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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London