, Chairman, The Marine Safety & Security Council, U.S Coast Guard.

Coming soon: Part 2, Communications and the Vessel in Distress

Clay Maitland is a maritime industry leader who is Managing Partner of International Registries Inc. and Founding Chairman of the North America Marine Environment Protection Association. He can be reached at or through his website/blog at

By Professional Mariner Staff