MadSci Network: Engineering

Re: Titanic question

Date: Tue May 26 16:51:18 1998
Posted By: Curtis Chen, Other (pls. specify below), Webmaster, AT&T Labs
Area of science: Engineering
ID: 892829964.Eg

Taking your questions in reverse order:

I think you've confused "bow" and "stern". The bow of a ship is the front part-- the forward section-- and the stern is the rear. Titanic's fatal collision with the iceberg only damaged the front (bow) of the ship on the right (starboard) side, and no further back than Boiler Room Four. The back (stern) of the ship was undamaged in the collision.

But the question remains: if Titanic turned to the left (port) to avoid the iceberg, shouldn't the back (stern) end of the ship have swung to the right and hit the iceberg? The answer is that the first officer was attempting to "swerve" around the berg by first reversing and turning left, then turning right, much as an automobile driver might do to avoid an obstacle in the road. There wasn't enough time to complete the maneuver, but the stern of the ship did swing clear.

As for a head-on collision, let's examine the actual event before moving on to hypothetical situations.

Titanic sank because the collision with the iceberg tore a series of holes in the starboard bow, and the first five watertight compartments became flooded. The ship was designed to remain afloat with up to four of those compartments flooded, but not five.

Now, if Titanic had instead collided with the iceberg head-on, the entire bow would have been crushed, but it's believed that only the first two or three watertight compartments would have been compromised. If so, she would have been able to remain afloat. It had happened before: the Arizona had survived a head-on collision with an iceberg in 1879, and the Olympic had survived a crash with HMS Hawke in 1911.

But we don't know if Titanic would have been so lucky. Arizona and Olympic were both less massive than Titanic, they had been traveling more slowly than Titanic's twenty-four knots at the time of impact, and they had both hit smaller, "softer" objects than the large iceberg that Titanic encountered. In fact, it's possible that a head-on collision could have been more catastrophic for Titanic than the actual disaster was.

Consider this: nobody knows the exact shape or composition of the iceberg that Titanic hit. There may have been an underwater ledge or outcropping of ice which would have lifted or turned the ship and made a direct impact impossible. Attempting such a maneuver might still have torn Titanic's hull, or driven her onto the iceberg, or even capsized her. Aside from hull damage and sinking, she could also have faced other hazards ranging from falling ice to boiler fires. The ship could have remained afloat but still killed many or all of its occupants.

The bottom line is, there's no conclusive answer. A head-on collision with the iceberg would certainly have had a different effect, and in the best case would have saved hundreds of lives, but there's no way to know for sure.

For more about Titanic, check out the Usenet newsgroup:
    alt.history.ocean-liners.titan ic
and the FAQ on James Cameron's movie:

Hope this helps!

not a chilly aardvark

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