Thursday, September 23rd, 2010


The time of the sinking of the Titanic was a time of change with the way ships operated. The distress call used up until then CDQ was in the process of being replaced with a new distress call SOS (the Titanic sent both being the first to actually use SOS).

It was also a time of change with the way the instructions for steering a ship worked. Most sailing ships used a tiller rather than a wheel to steer the ship and most steersmen of the time learnt on sailing ships before transferring to steamships. So the instruction to turn hard to starboard meant to push the tiller hard to the starboard resulting in the ship turning to port (and vice versa). The same still applied to those ships with a wheel even though the wheel needed to be turned the other way. Shortly after the Titanic sank the directions for the instructions were reversed so that the instruction would indicate the direction in which the ship (and not a tiller which by then few ships had) should turn.

So why did I decide to mention this now? Well I heard on the radio this morning that the Titanic sinking was actually caused by human error on the part of the steersman. He apparently got confused as to which way to turn the wheel when told to turn hard to starboard and actually turned the ship to starboard instead of to port thus turning the ship into the iceberg which they would apparently have missed completely had the ship not turned or been turned the way that was ordered. This was apparently known to second officer Lightoller (the most senior officer to survive) and he kept it secret for many years with the information only now being released to the public by his granddaughter. I had always been of the impression that the mistake was in trying to turn the ship at all and that hitting the iceberg head on would have saved many more lives since then only the front most compartment would have flooded and the ship was designed to withstand such an impact and remain afloat. If this steering mistake is right then if they hadn’t tried to turn they’d have missed the iceberg completely.

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