The Titanic would have survived had she hit the iceberg head-on

The idea that the Titanic would have survived her encounter with the iceberg if she had struck it head-on was first put forward in the weeks following the disaster.  Because she had been built with raised collision bulkheads in the bow, it was said, she flooding that would have resulted from such an impact would have been far less severe or extensive as that which actually resulted.  In fact, it was averred, the flooding would have been limited to the first three or four watertight compartments, and as the Titanic was designed to float indefinitely with all four of her forward watertight compartments open to the sea, she would have survived the collision with only a minimal loss of life.  It was only First Officer Murdoch’s “irresponsible” attempt to turn around the ‘berg, say those who promote this theory, that caused the fatal collision.

To be absolutely blunt and perfectly truthful, this whole idea is absurd. Not only would the Titanic have sunk had she hit the iceberg head-on, she would have sunk much more rapidly than she actually did–we’re talking in a matter of minutes, not hours. Imagine for a moment the kinetic energy that is generated by a 55,000 ton ship doing 22 knots when it hits a million ton iceberg, being instantaneously transferred to the hull and structure of the ship! The Titanic was built with two collision bulkheads forward–that is, her forward watertight bulkheads carried one deck higher than the eight central bulkheads. These were designed to allow the ship to survive ramming another vessel, as the SS Florida had done to the RMS Republic in January 1909. The  compartments formed by these bulkheads were analogous to the “crumple zones” designed into a modern automobile, that is they were designed to absorb the impact of striking another ship, whose own hull would be giving way during the collision, absorbing some of the energy of the impact, before the damage reached the ship’s vitals. Imagine two modern automobiles of roughly similar size, each going 25 miles an hour, colliding head-on, making their closing speed 50 miles an hour. You would have two cars that suffered approximately the same amount of damage–probably not drivable, but certainly survivable and repairable. That would be the Titanic ramming or being rammed by another ship. BUT in the case of the Titanic hitting the iceberg head-on, imagine that same automobile hitting a bridge abutment head-on at 50 miles an hour. What you would have then would be a pile of metal and plastic confetti and concrete pillar with a few chips in it.

The same dynamics would be at work with the Titanic vs. the iceberg. Had the Titanic had struck the berg bow-on, the ship would have stopped almost instantly: people in their beds would have been thrown around their cabins, while people on deck would have been tossed against bulkheads. Think of how many fatal injuries that would have generated.  And of course, there would have been hundreds of fatalities among the crew and the Third Class passengers–all of the former and half the latter were berthed in the bow.

As for damage to the ship, the shock of the impact would have traveled the length of the hull, causing the entire ship’s structure to flex, popping rivets and splitting seams just as occurred in the actual collision, but in this case along the entire length of the hull, opening up several more compartments to the sea. This is a scenario where the ship would have sunk in minutes, rather than hours. Not to mention the shock damage which would have shifted engines on their beds, ruptured steam lines, severed electrical cables and connections, and possibly caused distortion in the bulkheads that would have prevented the watertight doors from closing properly.  Meanwhile, the loss of  free surface area to the resultant flooding would have caused the ship to capsize less than an hour after the impact with the iceberg. When this idea (hitting the berg head-on) was first raised in 1912, Joseph Conrad (who held a Master’s ticket, remember!) summed it up best when he said, most sarcastically, “When in doubt, try to ram fairly.”

As for proof of this assertion, just in case anyone thinks that this idea is just as speculative as the idea that the ship could have survived a head-on collision, do the math.   Numbers don’t lie, they aren’t subject to interpretation or opinion.  (Thanks to Edwin Millar for these calculations.)   Working in SI units, calculating power generated by ship movement and using the figures I gave above, 55000 tonnes (note, I’m using metric tonnes, 2200lbs, not long tons, 2240 lbs) and velocity of 22 knots = …22 x 1850 (metres in a nautical mile) / 3600 (seconds in 1 hour) = 55,000,000Kg x 9.81 (newtons per kg) x 11.3 m per sec = 6096,915,000 watts, or 6096 Mw.

The force generated, assuming a dead stop, would be mass(Kg) x velocity(m/sec) x 9.81(grav force, newtons/kg)/ 9.81 (Newtons/kg), or 55000000 x 11.3 x 9.81/ 9.81 = 651,500,000 kg.= 651,500 tonnes.

By comparison, a 1 ton car travelling at 60 mph (96 km/hr) would be: 1000 kg x 9.81 (g) x (96 x 1000/3600) = 1000 x 9.81 x 26.6 = 261600 watts, or 261.6 Kw, and the force generated in coming to a dead stop would be 1000 kg x 26.6 m/sec = 26600 Kg, or 26.6 tonnes.

Quite a difference. Carbon steel has a maximum strength of 56,000 psi in tension and compression but a maximum shear strength of only 42,000 psi so the steel would have an shear strength of 800 bar (42000/15). If the steel was 1.875 (from
a 1 metre length could withstand a shear impact of 800 / 1 x 0.018 = 44444 newtons, = 4530 kg, or 4.53 tonnes.

As Millar so eloquently summed it up, “The hull would have been shredded with a head-on impact.”

Comments are closed.