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Wednesday, November 1, 2000

The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions

Why Didn't the Titanic Have Enough Lifeboats?

The story of the sinking of the Titanic is a monumental drama that will be told and retold for centuries to come. In recent years we have seen a blockbuster movie, a Broadway play, and a spate of books on the great 1912 disaster. The trouble with most of the Titanic output is that it tells only part of the story, and often with a decided slant.

Stephen Cox’s book is not intended to be a full-fledged history of the Titanic—his extensive bibliography gives the reader a long list of books to consult, along with helpful short analyses of them—but rather is an endeavor to understand some of the “hard choices, dangerous decisions” (as the book is subtitled) that occurred before, during, and after the sinking. In the course of his writing, Cox calls into question many of the widely held beliefs that have grown up around the tragedy, beliefs that suit the anti-market zealots who never pass up an opportunity to depict capitalism as dangerous and immoral.

The difficulty with most of the Titanic versions, Cox writes, is that they are “told as if all the important issues were easy to resolve.” “If we had operated the Titanic, it is suggested, we would certainly have taken the trouble to determine just how far from ‘unsinkable’ she really was. We would have provided her with every conceivable safety device and mechanism of escape. We would have anticipated every hazard she might conceivably have encountered.” Cox, however, won’t play the game of perfect hindsight, but asks about the situation that faced the decision-makers at the time, what information they had, what beliefs they held.

Consider, for example, the famous matter of the lifeboats. There were not enough lifeboats to provide places for all the passengers and crew members, and for that decision the White Star Line was pilloried. Supposedly, the firm’s decision to equip the ship with fewer than enough boats to allow everyone to be able to escape showed its disregard for the well-being of passengers and crew—putting profits before people, as anti-capitalists are so ready to chant. Cox’s analysis, however, shows that this is far from the indisputable indictment of laissez faire that it is widely assumed to be.

First, there is the element of time. On a passenger liner, with large numbers of panicky civilians who don’t all behave ideally, getting everyone into lifeboats and safely launching them takes a great deal of time. The Titanic stayed afloat for two hours and 40 minutes after the collision—longer than most ships take to sink—but still, under perfectly calm conditions, did not have enough time to launch its full complement of boats. As Cox says, “The Titanic literally could not have used any more lifeboats, primarily because her crews were not organized well enough to save time by launching them simultaneously.”

Moreover, the Titanic sank under the unusual conditions of calm seas and no port or starboard list. Why does that matter? Cox points out that, “if a ship is going to sink, it may well develop a list so severe that lifeboats on one side cannot be lowered because they will hit the hull and lifeboats on the other side cannot be loaded because they are swinging too far from the deck.” Therefore, the requirement to have a lifeboat place for everyone would in practice require substantially more than “enough places” because of the likelihood that not all boats could be launched.

Instead of putting more money into making certain that there was a lifeboat place for everyone, shipbuilders concentrated on trying to make each ship “its own lifeboat”; that is, making the ship so seaworthy that in the event of a disaster, it could support those aboard long enough for help to arrive. “In 1912,” the author observes, “lifeboats were valued chiefly for their ability to ferry a few people at a time from a distressed liner to a rescue ship, which would use its own boats to speed the operation.” Had the Californian come immediately to the aid of the Titanic—another issue that Cox tackles—there might have been few if any casualties.

A fascinating aside is that because of regulations enacted in the United States after the sinking that mandated “lifeboats for all,” the liner Eastland capsized and sank in Chicago, killing 844 people because of its excess weight added to the top of the ship by the obligatory new lifeboats.

Among other interesting subjects, Cox dwells on the post-sinking hearings held both in Washington and London. The former consisted mainly of grandstanding by Senator William A. Smith of Michigan, whom Cox describes as “an ingenious busybody, cherishing the . . . assumption that if anything goes wrong, the United States government ought to do something about it.” The hearings in London, in contrast, were held more to generate light than heat.

A valuable book, indeed.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.