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Titanic anniversary: The myth of the unsinkable ship

(Copyright: Getty Images)

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Design and technology innovations may have revolutionised ship safety in the 100 years since the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage, but no-one will dare repeat the foolhardy boast

"There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers."
Phillip Franklin, White Star Line vice-president, 1912

Words that have gone down in history, for all the wrong reasons. At latitude 41° 43' 32" north, longitude 49° 56' 49" west, 370 miles (595 kilometres) southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2.5 miles (4 km) down lays the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The rust-coloured remains rest in two parts, the stern around 2,000 feet (600 metres) from the bow and facing in opposite directions.

The belated iceberg spot, a failed swerve, the lack of lifeboats and the loss of over 1,500 lives – roughly 70% of the ship's passengers and crew – the sinking of the largest and most luxurious ship built at the time has become immortalized in popular history, inspiring documentaries, television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters.

It also has become immortalized in shipping history. The ship’s maiden voyage that ended in tragedy on 14 April 1912 forced a huge rethink over design and features in a number of ways, many of which still exist today. As a result, ships are built better and safer than ever before – while the world commercial shipping fleet has trebled to over 100,000 vessels, shipping losses have decreased significantly from one ship in 100 per year in Titanic’s time to one ship in 670 per year, according to a report published last month by specialist marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.

But as the recent Costa Concordia incident showed, we are still a long way from fulfilling Franklin’s infamous boast. "The bottom line is no ship is unsinkable," says Tony Selman, vice chairman of the Radio Officers' Association. "No matter how safe a ship is, if you drive it full speed into a rock it is likely to sink.”

That said, Selman admits the chances of not getting into such a perilous scenario are “infinitesimally better than they were 100 years ago”. BBC Future outlines how these odds are being shifted continually in our favour, how designers, engineers and operators are working to safeguard against such a disaster happening again, and the barriers that still stand in their way.

Design flaws

Many of the structural changes made in response to the Titanic’s demise are still with us today. The ship sank within three hours because of the height of its bulkheads, the upright partitions positioned within the hull to stop any breaches from flooding the rest of the ship. Like ships before it, the Titanic's bulkheads did not reach the deck above, extending only 10 ft (3m) above the waterline. When it struck the iceberg, five of Titanic's 16 compartments breached, causing the bow to dip, which in turn forced water into the remaining compartments.

As a result, the Titanic’s builders Harland and Wolff extended the height of the bulkheads of the sister ships, HMHS Britannic and RMS Olympic, made them fireproof, and also fitted a second internal hull to make both more impact resistant. Ships’ bulkheads also became watertight on all sides by stretching from deck plate to deckhead (floor to ceiling).

Material impact

Unlike today’s sturdier ships, which are made by welding together prefabricated sections, ship hulls like the Titanic were constructed by reinforced steel plates held together like glue by millions of rivets. The reinforced steel used for the Titanic’s hull may have been the most advanced of its age, but metallurgical and mechanical tests showed that it was brittle at ice-water temperatures, and cast doubts about the quality of the rivets.

Modern forms of steel are more “impact-resistant”, and are around 10 times less brittle, as they contain higher levels of manganese, and lower levels of sulphur, oxygen and phosphorus. And alternatives to steel might one day be on the horizon. There is “a considerable volume of research at national and EU level” into other impact-resistant materials, according to Dracos Vassalos, professor of Maritime Safety at the University of Strathclyde.

Vassalos thinks that the long-term future of impact-resistant materials will most likely rely on engineering new compounds and structures at the atomic or molecular level – or “nanomaterials” as they are known – that possess special properties like high strength and low mass. In 2010, the US molecular engineering firm Xyvex Technologies unveiled the largest boat built from nano-enhanced materials – the Piranha USV, a 54 ft (16.4 m) vessel constructed from the first commercialised carbon fibre containing carbon nanotubes (Arovex). The company claims that the lightweight hull reduces fuel consumption (and therefore the amount of flammable fuel needed to be carried on a ship) by 75 %.

Technology upgrade

But how can you help ships steer clear of icebergs in the first place? The year after the Titanic’s disaster, the International Ice Patrol (IIP) was set up to monitor the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean around Newfoundland – Iceberg Alley as it is known. The IIP still sends out a daily “iceberg watch” bulletin, originally from a host of reconnaissance ships, but now from aerial patrols and radar. 

Ship crews from 100 years ago would struggle to recognise modern-day bridges, with the wealth of hi-tech equipment on display to help pinpoint locations and increase safety. The old compasses that found “magnetic north” have now been replaced by gyrocompasses that find “true north”, which has allowed autopilot to be introduced on ships. Radar and depth finders that use echo sounding are vital for anticipating and spotting hazards.

But arguably the most important navigational innovation has been Global Positioning System, or GPS. Satellite-positioning technology provides the fastest and most accurate method for navigating and pinpointing location, and is not weather dependent, unlike the old calculations based on Sextant measurements of planets and stars. The newest piece of kit found on the bridge is the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) – a naval form of Google Maps that incorporates GPS, radar and an automatic tracking system for ships called the Automatic Identification System (AIS). A mandate from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will come into effect this year, requiring many international commercial ships to use ECDIS.

As important, if not more so, have been improvements in communication. The Titanic carried radio equipment with a range of 200 miles, but the strength of its transmitter drowned out signals sent and received by vessels in close proximity. Nowadays, very high frequency radio allows ships to communicate with port authorities as well as other vessels nearby, and to broadcast safety information and distress calls. 

