Lifeboats on the Titanic

“She was the largest craft afloat, the greatest of the works of man.” A “floating city,” she carried only as many lifeboats “as would satisfy the law.” Unfortunately, she hit an iceberg, “the only thing afloat she could not conquer,” and thousands were plunged into the icy North Atlantic, “their voices raised in agonized screams.”

This harrowing fictional scenario, contained in a story entitled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, was penned by Morgan Robertson in 1898. A mere 14 years later, the scene was played out in real life when the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912.

When the last lifeboat had been launched, only two choices remained for those left behind: to go down with the ship or jump into the icy black waters of the sea. “Until I die, the cries of those wretched men and women who went down clinging helplessly to the Titanic’s rail will ring in my ears,” one survivor wrote. “Groans, shrieks and sounds that were almost inhuman came across the waters” to torment those afraid to rescue those in the water for fear of being sucked into the vortex or swamped.

The Titanic carried far too few lifeboats to accommodate its passengers and crew, which totalled 2,207. There were 20 lifeboats in all, including 14 with a capacity of 65, two emergency boats that could accommodate 40 each, and four collapsible boats that were designed to carry 47 apiece. The odds a male passenger would make it into one of these boats were 1 in 5.91. The odds for a woman or child were four times higher—1 in 1.44 (69%).

Two of the collapsible lifeboats were never launched. If the remaining boats had been filled to capacity, 1,084 passengers (49%) could have been saved. But the crew was on its first sailing together and had not been properly drilled on the emergency procedures. Any passengers did not know where the lifeboats were, and some of those who did manage to make it to the upper decks were reluctant to leave a ship with watertight compartments and a steel hull for a tiny boat on the North Atlantic. There were enough life vests for everyone on board, but since hypothermia occurred quickly in the cold waters (survivors reported no voices after an hour and most froze within 15 minutes) they were useless for survival. In all, only approximately 705 people (32%) survived.

Captain Edward J. Smith went down with the ship. It was soon revealed that a friend who had crossed paths with Smith when he was captain of the sister ship Olympic, had queried the captain as to why there were so few lifeboats aboard the Titanic. Smith himself deplored the fact, and claimed to have gone to Belfast where the Titanic was being built to plead for additional boats. He was rebuffed, though not, he believed, because of the greed of White Star officials, but because they truly regarded their ships as virtually indestructible.

The hearings conducted by the United States Senate and the British Board of Trade exposed the depth of both the the tragic miscalculations and the lack of preparation.

  • With sixteen watertight compartments that could be closed off if the hull was punctured, White Star officials believed that the ship would take many hours, if not days, to sink. One official went further when news began to arrive from wireless reports of a collision. “We believe the boat is absolutely unsinkable, and although the hull may have sunk at the bow, we know she will remain afloat.”
  • The Titanic was equipped with wireless technology that would allow it to contact other ships on the heavily traveled ship route on which it traveled between Southampton and New York City. Help would soon be at hand.
  • British regulations had not been updated since 1898 and did not take into account the large numbers of passengers on modern ships. The number of lifeboats was based on tonnage, and in fact the Titanic carried two more boats than were required.
  • Since most shipwrecks happen during storms, it was not thought possible for the crew to launch more boats. Ironically, the Titanic sank into a calm sea.
  • Although there was room on the deck for 12 to 20 more boats, it was decided that would make the deck appear cluttered.

Within weeks of the disaster, Congress had ordered all ships docking in the United States to carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board. Compulsory drills were ordered as well. The one scheduled on the Titanic had been cancelled in favor of a church service, at which the following hymn had been sung:

Eternal Father strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave . . .

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!

The BBC has collected the stories of Titanic survivors.

For a look behind the numbers of the Titanic, click here, and also check out our gallery.

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