An Unsinkable Titanic/Chapter 2

 
CHAPTER II

THE EVER-PRESENT DANGERS OF THE SEA

Boswell, that faithful, if over-appreciative chronicler, tells us that Dr. Johnson once described an ocean voyage as "going to jail with a chance of being drowned." Had some one quoted the grim witticism of the doctor in the spacious dining-room of the Titanic on the night of April the fourteenth, it would have provoked a smile of derisive incredulity. Going to sea in the cramped quarters of the frail sailing packet of Johnson's day was one thing; crossing the Atlantic at railroad speed in the spacious luxury of a 60,000-ton liner was quite another. Yet, five hours later, when the vast bulk of that noble ship was slanting to its final plunge, the pitiless truth was brought home to that awe-stricken crowd that, even to-day, travel by sea involves the "chance of being drowned."

The remarkable immunity of the high-speed Atlantic liners from such accidents as befell the Titanic has been due in part to careful seamanship and in part to an amazing run of good luck. Of this there can be no doubt whatever. On a recent occasion the subject was brought up for discussion in the officers' quarters of one of the fastest liners. In answer to the writer's question as to whether the dangers of running at high speed through fog or ice-infested regions were not enormous, one of the officers frankly admitted that, not only were the risks most serious, but the immunity from such disasters as that which befell the Titanic was to be explained on the ground of sheer good fortune. "I well remember," said he, "that the first time I found myself in charge of the bridge on a ship that was running through fog at a speed of over 20 knots, I fairly shivered with a sense of the possibilities of disaster that were involved. To-day—well—familiarity, you know——"

Let it not be supposed, from the heading of this chapter, that it is the writer's purpose to draw any lurid picture of the dangers of ocean travel. These are no greater to-day than they were before the Titanic went down. Icebergs have swept down from the Arctic seas from
 

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Stewards are closing door in fire-protection bulkhead.

Fire-drill on a German Liner

 

time immemorial, and year by year they will continue to throw the shadow of their awful menace across the lines of steamship travel. Fog, with its ever-present dangers of collision, will continue to infest the ocean highways; and always, the half-submerged derelict, a peril scarcely less than that of the iceberg, will continue to sail its uncharted course over the high seas.

The strength of the impulse to build unsinkable ships will be exactly in proportion to our realisation of the dangers which beset ocean travel. The toll of human life exacted in the recent disaster will lose its one possible compensation, if it fails to impress deeply the very serious lesson that since the sea is not man's natural element, he can hold his way safely across its surface only at the cost of most careful preparation and eternal vigilance.

Protracted and amazing immunity from disasters of portentous magnitude has bred in us something of that very contempt for the dangers of the sea above referred to. We have piled deck upon deck until the "floating palace" of the sea towers twice as far above the water-line as it extends below it. So rapidly have we added weight to weight and horsepower to horsepower, that both the mass and the power have been quadrupled. The giant steamship of to-day, as she rushes through the black night and the all-obscuring fog, represents a potential engine of destruction, for which no parallel can be found in the whole field of human activity.

Do you doubt it? Then learn that on that fatal night when the Titanic bore headlong into the icefield, she embodied in her onrushing mass an energy equal to that of the combined broadsides of our two most powerful battleships, the Florida and the Utah. Which is to say that, if the two dreadnoughts had discharged their twenty twelve-inch guns, at point-blank range, against the iceberg which sank this ship, they would have struck a combined blow of less energy than that delivered by the Titanic. And every one of these guns, be it remembered, delivers its shell with an energy of 50,000 foot-tons—sufficient to lift either of these battleships nearly two and a half feet into the air.

Of the serious risk to a ship of collision with an iceberg, it is superfluous to say anything
 

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Hose from bellows supplies fresh air to man with smoke helmet.

Fire-drill on a German Liner

 

here. The swift sinking of the world's greatest steamship has driven that lesson home, surely, for all time to come. But there are two other forms of accident on the high seas—collision with another ship and the running down of a derelict—whose possibilities of disaster are scarcely less. For if the huge steamships of our day, moving at high speed, are such potential engines of destruction, it follows that the damaging effects of collisions are proportionately increased.

