The compass was in plain sight of all who boarded in April of 1912. It sat atop a 15-foot-tall platform on the roof of the first-class lounge. The role of Titanic’s standard compass in the loss of the ship and some 1,500 lives has been ignored for almost a century, even though it shows the importance of efficient bridge design for high-speed vessels.

Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer and marine explorer who located the wreck of Titanic, confirmed that the ship broke apart as it sank. Several scientists then studied the steel and rivets from which the ship was fashioned. Overlooked by the metallurgists was the role of the human element in the accident. Strength of metal is not the real question about Titanic, but rather, “Why did good men drive their ship into an iceberg?”

The broad answer may well be loss of situational awareness caused by dysfunctional bridge-team management. A current U.S. Coast Guard training publication defines this age-old problem, “Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend … what is going on around you.”

The Coast Guard has estimated that at least 40 percent of accidents involving its cutters and boats are linked to the loss of situational awareness.

By modern standards, Titanic’s bridge seems to have been designed to disrupt communications among the bridge team. The officer of the watch (OOW) was placed outdoors, as if commanding one of Nelson’s ships of the line. The liner boasted telephone circuits to the crow’s nest and other locations critical to safe navigation, but these wall-mounted instruments were inside the liner’s wheelhouse. Titanic’s lookouts had to rely on an age-old system of bell strikes to warn the OOW, who stood on the open bridge wing.

The ship’s standard compass was atop a platform placed some 230 feet aft of where the OOW stood. To make matters worse, Titanic lacked two-way communication between the platform and the quartermaster inside the wheelhouse on the forebridge, the covered center section of the bridge that contained the engine and docking telegraphs and an auxiliary wheel for steering in port or confined waters. Instead, a one-way bell-pull system (the same used to summon stewards) allowed an officer on the platform to signal the wheelhouse.

One-way bell systems are not acceptable for modern bridge team management. Continuous two-way communications among officers and seamen are required. That Coast Guard training guide warns, “the level of situational awareness achieved is related to the level and quality of communication.”

The physical layout of Titanic’s bridge hampered or even prevented communication between the OOW and the rest of the bridge team. First Officer William M. Murdoch, the OOW at the time of the collision, had to yell his famous “hard astarboard,” trusting it would be heard by the quartermaster at the helm and junior officer stationed inside the wheelhouse. Because that wooden structure was kept closed and shuttered to protect the OOW’s night vision, Murdoch could not know if his instructions were being obeyed until the bow began to fall in the appropriate direction.

This raises the question of how conditions arose that required Murdoch to yell an emergency order instead of speaking a routine helm command to dodge an iceberg. The answer was a simple compass evolution. Every half hour around the clock, a junior officer climbed the standard compass platform to “steady” the ship on course by using the bell pull.

Just how the ship was “steadied” remains unclear, because the company rulebook does not give the specific procedures to be used. It would appear that the officers had a set of coded rings by which the man on the standard compass could call for a degree of port or starboard helm. Another coded ring was probably the “hack” signal at which readings of the standard and steering compasses would have been taken for later comparison.

The standard compass was the most adjusted compass onboard. It was meant to be the standard with which all other compasses were to be compared throughout the voyage. As such, the standard compass was isolated as much as possible from all outside magnetic influences.

Paragraph 253 of the White Star Line regulations stated that once each watch, the standard and steering compasses were to be “compared”: “253 Steering and Compasses. He [the watch officer] must … steady the ship on her course by standard every half-hour, and must compare the compasses every Watch.”

Two men went to the standard compass platform after seven bells that fatal night. Relief Quartermaster Alfred Olliver assisted Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, who actually sighted the compass. At 2330, they were making their seventh trip of the evening to the platform. Olliver went first to remove the weather cloth and check the oil lamps in the binnacle.

Titanic had more than 10,000 electric lights, yet oil still illuminated the standard compass. A small flame does not deflect a magnetic compass, but it was known the 100-volt DC electric power of the ship might cause errors.

Olliver was beginning his work as Boxhall came out of the starboard side of the officers’ quarters. From the crow’s nest on Titanic’s foremast, lookout Frederick Fleet recognized the ominous shape of an iceberg. He rang three strokes on the warning bell for danger dead ahead. Sound of the bell carried aft on the ship’s 21.5-knot wind to Olliver and Boxhall.

At the foot of the foremast, seaman Joseph Scarrott nursed a cigarette in the forecastle as he waited to go off duty at the midnight change of watch. He caught the sound of those bell strokes. “Three bells … it was round about half-past eleven,” he recalled later during the British inquiry into the sinking. Scarrott then established the time span between Fleet’s alarm and the impact with the berg. “I should think it was well, we will say about five or eight minutes.”

Titanic was making a good 21.5 knots. In five to eight minutes, the ship traveled between 1.8 and 2.9 miles. Other 1912 mariners estimated the visibility of an iceberg at night to be about three miles. In any event, Titanic had sufficient time to maneuver.

