Titanic sinking sensation – the real story at last?

After so much myth and legend, the Titanic story can still rock us with surprise. Only now have we got the hidden story of how Titanic really sank. A left turn order ( “hard a -starboard)” meant turn right on steamships, contrary to helmsmanship on sailing ships. But the helmsman got it wrong. Naturally, this is disputed… (see Channel 4 News story).

You push the tiller right, the rudder swings left, and if the boat were in a pond it would obey the rudder and veer left too. Sailing ships steered on this principle. The command “hard a-starboard” meant the wheel had to be turned to the left and not, as the instruction would suggest, to the right. Steamships, on the other hand, steered like cars. You moved the wheel to the right and the ship took the same direction.

Not all steamships followed these rules, however. On the north Atlantic, liners persisted with “tiller rules”, meaning that the helmsman moved the wheel in the opposite direction to the command. The practice was abolished in 1928, but in 1912 it was thought to be safer because so many seamen (Lightoller, for instance) had trained in sail.

By Lightoller’s account, First Officer Murdoch spotted the iceberg when it was two miles away – it was an exceptionally clear night, after all – and surprised his helmsman with a barked order to change course.

Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, a steam man, momentarily forget the counter-intuitive nature of tiller rules and sent the ship towards the berg. By the time the course was corrected, valuable minutes had been lost and the later cry, “Iceberg right ahead”, came as no surprise to those on the bridge.


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  • fitzjameshorse1745

    There was an interview with Lightollers granddaughter (?) herself a novelist on Radio Ulster(?) this week and she talked about this theory. Pressed on the reasonable enough point as to why he never mentioned this at the Inquiry, the descendant claimed it was because of “loyalty to his employer and fellow employees”.
    Hmmm……not so sure I buy that as a motive. If he did stay silent, I have a less flattering theory.

    Alas, Belfasts “Titanic Town” tourism does not impress me with its “Titanic Swimming Club” and “it was ok when it left here” sweatshirts. Prior to the movie (the Winslett-di Caprio one NOT the much better Night To Remember) nobody in Belfast actually cared…the understated monument at City Hall representative of the Citys embarrassment.
    Some years ago in the Citys “Welcome Centre” (sic) I found Titanic souvenirs with the shipbuilders name mis-spelt. The manager semed a bit embarrassed when I ppointed it out….but on reflection I should have bought one and publicised it.

    So 2012……Titanic Year.
    Sheesh its a worse prospect that that City of Culture in the North West.
    Gin and Tonics all round at the Tourist Board…..just dont order any ice……that joke has been done.

  • Alan Maskey

    Here is a quote from this excellent website
    : http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120338/goofs

    Incorrectly regarded as goofs: Before Titanic hits the iceberg, the crew calls to turn the ship hard to starboard. They do this at least twice but the helmsman clearly turns the wheel hard to port. However, prior to the advent and mass popularity of the automobile, a ship’s wheel was rigged such that to turn the ship left (port), the wheel was turned clockwise (or as we would consider it, to the right). It was only after a generation of drivers had grown up driving cars that the shipping industry began rigging their wheels to conform.

    That website as well as moviemistakes is well worth a casual perusal. If nothing else, the apparent mistakes show that some research does go into these things.
    As regards that fateful night, who knows?

  • Oracle


    Just think the latest revelation is problematic, studies by ship engineers and ship designers along with actual computer simulations have proven conclusively that a head on ramming by Titanic would have resulted in bow damage but no sinking!
    If the tiller rules had been obeyed as suggested at the speed the Titanic was steaming at trying to break the record for a sailing to New York there would have been no time to correct it after a few minutes a head on collision would have been the outcome result no sinking!
    The problem was the wrong order was given in the first place not the incorrect following of such an order.
    The Titanic could not have hoped to avoid a collision with an ice-berg only 2 miles away at that speed; the attempted avoidance meant the probability of a glancing collision to the side of the vessel and at that speed an automatic rupture of the ships hulls plates.
    Cheap rivets used by Harland and Wolff ensured that the rupture was extended further than should have been expected and thus the sinking inevitable.

  • Alan Maskey

    “Cheap rivets used by Harland and Wolff ensured that the …the sinking (was) inevitable.”


  • joeCanuck

    I don’t think it sunk at all. I keep hearing that people are still rearranging the deckchairs.

  • Reader

    joeCanuck: I don’t think it sunk at all. I keep hearing that people are still rearranging the deckchairs.
    If it’s going to be sinking for another 100 years, might as well get comfortable.

  • Greenflag

    Here’s a chap who knows why the Titanic sank . He’s explaining the reason to the Chicagoans . The explanation is about 1.00 minute in 😉

  • The claim that the Titanic was attempting to break the Blue Ribbon is one of those classic urban myths. The Titanic was indeed the largest ship in the world in 1912. She was built to carry large numbers of passengers: not for speed. Although Wikipedia is not always the best source in the world the stats from it bear out the fallacy of the supposed Blue Ribbon attempt:

    Titanic speed 21 knots max 23 knots.

    In 1909 3 years before the year the Titanic sank the Blue Ribbon was held by a Cunard liner the Mauretania with an average speed of 26 knots. As such the Titanic could never have captured the Blue Ribbon. The White Star line had gone for size (Titanic, Olympic and Britannic). They had larger but slightly slower ships than the earlier built Cunard line Mauretania and Lusitania.

  • Greenflag

    For those perhaps ‘offended ‘ by the explanation above the same chap makes amends and offends the evangelicals at the same time as wanting to ‘shoot’ the Pope about 3.20 into the video 🙁

    ( Crude in parts for those of a sensitive disposition ).

    He’s no Dave Allen or Dylan Moran or Bill Bailey!


    As I understand it the Titanic was built to survive contact with icebergs and recent (some years ago) it was found that lower quality ‘rivets’ bought from a Scottish supplier was the main reason she sank .

  • Dave Graham

    The first ship to send a SOS survived a head on collision with an iceberg.

  • In the original post there was:

    A left turn order ( “hard a -starboard)”

    But starboard is right, port is left, so hard a starboard is an order to make the ship turn to the right, NOT the left. That is true whether you are on a sailing ship or a steamship, since the order is to the direction of the turn, not the way you move the tiller or the wheel.

  • HeinzGuderian

    These ‘lower quality rivets’,were the exact same as the ones used on Olympic !! She sailed for Thirty-Five years !!

    As for your,’Titanic was built to survive contact with icebergs’…………….best just to keep it zipped,when you don’t know what the feck you are on about !!

  • HeinzGuderian

    Eight men died builing Titanic. Over 1,500 people perished,on the night she sank.

    Some people find that amusing ??

    I find people like that,sad !! 🙁

  • Greenflag

    She sailed for Thirty-Five years !!

    Could be because she never hit an iceberg .

    ‘were the exact same as the ones used on Olympic’

    They may have looked the same -that was’nt the problem as I understand it . The problem was with the combination of metals used in the particular batch which were used on the Titanic .