If a 60,000-ton ship, such as the Titanic, while running at high speed, were struck on the beam by a vessel of large size, it is quite conceivable that the outside plating of three of her compartments (not merely the "two adjoining" of standard shipbuilding practice) might be broken in, or the seams and butts started, before the energy of the colliding ship was absorbed and the two vessels swung clear of each other. The average length of the compartments of the Titanic was about 53 feet. At 21 knots she would move forward about 35 feet in one second. Hence, in a few seconds' time (even allowing for her slowing down due to the drag of the other ship), her enormous energy of over 1,000,000 foot-tons would cause her to grind along past the broken bow, surely more than the 100 feet or so which would suffice to involve three compartments. If three compartments amidships were opened to the sea, it would mean the admission of some 12,000 to 15,000 tons of water.

Even more insidious is the menace of the abandoned and water-logged ship—the justly dreaded derelict—which, floating low in the water, and without a light to reveal its position, may lie directly in the path of the high-speed ocean liner. So slightly does the derelict project above the surface, that it is almost impossible of detection by night from the lofty position of the lookout on a modern steamship.

Another risk of the sea, which, because of long immunity from disaster, is in danger of being overlooked or underrated, is that of fire. The structural portions of a ship and its engine and boiler-plant, being of metal, are proof against fire; but the stateroom partitions, the wooden floors and ceilings, the wainscoting, and the hundreds of tons of material used in decoration and general embellishment, to say nothing of the highly inflammable paint-work and
 

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Test of the fire mains is made every time the ship is in port.

Fire-drill on a German Liner

 

varnish, constitute a mass of material, which, in the event of a serious fire, might turn the whole interior of a large passenger ship into one vast cauldron of flame. Fortunately, the bulkhead is as effective in confining a fire as it is in localising an inflow of water in the event of collision. Therefore, some of the bulkheads of the under-water portion of all passenger ships should be continued (of lighter construction) right through the decks reserved for passenger accommodations, to the topmost deck of the ship.

But, perhaps, after all said and done, the greatest perils of high-speed ocean travel are to be found in that spirit of nautical sangfroid, or indifference to danger, which, as this disaster has proved, may in time begin to characterise the attitude even of so experienced a navigator as the late captain of the Titanic.

Protection against the dangers of the sea may be sought in two directions: First, the enforcement of rules for more careful navigation; second, the embodiment of non-sinkable construction in the ship.

The protection afforded by the one is limited by the fallibility of human nature.

The protection afforded by the other is exact, absolutely sure, and will last as long as the ship itself.

If we would make ocean travel safe we must make the ship, as far as possible, unsinkable. In other words, the naval architect must adopt that principle of construction, common in other lines of mechanical work, which has been aptly designated as "fool-proof." In the building of folly-proof ships, then (the term is here used in a modified sense and with not the least reflection upon that fine body of professional men whose duties lie on the bridge of our ocean liners), is to be found the one sure protection against the perils of the sea.

We are well aware that the merchant ship, like the warship, is a compromise, and that the ingenuity of the naval architect is sorely taxed to meet the many demands for speed, coal capacity, freight capacity, and luxurious accommodations for passengers. All this is admitted. But the object of these chapters is to show that in designing the ship, the architect has given too little attention to the elements of safety—that, in the compromise, luxurious accommodations, let us say, have been favoured at the expense of certain protective structural arrangements, which might readily be introduced without any great addition to the cost of the ship, or any serious sacrifice of comfort or speed.

Under the sobering effect of this calamity, caution and moderation are the watchwords of the hour. Steamships are leaving port crowded with lifeboats of every size and shape. Steamship routes have been moved far to the south of the accustomed lines of travel. The time occupied in passage is longer, distances are greater, and the coal bill runs into larger figures.

But competition is keen, dividends must be earned, and amid all the fret and fever of our modern life, memories, even of stupendous happenings, have but a brief life. Steamship routes, under the strong pressure of competition, will tend to edge northward on to the older and shorter sailing lines. Immunity from disaster will beget the old sangfroid; and with the near approach of the age of motor-driven ships, we may look for an increase in speed such as the old Atlantic has never witnessed, even in the years of fiercest contest for the blue ribbon of the seas.

Let it be so—provided, always provided that, made wise by the lessons of the hour, we write it in our laws and grave it deep in the hearts of our shipbuilders, that the one sure safeguard against the eternal hazards of the sea is the fireproof and unsinkable ship!