How to Sink a Ship

Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man

You have heard this story

On the 15th April 1912 the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

Whilst steaming at high-speed through an area of pack ice she hit an iceberg and broke in two.  Over fifteen hundred people plunged into lethal, sub-zero, North Atlantic waters, where they perished in minutes.  It was one of the worst peacetime disasters at sea.

Why did so many die?

It was a combination of factors all happening at the same time that caused the tragedy:

  • A captain on his last voyage who ignored iceberg warnings
  • A business determined to make the fastest crossing so it could attract more passengers
  • Outdated regulations allowing for too few lifeboats
  • Poorly trained crew who didn’t fill those lifeboats
  • A nearby ship that ignored the distress flares

But the Titanic was unsinkable.

She was a marvel of modern technology with 16 watertight compartments in her hull.  Five of them would have had to rupture for her to sink.

Tragically five compartments did rupture

In their book “What Really Sank The Titanic”, Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Timothy Foecke suggest another reason for the disaster.

They allege that the shipbuilder was struggling to source the high-grade metal that they needed to make the millions of rivets required to bolt the hull together.

The ship builder was under huge pressure to deliver the vessel on time and to budget, so in lieu of No 4 or “best-best” quality iron, they used No 3 quality iron, known as “best”, instead.

McCarty and Foeck tested rivets brought back to the surface from the shipwreck and found that they were brittle, leading them to the conclusion that the rivets tore apart when the Titanic hit the iceberg.

The ship builders Harland and Wolfe dispute these findings, but then they would, so would I.

So what really sank the Titanic?

What was the underlying reason?

Perhaps it was a management focus on targets, deadlines, costs and profits instead of delivering customers safely and comfortably from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

Have we really changed in the past 100 years?

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The Titanic

Read another opinion

Image via Wikipedia


  1. An intriguing insight, however had RMS Titanic not hit the iceberg, how much of a problem would these rivets have been? What about RMS Olympic, was she subject to the same quality controls? She was in service for more than two decades after all, survived two world wars. Without an iceberg, would Titanic have failed her stress test?

    In mitigation of the senior officers and crew on board RMS Titanic, it was, according to First Officer Lightoller “the darkest and quietest I have ever seen, before and since”. It was cold and dark – and that was it. You could not see anything else save the firmament of stars overhead.

    The lookouts couldn’t see anything but the ship, let alone icebergs!

    So how did they know there was an iceberg there at all? Well, they would be well versed in the positions of the stars, be able to judge the time by them. So what if one’s missing?

    So what?

    Then another, and a third twinkles no longer. Unsettling for sure. There must be a reason, and remember these are crewmen not professional data analysts. What was going on? Well, something was blocking them out. Something they could only see by inference – that’s way harder to see than what’s actually in front of your eyes.

    They look at each other in half disbelief. Then it hits them.


    It’s an iceberg!

    No ripples shining in the moonlight – there wasn’t any. No reflections from the ice itself. There was no light. All they knew was that it was there. How close it was nobody could tell you. Sadly a telegram wasn’t passed on from the radio room, communications went awry and the vessel was turned too late. It was a tragedy in the fullest sense of the word.

    • James Lawther says:


      Thanks for your comment. Horrifically descriptive.

      Fortunately I wasn’t there so I won’t pretend to know what happened on the ship (or in the boardroom)

      I do wonder though what sort of environment and motivation drives a Captain to steam through a known icefield at high speed in pitch blackness relying (as you say) on lookouts who can only guess where the ice is.


      • The environment you speak of – where a captain is motivated to follow a timetable rather than follow his knowledge of the high seas is one that is pertinent for today. Remember that Captain Smith would have been trained on sailing ships, much as Officer Lightoller was himself (his book is where I learned about the conditions prevailing on that night). This isn’t saying profiting is wrong. Only when the captain steams through because he’s supposed to arrive in port on Tuesday may mean taking risks that would in other circumstances would be unacceptable.

        There are many cases in business today where profit is put before safety. That goes for the CEO making a bad judgment to the carpenter walking along the ridge beams of the roof he’s putting on because it saves him time.

  2. James,

    Sadly, in a word, “No.”

    Annette :-)

  3. James,
    I’d like to hope that we have changed but that’s my optimistic side coming out. However, the data in large part suggests otherwise. I am still hopeful.



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