Friday, January 6, 2017

And The Ship Sailed On......

Obviously growing up on the Clydeside, boats and boat building are in my blood. Billy Connolly is telling the truth when he said that schools just opened their doors and the kids walked out of the classroom and into the shipyards. As I was growing up my mum and dad, all 3 uncles (and the aunties they were married on to) were all employed somewhere along the line of the building of the huge ships.

There were great stories about the houses never got any direct sunshine for a couple of years once the hull of the liners got beyond a certain height. These boats where monstrosities that cast huge shadows. The day after launch it was as if they had never been and the sun shone again ( well not  on the Clyde obviously !! It was probably less dark). Stories of boats being launched and their drag chains not being enough to hold them so the boat went diagonally across the river and rammed the bank on the other side. And the liner that will remain anonymous but managed to send a tsunami up river removing the 9th and the 10th hole of a local golf course from the face of the planet.
 So obviously my ears prick up when I see yet another program on why the RMS Titanic sank and normally ‘I say oh not again’ and how many more theories can there be. But this theory seemed to hold some water (which if you think about it, was exactly the problem the boat had).
 Journalist Senan Molony has spent most of his life researching the sinking of the unsinkable. He   was given a selection of previously ‘unknown’ photographs of the boat taken by a chief engineer before it left Belfast. They are a pictorial diary of her build and with the photographs being sequential, they could be digitised and animated into 3d images to show the complete structure of the ship in various stages. I was enchanted by this. The past came to life. I was imagining the welders, the sparks, the joiners, the noise, the smell.  
But the photographs also show the mysterious shadow, a mysterious shadow along her hull. At first it was thought to be some kind of reflection of the water. But the mark is still there in other pictures where the angle of daylight is different.  The mark was about 30 feet long, and on the right-hand side of the hull, near the front.  Near where the iceberg hit her.
The first thing the new team questioned was the quality of steel that appeared to be used in these pictures. It was adequate but not of premium quality. The difference between adequate and premium is how the molecular structure of steel behaves under extreme temperatures. At this point I was wondering how cold it could possibly get, I mean the temperature of the ocean does not change that much. It’s cold.  But I was missing the point.
The fearless researcher found that the shadow matched the site of the  second coal store, which was three stories high. And was on fire. Shocking.

 More shocking was the fact the Titanic sailed, while she was on fire.  The fire had already been burning for 10 days by the time she set off for New York.  The crew had been told not to say anything to the passengers.  It was a well known fact, well enough known to  be  discussed at the enquiry afterwards  but maybe not in too much detail as surely somebody might have pointed out that while  the temperature of the sea doesn’t vary enough  to alter the behaviour of steel, the temperature of  a fire burning  up in a three story furnace just might do it.
So as the song says ‘the ship sailed on.’ With a fire burning in her coal store.  So I was a bit shocked at that,  having had  drummed into me many a time that fire is a huge danger at sea – it also made sense that the only way to put the fire in the coal store out was to use the coal. So the boiler men simply shovelled the coal from the bunker into the  furnace as fast as possible.  As the ship sailed, the fire would die as the bunker emptied of fuel. And the faster the boat went the more coal she would use; the quicker the fire would burn out. But the Olympic class of ship was bigger than any other previously built.   Maybe the 12 firefighters on  board couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be, digging into the smouldering  base of a fire with three stories of coal above it.
And it was not an uncommon occurrence, these fires in coal stores. Coal dust can spontaneously combust. The fire would be a red hot smoulder rather than an inferno, but it could be easily over 1000 Cel at it’s core. Enough to warp and weaken steel.
                                                  most of this happened

In early 1912,  there had been coal strike and fuel was in short supply so the boat sailed with enough, but not much more than enough coal to get her to New York.  So they took a gamble that, as they had to use the fuel to get the fire out, they may as well go full speed ahead and ensure  they  would get to New York.  Even though they were told they were heading into an iceberg field, the chances of there being an actual impact  were remote. So they took the chance.

this did not happen

this did not happen either

 She was, of course considered unsinkable  due to the bulk head and the compartment system that meant any water ingress couldn’t go far enough to upset her balance, so as she was ‘unsinkable’ there was no need for her to have enough lifeboats for all the souls on board. She could creak onwards to her destination in New York even with a huge  hole in her hull.
 Yet as we all know, she sank very quickly.

At the time,   a firemen was interviewed and talked about the fires in the coal stores, plural. Had the fire caught on in the next store? And the wall between was warped and weaked? An eyewitness described them as red hot.
So when the iceberg penetrated the hull, the rush of water entered and  slapped right into a bulkhead of weakened steel… and  it gave way. The unsinkable was suddenly very vulnerable.
It’s not a new theory seemingly but it’s the first time I’ve heard it put together like that. It’s never one thing that causes huge disasters like this, but a perfect storm of many little components. For the want of a nail etc.
                                             (The Exhibition in Belfast. I believe you are given the name of a passenger when you go in and on the way out you find out if you survived or not.)

And greed, commercialism  had a huge part to play. The White Star Line was keen to get the boat out on time and had to be seen to be reliable, and Titanic had been delayed twice already. The company was nearly broke.  Ismay sent a telegram to recall all the firefighters on board to return home ASAP. Evidence at the enquiry was maybe not given the weight it should have had.

Something made that boat sink so quickly and it’s easy to be smug and think it would never happen to day. Until the Herald of Free Enterprise. The Concordia. The list is long. The Titanic might be the most famous, but she wasn’t the last.  

Caro Ramsay  06 01 2017


  1. Wow, what a story! I never heard anything about the fires or the shadowy photos. Not sure if that comes from growing up in coal and steel country where no ill could be taught about either product, the fact I never saw the movie, or just plain ignorance. By the way, I'm not calling for a vote on which explanation is likeliest true.

  2. I'd not heard about the fire either, until yesterday, when I read mention of it elsewhere. Great column, Caro.

    And no, Jeff, please DON'T call for a vote. On anything. As a matter of fact, please don't even MENTION 'vote.'

    The wounds are still oozing...

  3. Ultimately, it was all about money. Don't worry EvKa, things will be different after the revolution.

  4. I had heard stories about the substandard steel, which was brittle due to, from memory, a high sulphur content, but not about the fires, which explains quite a bit. Fascinating stuff, Caro, thanks!