This weekend, April 15 to be exact, marks the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Through books, movies, TV programs and even broadway shows, the tragic story of this historic event has been told and re-told countless times. Virtually everybody has heard of this famous shipwreck and the numerous stories and sub-plots associated with it.
What can we learn from a 100-year old shipwreck lying more than 12,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean? What does the story of the Titanic reveal that is relevant today?
The Titanic is, in many ways, one of the original “too big to fail” stories.
The ship was, in almost every way, the epitome of opulence and luxury. Its second class cabins, for example, were the equivalent of first class cabins on competitor ships and first class cabins were the equal of the best hotel accommodations on shore. Passengers were treated to world-class amenities, including gymnasiums, restaurants, social areas, squash courts and many others. It was a floating palace.
Structurally, the ship was designed with a double-hulled keel, 16 watertight compartments below decks, the largest steam whistles ever created by Man, and other features which made her “practically unsinkable”, as she was described by the White Star Line, her corporate owner.
Of course, this “practically unsinkable” ship was destined to sink on her very first voyage.
The story is legend.
After leaving Queenstown, Ireland on her maiden voyage to New York, the ship’s passengers enjoyed their time at sea. The White Star Line was pleased with the ship’s clientele, and was making certain that they enjoyed everything the ship had to offer. They were also trying to demonstrate the Titanic’s speed, somewhat against the captain’s desires. He was pressured to increase the speed of the ship to get to New York faster.
On the evening of April 14, after receiving reports of icebergs in the area, the captain retires for the night as the ship continues its voyage to New York. Close to midnight, the ship’s lookouts, who are not equipped with enough binoculars, spot an iceberg looming directly in front of the ship. 37 seconds later, the collision takes place. A mortal wound is inflicted on the ship. Titanic begins to sink.
Chaos ensues as frantic passengers scramble to board lifeboats. There are not enough lifeboats on board for all the passengers and many leave less than fully loaded. Much has been made of the lifeboat situation, but the fact is that Titanic was actually exceeding the legal requirements of the day by having more lifeboats on board than legally required…even though there weren’t enough for everybody on board. In all, 705 passengers survive and 1500 perish in the sinking. Most of the survivors come from the first class cabins while the majority of the casualties come from the second and third class cabins. White Star would later deny that any favoritism was shown in the loading of the lifeboats but the raw statistics tell a different story.
Even so, some of the world’s wealthiest and most famous personalities perish in the sinking.
There are numerous other stories to explore relating to this event. One interesting story has to do with the rivets used to hold the ship’s structure together. It is now known that inferior rivets were used in the bow section of the ship (rivets made of an inferior composite of materials as opposed to the standard iron rivets used at the time). These rivets have been shown to be incapable of holding the integrity of the ship under the pressure exerted by a collision with an iceberg. Many people now believe that the Achilles heel of the Titanic actually may have been the use of these rivets. Why were they used? The reason is that it was easier and faster to construct the ship using those rivets as opposed to the standard ones.
So what does the Titanic tell us after all?
Well, if the officers and owners of the Titanic had gotten many of their “Hows” right, perhaps the story would have had a different ending. If only the White Star Line had taken the approach of sparing no expense in the structural integrity of the ship, and in the safety provisions…just as they had spared no expense in the passenger amenities and accommodations, maybe a different outcome would have emerged. For example:
· If the lookouts had ample numbers of binoculars, could they have spotted the iceberg earlier and avoided collision?
· If the ship was moving at a slower speed, could the collision have been averted?
· If the owners had done the right thing, and not just the legal thing, and equipped the ship with the right number of lifeboats, could more people have been saved?
· If instead of being pragmatic and shaving costs by using inferior rivets they had exercised better principles and used the stronger rivets perhaps the mighty ship could have withstood the forces of the collision and remained afloat.
Hubris, instead of humility, was a big part of the Titanic story. Today we commemorate the sinking 100 years later, with the decaying hulk resting silently in 12,000 feet of water…bearing testimony to the dangers of unsustainable and unprincipled decisions.