Titanic's Safety Features

Analysis of Titanic’s safety features and failures

Titanic was not labelled the ‘unsinkable’ ship purely by chance.  She possessed a number of cutting edge and well thought out safety features that made those involved in her construction supremely confident that she would never founder.

This section explores some of Titanic’s key safety features and why they failed to meet such high expectations.

Lifeboats

Nearly everyone views Titanic’s biggest oversight, and in some ways arrogance by her designers at Harland and Wolff, by the fact she did not contain enough lifeboats to carry all passengers in an emergency.  Not even by half.

A lifeboat hoisted aboard Carpathia is drained of sea water

A lifeboat hoisted aboard Carpathia is drained of sea water

This practice was not entirely uncommon for ship builders of the day for two reasons.  Firstly, maritime regulations had not been overhauled for generations and did not require a life boat seat for everyone on board a ship of Titanic’s size.  She actually had more boats than the minimum required by the board of maritime safety.  Secondly, Titanic’s designers did not want to clutter decks with boats they never intended to use. 

To add insult to injury, after the Titanic struck a berg many of the initial boats lowered into the water were not even close to being filled to capacity.  Titanic’s crew were poorly trained in deploying them.  Life boat number two left with 17 people on board when in fact it had been tested to carry 70 men only weeks earlier.  This would be replicated until the situation became so dire that passengers and crew realized a seat on a lifeboat meant the difference between life and death.

This diagram of the boat deck shows the placement of lifeboats.  The emergency cutters are marked in red whilst the purple indicates a collapsible lifeboat constructed from canvas.

This diagram of the boat deck shows the placement of lifeboats.  The emergency cutters are marked in red whilst the purple indicates a collapsible lifeboat constructed from canvas.

Ironically a lifeboat drill scheduled on the morning of April 14th was cancelled to allow passengers and crew the opportunity to attend mass.      


The Watertight Compartments

The innovative watertight compartments were the primary reason Titanic was unfairly titled ‘unsinkable’ by the press during her construction phase in Belfast. 

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The concept was simple.  Separate the Hull into sixteen watertight compartments using heavy duty centrally controlled watertight doors.  Where the ship’s hull is penetrated trap the water inside those compartments so that it cannot founder the entire vessel.  At worst they would enable the ship to sink incredibly slowly and allow passengers to evacuate with time to spare.

One major problem was that these compartments were far from watertight as they did not possess a roof section.  Essentially they were like a jar without a lid,

Therefore when the Iceberg sliced through the hull of the first six compartments a chain reaction began of the watertight bulkhead filling up and then flooding the compartment beside it.  As more flooded the faster Titanic sank.


Wireless Radio System

The only known photograph of Titanic's wireless room. The operator is most likely Harold Bride aged 21.

The only known photograph of Titanic's wireless room. The operator is most likely Harold Bride aged 21.

Titanic’s Marconi wireless system was undoubtedly the best radio system on any ship in the world in 1912.  There was good money to be made in from wealthy passengers sending and receiving telegraphs during the voyage.  It had excellent range and the crew were well trained in using Morse code to communicate efficiently.

However brilliant the technology behind Titanic’s wireless system was, it would once again prove useless due to human error.

Following a discussion between Captain Smith and the radio crew about ice in the area from nearby ships, numerous ice warnings to follow were ignored and not passed on.  This almost certainly reduced the impact of navigating such treacherous waters and may have influenced the decision not to reduce Titanic’s speed.

The radio crew where simply overwhelmed with meeting the communication needs of the passengers which were in high demand to be bothered with such trivial information which they had already acknowledged.

As a stroke of bad fortune Titanic’s calls for S.O.S would fall on deaf ears to surrounding ships, particularly the steamer Californian which was possibly near enough to offer assistance.  Essentially the radio equipment on board Californian was either turned off or not manned during Titanic’s sinking.    

Detailed information on radio aspects of Titanic's disaster can be found here.

Life vests and Buoyancy rings

There was certainly no shortage of life vests on board Titanic.  In fact she had 3500 listed on the inventory.  There were no formal complaints about the lack of vests in the enquiries that would follow.  The vests were well constructed from cork and canvas.

An authentic life vest from 1912.  The life vest provided warmth to survivors on board life boats.

An authentic life vest from 1912.  The life vest provided warmth to survivors on board life boats.

Titanic also carried 48 buoyancy rings.  These would inevitably prove to be more a decorative component of Titanic than a practical one.

Had Titanic sunk in warmer waters closer to the equator both of these flotation devices may have proved some worth to the many people that were listed as drowned. In actual fact most of the deceased listed as drowned would have died of hypothermia prior to drowning.  The water temperature was predicted to be around one degree Celsius which is estimated to be fatal in less than 15 minutes of exposure.

Whilst there are many elements which are not even discussed here add up to Titanic’s demise these three elements did play a crucial role.

One positive outcome from the tragedy was that Titanic would be the catalyst for revolutionizing maritime safety after such a huge loss of life.  Long term, she definitely saved more lives than she claimed.