Except for the standard compass, Murdoch would probably have reacted more quickly. However, Boxhall was on the platform conducting a routine paragraph 253 evolution. Murdoch apparently hesitated, probably to allow his fourth officer to complete steadying the ship on course. The design of Titanic’s bridge prevented the OOW from knowing Olliver’s problem with the oil lamps.

“I heard three bells run up in the crow’s nest, which I knew that it was something ahead,” Olliver told the U.S. Senate inquiry into the sinking. “I happened to be looking at the lights in the standard compass at the time … I was trimming them so that they would burn properly.”

Modern mariners are taught to recognize that the loss of situational awareness may occur whenever an improper procedure or departure from regulations results in a failure to meet planned targets. Since the concept was not understood in 1912, Murdoch would be unlikely to realize that he and the members of his bridge team were losing their situational awareness.

The unexpected change that night was a delay while Olliver trimmed and adjusted the wicks. Boxhall could not complete the comparison in a timely fashion. In modern terms, the two men failed to meet their planned target.

Lacking information to the contrary, Murdoch would have expected the task to be completed within the normal time. That he did not take immediate evasive action when the lookouts rang their bell could be explained by a loss of situational awareness on his part. Danger lay less than three miles ahead, but there should have been enough time to complete the ongoing steadying of the ship. Everyone involved continued following paragraph 253 of the company rulebook.

As Titanic approached the iceberg, the deck watch showed three recognized symptoms of the loss of situational awareness: unresolved discrepancies, ambiguity and fixation. The physical design of Titanic gave Murdoch no way to talk to Boxhall. Lack of communication prolonged unresolved discrepancies created by the delayed compass evolution.

“Fixation” or “preoccupation” refers to the state of mind of the individuals involved. When humans fixate on a task, they lose their ability to detect other important information. Boxhall was quite properly preoccupied by steadying the ship by standard compass. Murdoch’s delay in ordering the turn may indicate that he was equally preoccupied with by-the-book bridge operation.

With each second that ticked off, Titanic moved 37 feet closer to doom. Unknown to Murdoch, Boxhall finished the compass work and started back toward the bridge. While filming the movie Titanic, director James Cameron reportedly timed the walk from the platform to the bridge of his replica ship at 45 seconds.

Murdoch could have turned away at any time during the 45 seconds while Boxhall was walking forward after completing the compass evolution. The OOW, perhaps preoccupied by the routine task at hand, may for that reason have failed to respond immediately to the impending danger. Finally, Murdoch’s sailor’s eye told him that time for waiting had run out.

“Hard astarboard,” he yelled.

In 1912 it was normal practice to install the standard compass in a “monkey bridge” or “flying bridge” atop the wheelhouse of cargo and passenger ships. This was where the famous Cunard ocean greyhounds Lusitania and Mauritania sported theirs. White Star Line was different. It specified the amidships location of Titanic’s standard compass on ships in its fleet of trans-Atlantic liners.

Some of the communications problems faced by Murdoch likely would not have arisen if Titanic’s standard compass had been mounted on the wheelhouse roof in accordance with industry practice. This was not ignored in 1912, even though the importance of the standard compass in the accident was kept secret. In 1913 Titanic’s older sister ship Olympic returned to the Harland and Wolff yard. Public attention was focused carefully on the installation of double sides above the tank top deck.

Nothing was mentioned in public about changes made to Olympic’s standard compass. White Star quietly ordered a new standard instrument installed on the roof of Olympic’s wheelhouse. However, the ship’s original compass was retained in position until the 1920s even though it served no purpose other than to mask the truth.

A notebook kept by H&W’s drawing office tells the story. Each change was noted in neat drafter’s penmanship. Original equipment removed was lined through. Olympic’s new compass installation is detailed in the notebook, but the original standard compass is not lined out because it was not removed. Photos of Olympic after its refit confirm the original platform remained in place.

Titanic’s bridge was an anachronism caught in a maelstrom of technological development similar to those overtaking modern high-speed ferries. Ships in 1912 were growing rapidly in size, with average speeds doubling in a decade. Murdoch learned his craft on ships half Titanic’s size that moved at half its speed.

The lost liner’s bridge looked back into nautical traditions for its design inspiration. Modern high-speed ferries do not have time to honor tradition at speeds double or even treble that of Titanic. As long ago as 1990, Richard White wrote in the magazine Ocean Voice: (July 1990, page 11), “It is no coincidence that there are layout similarities between fast ferries and aircraft flight decks. The similarity is likely to increase in the next generation of craft.”

The International Maritime Organization now issues guidelines that require member nations to train merchant mariners in the dangers of losing awareness. The IMO’s 2003 circular on integrated bridges states, “Situational awareness is … required for timely reaction to the situation.”

William M. Murdoch of Titanic would surely agree. •

David G. Brown is the author of The Last Log of the Titanic. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license in steam and sail, and operates a water taxi and excursion business in Toledo, Ohio.

By Professional Mariner Staff