By Bruce A. Trinque
Part 12 – Conclusions
The testimony of witnesses at the two official hearings, in my opinion, calls into serious question the accuracy of the supposed thirty-seven second interval between the helm being put hard-a-starboard and the actual collision with the iceberg. According to Quartermaster Hitchens at the wheel, First Officer Murdoch’s order to put the helm hard over was essentially simultaneous with Murdoch’s telegraph order to the engine room. Hitchens indicated that the impact with the iceberg then occurred just after Sixth Officer Moody verbally confirmed that the wheel was hard-a-starboard. The “black gang” witnesses – Barrett, Beauchamp, Dillon, and Scott connected the first engine room order closely with the instant of impact, although differing in the sequence. Barrett and Dillon remembered the telegraph signal coming before the collision, while Beauchamp and Scott reported the reverse. A sense is conveyed by all these witnesses that this was a rapid series of events, leaving no time for the British Enquiry’s thirty-seven seconds. Fourth Officer Boxhall’s testimony strongly reinforces this picture. Hearing the three bells while he was passing near the captain’s quarters on his way forward, Boxhall had not even time to reach the bridge before the Titanic struck the iceberg. Thirty-seven seconds can be a very long time. A little experiment may be in order: Stare at a clock with a second hand. Do nothing except watch that second hand slowly sweep out its arc of thirty-seven seconds. And notice how very slowly thirty-seven seconds can pass … In summary, the testimony from the two official hearings is, in my opinion, weighted against the accuracy of the thirty-seven second calculation. Charles Pellegrino’s conclusion in this regard appears to be reasonable and justified by the evidence.
If the thirty-seven second interval is incorrect, then what could be the cause of the error? First, we must recognize that this figure is based upon Hitchens’ testimony that the ship had turned two points (or about two points) to port; an experiment conducted with the Olympic running at the same speed as Titanic showed that the ship required thirty-seven seconds to turn that much. If Hitchens erred in his estimate of the course change, then of necessity the time interval would also be in error. The only independent source for the extent of the turn is Fleet who, despite his repeated difficulty or reluctance in testifying about time and distance, estimated: “A little over a point, or two points.” If Fleet’s “a little over a point” were to be correct, then the 37-second interval would have to be decreased.
An additional factor to consider is when Hitchens presumably looked at the compass to ascertain how much the ship had turned. Did he actually make this observation at the instant of first impact or was it later, perhaps even after the Titanic had pulled away from the iceberg? If the latter were the case, then the compass heading at that moment would not be representative of the ship’s course at the start of the collision.
Another possibility might be that the veering of the bow was not caused exclusively by the action of the rudder. Neither Fleet nor Lee gave testimony that directly addressed just how many seconds passed between when Fleet telephoned the bridge and the collision, but both lookouts indicated that the ship was turning by the time Fleet was finished with the telephone, seemingly an extraordinarily fast reaction when considering that Moody had just said “thank you” and perhaps had not yet even had time to inform Murdoch of what the lookout reported. It is even less likely that Murdoch had already been able to give Hitchens an order to turn the helm. Lightoller’s possibly erroneous second-hand account derived from Fleet would serve to back up such a conclusion, if it could be believed. Perhaps we have a combination of forces involved: the ship’s rudder and, as Pellegrino postulates, the iceberg pushing against the ship’s hull. To speculate about a possible mechanism for this: the hull would not have to be in direct physical contact with the ice for such an effect to begin, I believe. As a ship’s bow plows though the water in the open sea, large volumes of water (effectively an incompressible fluid) are pushed laterally, just as a splitting wedge driven into a log forces the opposite halves apart. If, however, there is an immovable wall (like a very massive iceberg of a proper configuration) in close proximity and approximately parallel to one side of that hull, then a problem arises – there is no place for the displaced water on that side of the hull to go. That water must now exert a force back against the bow, not balanced by an equivalent force from the opposite side. And, of course, that force would be exerted upon the most effective point: the bow, far from the ship’s center of mass, like the weight of a small child perched on the outermost end of a see-saw to gain maximum advantage. The result? The bow could be forced away from the “wall” without yet making actual contact. This is similar to the “ground effect” used with certain (very) low-flying aircraft. Is it not possible that the veering to port was in part due to just such a lateral force against the bow from water that could not be displaced to the side as usual? Of course, once Hitchens had turned his wheel, a second turning force would come into play. And the physical impact of the hull itself against the iceberg would provide a final lateral force, albeit one evidently limited in scale since the damage to the hull was relatively superficial, confined to small penetrations and hull plate separations.
Another factor might also enter into the equation. It is conceivable that Lee and Fleet, staring with rapt attention as the ship drew closer to the black shape appearing out of the dark, may have been misled by something of an optical illusion into believing that the hoped for turn had begun sooner than it really did. As the bulk of the iceberg emerged from the night and, if the center of the ice mass above water was somewhat to the starboard of the ship’s direct path, then it may have seemed like the vessel was veering before any actual turn had started.
The effect from the rudder, of course, depends upon just how long it had to act. In my opinion, the testimony at the hearings indicates that the rudder was hard-a-starboard for only several seconds at most. If this was in fact the case, then the rudder may have had comparatively little effect on the course of events, and there was never any real “choice” of running head-on into the iceberg rather than grazing it.
Studying the eyewitness testimony about those last seconds before the Titanic hit the fatal iceberg has been a personally rewarding exercise. I certainly do not claim to have arrived at any indisputable truths, but for myself, I no longer can believe in the thirty-seven second interval proposed by the British Enquiry. I would encourage others to study the evidence for themselves and then to draw their own conclusions.
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