Over the years, the much maligned and romanticised Captain Smith of the Titanic has posthumously come across as something of a casual, urbane chancer; a man whose breezy manner of doing things was the ultimate catalyst for the worst maritime disaster of the time. But was he really so blase about commanding the largest moving object on the face of the planet?
Smith was the senior captain of the White Star Line. As commodore, his £1200 a year salary was more than double that of his nearest rival. And no wonder; the socially adept and much admired Smith was considered the most popular skipper on the Atlantic, both by passengers and crew alike. He seems to have been one of those genuinely unique men that could forge bonds with people from across the world.
He was also famously in thrall to modern, twentieth century technology. In the summer of 1907, when he brought the then brand new, 24,000 ton Adriatic into Southampton to begin her maiden voyage, he said this to the assembled press;
“I cannot conceive of any vital accident that would cause this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that….”
But did subsequent events shake that complacent view? There is no record of how Smith reacted to the sinking of another White Star liner- the Republic- just two years after he made that fatuous pronouncement in Southampton. But it cannot have failed to have impacted on him.
It certainly impacted on the management at White Star, but not in a positive way; all of the passengers and crew of the slowly sinking Republic had been safely evacuated to other, nearby ships by the liner’s own lifeboats. And this fact prompted a seismic shift of perspective that would impact the Titanic and her captain just as fatally as the iceberg itself.
Post Republic, the management chose to look on lifeboats in general as ferry boats that would simply convey passengers from a sinking ship to rescue vessels, summoned by the miraculous new wireless telegraphy. They completely disavowed the notion that those same lifeboats might have to serve as survival craft in themselves for everybody on board. This complacent, delusional self satisfaction was at least partly responsible for the fatal dearth of lifeboats on the Titanic on that fateful night in April, 1912.
As for Smith, his triumphant ascent to command of the stunning new Olympic in June of 1911 seemed inevitable. Now he stood on the bridge of a ship twice as large as the Adriatic; in fact, a ship that was bigger than anything else ever seen. And trouble was not long in following.
As the Olympic attempted to dock at her New York pier for the first time, the surge created by her propellers sucked in a harbour tug like a bobbing cork, before the whirling blades neatly severed it at the stern. All told, it took eighteen tugs a full hour to dock the new ‘marvel’ at the end of an otherwise triumphant maiden crossing. Did this incident send any alarm bells ringing in Smith’s ivory tower?
Just three months later, the Olympic began her stately progress down Southampton Water at the start of another crossing to New York. Proceeding on a parallel course on her starboard side was a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke.
Somehow, the suction from the giant Olympic sucked in the relatively small cruiser, swinging her to starboard and instigating a collision that left the reeling cruiser’s bow resembling so much sodden cardboard.
As for the Olympic, the impact tore an eighty foot hole in her starboard side, right aft. By God’s good grace there were no casualties, but it did mean the abortion of the voyage, and a trip to Belfast for repairs that took a full six weeks.
At the time of the accident, Olympic was under the command of Captain Smith, though the local harbour pilot, George Bowyer, was in charge of handling the ship at the time. All the same this incident was by far the most serious that Smith had ever been involved in over his thirty seven year career. If that did not give him food for thought, it certainly should have done. Or did the fact that the Olympic survived with no loss of life merely deepen his faith in this new, more technologically advanced breed of super liner?
Whatever, the Olympic accident did nothing to dent White Star’s faith in it’s star commodore. April 1912 found him in command of the newer, slightly larger Titanic. Her sixteen day, round trip maiden voyage to New York and back was expected to be Smith’s last hurrah. Once done, he could look forward to a long, honourable retirement.
It all went pear shaped at the start. As the Titanic edged gingerly downstream from the White Star dock, the suction from her propellers pulled the smaller New York away from her pier. Mooring ropes on the old American liner snapped like cotton, and her stern swung out like a battering ram. Only the frantic action of stopping the engines on Titanic, and the perceptive intervention of a local tug, prevented a serious and embarrassing collision between the two ships.
Up on the bridge of the slowly proceeding Titanic, the same duo of Smith and Bowyer must have seen these events unfold with scarce concealed horror. It had almost been the Olympic and the Hawke all over again. And it did seem to have an impact on Smith.
That evening, after taking on more passengers at Cherbourg, Smith took the Titanic through a series of lazy ‘S’ turns. He continued this process all the way through the English Channel, and right up to the entrance to his last port of call at Queenstown, in Southern Ireland on the following lunch time.
What provoked this? It seems that this third mishap with an Olympic class liner in enclosed waters prompted some deep, residual concern in Smith. All three near disasters had occurred within the space of ten months, and all in plain sight of the self same captain.
In all, the speed and handling trials of the Olympic had lasted a scant two days. For the Titanic, they took up a mere eight hours. This, for the two biggest moving objects on the face of the planet; two ships that were expected to navigate both huge oceans and shallow, crowded waterways alike. Perhaps the truth of that had finally come home to Smith and, in making his series of lazy, meandering turns en route to Ireland, he was attempting to get a better sense of the intricacies of steering his awesome new command.
However, that concern seemed only to apply to enclosed waters. Once clear of Ireland and with only the open ocean in front of him, Smith reverted to a cavalier, increasingly upped rate of speed. Ultimately, he was doing exactly what he had done- and got away with- for thirty eight years. But this time, it would go horribly wrong.
The long odds finally caught up with this most highly regarded of captains just four nights later, when the Titanic ran pell mell into a vast, eighty mile region of floating ice. The rest is history. If only Smith’s belated concerns about sailing in harbour waters had extended to a more cautious approach to charging head long through ice filled waters, then things might have played out very differently on that starlit Sunday evening of April 14th, 1912.