April 2012 marks the centenary of the greatest maritime disaster; the sinking of RMS Titanic. The story of the 'Unsinkable Ship' still echos through society 100 years on. The story is embedded deep into Irish heritage not just because of a 15,000 Irish men who constructed the ship at Harland & Wolf shipyard but also because of the sheer number of Irish emigrants who perished during the disaster, many most of whom boarded at Cobh (Known then as Queenstown) in Cork.
On April 11th, 1912, Titanic departed from Cobh on her maiden voyage towards New York. This was to be the beginning of a frequent cross-Atlantic service, aimed to be the most luxurious way to the new world.
The service traveled from Southampton to NewYork via Cherberg and Cobh. Titanic became known as the 'Unsinkable Ship' because of the advanced technology making it 'virtually unsinkable'. Therefore the world was both devastated and astonished on learning of the sinking only hours after striking an Iceberg on April 15th, just 2 days away from New York.
When Titanic set sail, there was a sense of excitement. It was a symbol of our progress in the industry that we had mastered the sea, building ships that were powerful and fast yet luxurious and secure. Titanic was going to make history.
Titanic was making record time in the first three days at speeds of 484 to 546 nautical miles. On April 14, the ship sailed through strong winds but as the day passed, conditions calmed. The night was reported to be very settled but remained very cold and somewhat unusual, almost eerie. The sky was clear while the sea was calm. This proved difficult for the visibility of icebergs.
Titanic was sailing into a stretch of ocean riddled with Icebergs. Despite received numerous warnings from other ships, they remained at full speed. Historians argue still wither this was due to confidence in an 'unsinkable ship' or concern was more for arrival times.
At 11:40 pm lookout crew caught sight of an iceberg on their path, but it was too late. Despite efforts by the crew under the orders of First Officer Willam Murdock, the ship's starboard side struck ice. Assessment of the damage confirmed Titanic would founder.
Captain John Smith ordered the lifeboats to be launched with a protocol of 'women and children first'. This order was misunderstood and interpreted as 'women and children only'.
There were 2200 lives on board, but not enough lifeboats. Distress calls were signaled to neighboring ships. However, none were close enough except for the Californian, who couldn't be contacted. This later proved controversial.
After receiving Titanic's distress called The RMS Carpathia change course and headed full speed to assist. However, it was four hours away arriving at 4 AM approximately 1 hour 40 minutes after Titanic went under, taking the lives of over 1500 passengers and crew.
So how does an unsinkable ship sink?
The Titanic was in theory "Virtually Unsinkable," boasting technological advancements not seen on any other ship at the time. With 16 watertight compartments, Titanic was designed to stay afloat with four flooded compartments. Unfortunately, five flooded.
But it was more than just striking an iceberg that sunk Titanic. It was a chain of events caused by human error and pure bad luck that resulted in the sinking.
Errors in Design:
Titanic was constructed during a landmark period in the industrial era. Steel was becoming the popular choice over iron and machines were replacing human labor. Titanic was built using steel plates held together using steel rivets, fitted by a riveting machine. However, this machine was too bulky to work in areas where the ship was curved and therefore riveting was done the old fashioned way by hand, using wrought-iron rivets. Wrought-iron was weaker than steel and this created a weakness in the bow of the ship. The wrought-iron used was not the purest quality either. It was a grade lower and therefore containing impurities. If put under pressure the rivet heads could fail.
The original design bulkheads or watertight compartments were lowered. Although this wouldn't have prevented the ship from sinking, had they been at original height to ship would have sunk much slower given more time for help to arrive and save a lot more passengers.
Due to repairs on the Olympia (Titanic's sister ship), there was a reshuffle of the crew on Titanic. Top officers were replaced by Olympia's. One key officer for Titanic left the ship, forgetting to return a key to the binocular cabinet. Having no binoculars and no glasses to protect against the cold air, Iceberg patrol was made difficult for the lookout crew. By the time they saw ice, it will be too late to react.
Delay of one critical message from a neighboring ship and a misunderstood message assumed to be 'not urgent', means that warnings were missed or not heeded.
The Californian, who had pulled up for the night because they were surrounded by ice was the closet ship to Titanic and would have made it in time to save all aboard had they not turned off radar communications.
Not all the lifeboats where filled to capacity. Had they been filled to capacity, many more lives would have been saved.
Had the ship sailed into the iceberg head-on instead of turning Titanic wouldn't have sunk at all, as the collision bulkhead would have protected the ship from taking in any water.
1912 wasn't a normal year with the Altlantic seeing the greatest number of icebergs in a half-century. The iceberg that Titanic struck traveled further south than people have believed possible, perhaps due to the colder weather. Titanic's departure was delayed by several months due to The Olympia's repairs.
The night conditions were also unusual. It was a moonless night and the water was calm. Both conditions made it difficult to spot icebergs.
Impact on society.
Titanic's legacy could be felt across the world. Apart from the loss of life, the sinking stunned the industrial pride and investigations following the disaster, raise serious questions, and prompted much-needed reform in maritime regulations. This included the number of lifeboats required for ships to be determined on passenger numbers and not tonnage. Round the clock communications and the setting up of the International Ice Patrol, whose job it is to monitor the Atlantic and Arctic for icebergs, which pose a threat to shipping vessels.
100th-anniversary commemorations took place all over the world. Communities across Ireland held memorials. But all eyes are focused on Belfast. A new project that was completed in March sees the world's largest Titanic Visitor Center. Costing around £100 million, the Titanic Belfast Museum is set to be the biggest tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. Titanic Centre is built on the grounds of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the birthplace of Titanic.
This museum is astonishing with reconstructions of some of Titanic's iconic designs, including the grand staircase. After just a few weeks open, it's proven to be a major success with quotes like the world's biggest tourism story in 2012.
Belfast kicked off commemorations in March with the grand opening of Titanic Belfast. A Titanic festival lasted for two weeks, hosting numerous free events including the MTV open-air concert on April 13, and the Titanic light show on April 7, 9th, 10th and 11th.
Cinema and TV also marked the centenary with James Cameron re-release his 1997 blockbuster Titanic as a 3D remaster on April 6 while ITV and others produced a 240 minutes TV drama set on Titanic which was aired between March 25 and April 15.
Feature Article produced for Graffiti Magazine Issue 50.