Titanic Crash: Pilot Error?

Ken AshfordHistoryLeave a Comment


The granddaughter of an officer aboard the ill-fated Titanic reveals that the ship's helmsman turned the vessel toward the iceberg instead of away because of a confusion over steering orders that applied differently to steam ship and sailing ships.

Novelist Louise Patten, granddaughter of Titanic's Second Officer Charles Lightoller, says orders that applied to one steering system meant the exact opposite on the other type of vessel. 

The command to turn "hard a-starboard," for example, meant to turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other, she writes in her new novel Good as Gold, the BBC reports. 

The helmsman aboard the Titanic's 1912 maiden voyage that night was used to the archaic Tiller Orders system, she says, and responded to his orders by turning into the iceberg instead of away.

Some 1,500 people died in the tragedy.

She says her grandfather took part in a dramatic final meeting of the four senior officers in which he learned of the fatal mistake, but that it was withheld deliberately even from an official inquiry.

"It was made clear to him by those at the top that, if the company were found to be negligent, it would be bankrupted and every job would be lost," Patten says.

He only told one person, her grandmother, who eventually shared the family secret with Patten.

I suppose it is possible, although one must keep in mind that the person bringing this to light is a novelist who is plugging her new book.

Secondly, it seems unlikely that someone who survived the sinking would not have recalled that the ship went port, rather than starboard, especially if the turn was a "hard" one.

But mainly, I doubt the allegation because… well, the novelist is plaing wrong.  Let me give a bit of background and explanation.

There's already a bit of confusion about the "hard o'starboard" call.  "Starboard" means "right" and (if any of you recall The Titanic movie), the ship needed to go left (or port) to avoid the berg.  So many have claimed that the movie was historically inaccurate.

But the "hard o'starboard" call of the movie (and real life) was the accurate call.  It's because in the old days, ships — including the Titanic – operated under what is known as the Tiller Order system.  Think of the tiller on a small boat: in order to turn the boat to port, you move the tiller to starboard. And vice versa.

On ships back then, the command is "helm hard to starboard" (the "helm" being the actual steering mechanism) which has the result of turning the ship port (to the left).  That was the order given in both the movie and real life.

The novelist here is claiming that Titanic helmsman "was used to the archaic" Tiller Order system.  But as I've said, the Titanic — indeed all ships at the time — used the Tiller Order system.  The convention wasn't changed until the 1930's — nearly two decades after the Titanic sinking.

UPDATE:  The Guardian gives a contradictory story.  It says that the helmsman was used to the (then) new steering system — known as the Rudder System (which mean you turn the wheel starboard to go starboard), not the Tiller System (as claimed by the USA Today story above):

The man at the wheel, Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, was trained under rudder orders – but tiller orders were still in use in the north Atlantic. So when First Officer William Murdoch first spotted the iceberg and gave a 'hard a-starboard' order, a panicked Hitchins turned the liner into the course of the iceberg.

"The real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg is because he turned the wheel the wrong way," said Patten. By the time the error had been corrected, two minutes had been lost. Nothing could stop the iceberg breaching the hull.

That at least makes more sense.  

But I still doubt the story, and the Guardian errs caution as well:

There is a caveat to the revelations. Patten, the wife of former Tory education secretary Lord (John) Patten and a woman well known in the City, whose CV includes non-executive board membership at Marks & Spencer, is making them known because they are a part of the storyline of her novel out next week.

Pictured below — what's left of the Titanic's steering wheel.  It ain't tellin'.