Home > Pet Peeves > Titanic Waste of Wood

Titanic Waste of Wood

The Titanic disaster has been hashed and rehashed since it happened, one hundred years now, but I have long had a different take on it that nobody else ever seems to mention.

Okay, so you know the ship is going down and you have, oh, maybe an hour, a little more.  You do not have half the lifeboats you need.  If you are a British merchant captain with no real experience with adversity, you try to keep things calm, avoid a panic at all costs, and load and launch the lifeboats as quickly as possible.  Captain Smith’s one good call was “Women and children first!”

If, on the other hand, the captain had been blessed with a small amount of imagination, he would have realized that he had two terrific resources at his disposal which, if used properly, might have kept the death toll down to the low hundreds, maybe down to just the few deaths below decks during the initial flooding.

First, although he had a huge ship made of metal, it was filled with wood.  Doors, tables, paneling; great big gobs of wood throughout the ship.

Second, he had a small army of lower-class immigrants at his disposal, nearly all of whom had spent their lives working with their hands.

Under loose guidance from his officers and the many captains of industry who were aboard and with support from the crew, this group of workers could have quickly ransacked the ship and, using ropes, bedsheets, and table linens, lashed these hunks of wood into makeshift rafts.  They could string them along the boat decks and then tow them out the front, conga-line style, as the bow went under.  It is a perfectly calm night, so the rafts do not have to be very seaworthy, they just have to be good enough to keep two or three people each mostly out of the water for maybe six hours.  Comfort is not an issue.

Okay, maybe this would not have worked.  Maybe there was not enough time or maybe they would not have been able to overcome the language issues well enough.  Maybe the rafts would not have held together or not been able to get far enough away from the ship in time.  But I will always believe that, had the Third Class passengers been turned loose early on and been told to do this, the death toll would have been far less.

We will never know, of course, and, as the Costa Concordia has shown, ship’s crews are still more interested in containing panic than in helping people depart doomed ships.


Categories: Pet Peeves
  1. sdlong
    April 17, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    I’ll reiterate Professor Landsburg and say that this seems like such a “duh!” idea that I can’t believe I haven’t heard it before on all the Titanic documentaries I’ve watched. 20/20 hindsight and all that, but I think there’s a lot of justice in your point that the third class passengers would have been a bit more resourceful than the champagne sipping Kate Winslets.

    In terms of objections, I’ll add one that you left out: access to materials. Would they have had enough time to communicate with crew to get axes, rope, et cetera? This would have been the only place where language barriers may have come into play. I doubt very much that, amongst themselves, language would have been a problem: a group of Italian manual workers would have gotten the idea if they’d seen a group of Irish workers lashing two doors together . . .

  2. June 18, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    This insane asylum was run by a bunch of rich hicks who couldn’t wait to race their new billion dollar toy into a ton of bricks.

    But you know what the most egregious error was. The simple fact that they didn’t immediately (upon crashing into the iceberg) signal SOS by sending the flares up 1 minute apart instead of 3 – 7 minutes apart. The flares didn’t even have to be red. Just the standard SOS interval. The Californian would not have been confused and they were within SIGHT even if it was refractive glare. Less than 2 hours to get there would be the most conservative estimate. Case closed.

    Instead not only did they botch the signaling, they waited a whole hour before doing it in the first place. That was after they spent an enormous amount of time ascertaining they were goiing to sink. Well duh, that’s the fricking time you have left!

    This ship was doomed because a bunch of absolute ignoramuses were in charge of it.

  3. June 18, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    And also. Your idea could have been executed in its elemental form. Just dissect the ship of its wood doors. furniture, ping pong tables, etc and dump the stuff over en masse. Those who went down with the ship and survived found some piece of random junk with positive ballast to raise themselves at least partially out of the water. Why not drastically increase the possibility of being able to swim to some object. This idea is so simple, could have been executed even if panic mode if management had had a spark of initiative.

  4. June 19, 2012 at 8:06 AM

    And while in into common sense ideas, why not IMMEDIATELY turn the ship broadside to the Californian and signal SOS with the ship’s lights? It would have shouted “COME GET US YOU IDIOTS”. As it was, the California only had a distorted view of the ship making it look like a tiny freighter because it was pointed directly at the California. It should have been understood that the most important thing was to get the California’s attention immediately.

    Hey, ram the thing into the iceberg and hope it gets its nose stuck. When the ship breaks in half, maybe the stern will stay up.

  5. June 19, 2012 at 8:09 AM

    Also correction to the first above….rockets not flares

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