Even with all these modern technologies, mishaps still occur. Between 1980 and 2005, there were 57 incidents involving icebergs in northern hemisphere waters. "The risks really are as great now as they ever were," says Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge. Wadhams argues iceberg numbers are increasing and so are the number of ships, many of which lack state-of-the art technologies for economic reasons. "In Canada a lot of research has been done on radically improving ship's radar to improve ice detection, but they cost a lot and no-one is going to put them into service because you wouldn't need that complexity of radar for 99% of operations," he claims.

Wadhams, whose grandfather was chief engineer on the SS Mesaba, which sent ice reports to the Titanic, believes greater regulation is vital to future safety. Currently no laws prevent ships from ignoring the IIP and sailing through iceberg-infested waters. "There are discussions going on for an international polar code that would set actual regulations for ships operating in waters where ice is possible," he says. "This would dictate where they go, what they do and what safety equipment they have to carry, but that's still being discussed."

Safety first

The most chilling memory of the Titanic’s demise was its lack of lifeboats. The Board of Trade regulations required British vessels over 10,000 tons to carry 16 lifeboats with capacity for 50% of passengers and crew, and in fact the Titanic exceeded requirements by stocking 20 lifeboats, enough for 52% of the people on board.

This mistake was never repeated. Lifeboats must be provided for everyone (today’s ships also carry liferafts for a further 25% of people), regular lifeboat drills and inspections must be carried out and all passengers must have the evacuation procedure explained.

No maritime regulation has saved more lives. As a number of Titanic passengers in lifeboats died from hypothermia, lifeboats must now be fully or partially enclosed to better protect against the elements, and emergency immersion suits are now available for passengers.

However, lifeboats still have their shortcomings, says Markku Kajosaari, manager of concept development at the Arctech Helsinki Shipyard. “Think notably of the disaster of MS Estonia [in 1994], where lifeboats were almost no use [due to bad weather], or even the case of Costa Concordia, where they had remarkable difficulty launching the boats,” he says. “There remains clear demand for real innovation."

Some kind of back-up, or means to evacuate the vessel has to be provided. "The solution may be a further developed lifeboat with some kind of launching arrangement, an inflatable device or semi-inflatable,” says Kajosaari. “There have also been several proposals for various types of capsules or floating ship sections, but the real step forward is still to come."

Virtual approach

Over the last five decades, computer modelling and analysis has increasingly replaced the type of lengthy, laborious calculations used to design ships around the time of the Titanic. But the Concordia has highlighted a re-examination in the use of computer-aided design, the maritime trade union Nautilus International told New Scientist magazine. In an eerie echo of the Titanic, the ship shouldn’t have capsized as it did, listing at an angle too steep for lifeboats to be lowered from its port side, leading Nautilus to call for regulators to scrutinize current cruise ship design.

Vassalos says a huge challenge is to get countries around the world to adopt a common set of standards. "By law, no [computer simulations] are required!" he explains. "There is only one exception referred to as Stockholm Agreement, which applies only to Ro-Ro [cargo] passenger ships in the EU."

It is not an issue that looks like it will be solved anytime soon. Since the 1950s, many ship-owners have turned to open registries, called “Flags of Convenience”, which allow them to register their ship in a different sovereign state to their own. The benefits of doing so include tax incentives, the ability to hire non-national crews and the often more relaxed laws of the registered state. Today more than 40% of merchant ships worldwide are registered under Panamanian, Liberian and Marshallese flags, with Liberia overtaking the UK as the world's largest shipping registrar in 1968.

Human factor

As the Costa Concordia also showed, all the design, safety and regulation changes in the world are useless when confronted with basic human error. Concordia deviated from its regularly navigated route for the thrill of passing the Italian island Isola del Giglio at close proximity. Like the Titanic, where Captain Edward Smith was encouraged to arrive in New York at day ahead of schedule, despite six ice warnings, the Concordia incident involved ignoring warning signs provided by the technology of its day.

“The Costa Concordia committed the most egregious of maritime sins by steaming into shoal water with seemingly little or no concern for the risks involved," argues retired US Navy Captain John Kunert. "Why? The answer, I submit, lies deep within the human conditions of hubris, ego and arrogance. Each of these elements, when taken individually, are fatal flaws unto themselves."

These are far from being isolated incidents. The greatest loss of life at sea during peacetime came from a collision between the MV Dona Paz and the oil tanker Vector in 1987, which killed 4,341. Only one apprentice crew member was monitoring the bridge, other officers were allegedly drinking beer and watching television, while the captain was watching a movie. The cruise ship MTS Oceanos sunk in storms off South Africa in 1991 after setting sail with a 10cm hole in a watertight bulkhead, loose hull plates and check valves stripped for repair. Then there is the Exxon Valdez which hit the Prince William Sound's reef with the captain accused of drinking and the tanker's radar reported broken for over a year.

"The human element is known to cause in excess of 80% of ship casualties," says Captain Peter Holloway, managing director of London Offshore Consultants Ltd. And yet crew undergo far less assessment in areas like psychological tests then an airline pilot would. "The main bulk of training is on-the-job and a number of tests and exams leading to the master's certificate," says Vassalos. "Operational monitoring and decision support is only embryonic in ships whilst a crucial part in aviation."

This may change in light of the recent events surrounding the Costa Concordia. The International Maritime Organization has said it will consider tightening the rules for overriding of onboard safety warning systems and examine power within the chain of command. It has yet to announce its findings.

According to the official transcripts of the US Senate investigation into the Titanic, 1,517 lives perished in a wholly avoidable collision. The good news is that the disaster revolutionised shipping safety, the bad news is that there still is a long way to go. We might have seen a host of increasingly sophisticated innovations and safety features over the past one hundred years, but one thing is certain: no-one would dare repeat Franklin's foolhardy boast.

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