A new version of events

RMS Titanic (April 2, 1912).

Image via Wikipedia

The sinking of the Titanic in April, 1912 is such a well-known piece of history, that the spiral of events into disaster seems familiar and thoroughly picked over. However, a new book “Good as Gold”, written by the granddaughter of the ship’s Second Officer brings new facts to the surface about the human errors and callous decisions that set the ocean liner on its fatal course.

Louise Patten, a novelist and “the last person alive to know what really happened on the night Titanic sank”, describes family secrets long kept by her grandfather, Commander Charles Lightoller, as the inspiration for her part-fact, part-fiction book. Lightoller initially lied during inquiries into the disaster, saying he knew nothing at the time, but told his wife the truth, which was passed down to Patten.

Lightoller, right, with third officer Herbert ...

Lightoller, right, with third officer Herbert ...

According to Patten (and Lightoller), the Titanic struck the iceberg because of a simple misinterpretation of orders. At the time the Titanic was built, ships were transitioning between sailing ships and steam ships, which have different steering systems. Sailing ships, on which Lightoller and many other of the Titanic’s officers trained, operate under tiller orders, while steam ships operate under rudder orders. In an article with The Telegraph, Patten explained the difference between the two:

“…on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as ’tiller orders’ which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. It sounds counterintuitive now, but that is what tiller orders were. Whereas with ‘rudder orders,’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go.”

. On the night of the Titanic’s sinking, First Officer William Murdoch saw the iceberg and gave the order ‘hard-a-starboard’ using tiller orders, and the steersman Robert Hitchins, panicking, turned the wheel in the opposite direction according to the rudder orders he was trained with. As a result, the ship steered straight into the course of the iceberg.

The second and more sinister mistake was made by the chairman of the White Star Line Bruce Ismay, who urged Captain Edward Smith to keep the ship sailing forward after it struck the iceberg, a decision that increased water pressure on the ship’s hull and caused it to sink much faster.

“The nearest ship was four hours away,” said Patten in The Guardian. “Had she remained at ‘stop’, it’s probable that Titanic would have floated until help arrived.”

The Telegraph has the full story and interview with Louise Patten, which is fascinating. I’d really like to read the new book — although, as one commenter on the New York Times blog post about “Good as Gold” pointed out, if James Cameron gets wind of the story…

Olivia Just