We all know the story. It’s more than a hundred years later and we’re still talking about it. She was known as the world’s biggest and most luxurious ocean liner, crippled on her maiden voyage, claiming the lives of more than 1500 people and changed the rules of sea travel forever.

Today, we had the privilege to visit the Titanic Centre in Belfast, the very spot where the Titanic was built. We spent a few hours at this amazing exhibition, just soaking up the story – from how the growth of the textile and tobacco industries in the late 1800s helped fund the project, all the way to how the world reacted after the accident and the measures that were put in place to stop such a disaster from happening again.

Allow me to share some of the things we’ve learnt today.

Let’s start with the construction:

The Titanic was one of three Olympic-Class ocean liners built by Harland and Wolff, a heavy industrial company specialising in shipbuilding. The three ships – the RMS Titanic, the RMS Olympic and the HMHS Britannic – were built for the British shipping company, White Star Line. Back in the early 1900s, these ships were by far the biggest in their fleet and their construction started to make headlines around the world.

On 29 July 1908, Harland and Wolff presented the drawings to the White Star Line executives who approved the design two days later, authorising the start of construction. At this point, the first ship – which was later to become Olympic – had no name, but was referred to as “Number 400”, as it was Harland and Wolff’s four hundredth ship to be constructed. The Titanic was based on a revised version of the same design and was given the name “Number 401”.

During construction, Harland and Wolff employed mainly freelance workers which meant that thousands of men had to queue at the yard each morning around 6am, hoping to get a job for the day as only 3000 men were allowed to work during each shift. The weekly wage was just £2 and workers were expected to work 6 days a week, covering 10 to 14-hour shifts with only 7 minutes available for bathroom breaks. Construction started in March 1909, the ship was launched in May 1911 and fully completed in April 1912.

 

Sea trials:

Most people tend to think that Titanic had only one journey, the journey on which she sank, but actually, this is not true. On the morning of 2 April 1912, shortly after 6am, Titanic started her trials which involved doing a number of difficult manoeuvres on the open sea. The trials were completed at 8pm and she immediately set sail from Belfast in Northern Ireland, to England. Shortly after midnight on 4 April 1912, Titanic arrived in Southampton.

The maiden voyage:

Another fun fact (at least for me it was) was about her last port of departure. I was always under the impression that the Titanic sailed from Southampton straight to New York, but this too is not true. After arriving in Southampton on 4 April 1912, Titanic spent a total of 6 days in the harbour before leaving at midday on the 10th, heading to Cherbourg in France, carrying first class and second class passengers.

A few hours later, Titanic departed from Cherbourg, making her way to the Republic of Ireland. On the morning of 11 April 1912, she made her final stop in Cork before departing around noon on her cross-Atlantic journey to New York. Even though Cork was the last stop before the accident, many still argue that the maiden voyage started the moment she left port in Southampton.

The final hours:

Just after sunrise on 14 April 1912, the Titanic received a message from the Caronia stating that they have spotted icebergs in an area around a day’s sailing away from the Titanic. The captain was handed the telegram with the warning but cancelled the first lifeboat drill that was scheduled for that morning without explanation. Around noon, Titanic received a second telegram warning of icebergs in the area ahead from the steamship Baltic.

Just before 6pm, the Titanic changed her course from south-west to due west. This was originally planned to occur earlier in the afternoon but was delayed to allow Titanic to travel further south in an attempt to avoid the iceberg region reported earlier. At 9pm, the captain checked in one final time with the bridge before heading to his cabin for the night. Outside, temperatures dropped to 0.5’C and the moonless and windless conditions made spotting icebergs extremely difficult. Around 10pm, the bridge received another warning from the SS Mesaba warning of a great number of icebergs just a few miles ahead of the Titanic. The message did not contain the prefix MSG which would have stated that the telegram is for the captain’s urgent attention, therefore, the bridge discarded the message without informing the captain.

At 11pm, Titanic received one final message from the Californian saying they’ve stopped sailing for the evening due to the ice, but the crew on the Titanic, desperate to complete all of the passenger telegrams, replied  “Shut up! I am busy. I am working Cape Race”.  Only 39 minutes later, the bridge received an emergency call from the lookouts informing them of an iceberg right ahead. The amount of time from the first sighting of the iceberg to the impact on Titanic’s starboard bow was just 30 seconds.

According to survivor accounts, many passengers slept through the moment when Titanic struck the iceberg whilst many others believed the ship survived the collision. The Titanic was uniquely designed to allow up to 4 of its compartments to flood without any risk of sinking, but the collision with the iceberg ruptured the side of the ship, causing 6 compartments to flood.

In the early morning hours of 15 April 1912, Titanic started to sink. The captain demanded that an emergency request for assistance be broadcast to all ships within range. However, the nearest ship, the Californian, has turned off her wireless equipment for the evening after receiving Titanic’s rude response earlier that evening. Tragically, the ship was a mere 20 miles away and could have reached Titanic easily before she sank.

Originally, the Titanic was designed to carry 64 lifeboats with a total number of seats well over the ships maximum capacity of 3547 people, but the designer of the Titanic later reduced the number to 48 lifeboats to make the decks look less cluttered. Sadly, when Titanic left Europe on her Maiden Voyage she only had 20 lifeboats onboard, a number far too few for the 1317 passengers and 906 crew members. Shocking fact – this was completely legal as the law at that time based the number of lifeboats required on the gross register tonnage of a ship and not her passenger capacity.

An hour after the Titanic struck the iceberg, the first lifeboat was launched on the starboard side with only 28 of a possible 65 people onboard. With not enough lifeboats available to save all the passengers, the crew started firing up the first of eight emergency distress flares. The Carpathia replied to Titanic’s distress signal, saying they were on their way to help but was about 60 miles out and would take them 4 hours to get there. The crew managed to successfully launch 18 of the lifeboats, saving the lives of just 706 people, less than a third of the people onboard. With water close to freezing temperature, unconsciousness was likely to occur within the first 15 minutes and hypothermia and death within 15 to 45 minutes. Shortly after 2am, the Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, claiming the lives of 1517 people. A ship that took almost 3 years to construct, was lost at sea in just under 3 hours.

At 4am, the Carpathia arrived in the area and started plucking survivors from the lifeboats. One survivor claimed they could count 19 icebergs in the area during the hours following the sinking. An hour and a half later, the Frankfurt also arrived to assist with the rescue. The Carpathia arrived in New York 3 days later, on 18 April, where Carpathia’s own passengers and the survivors disembarked.

White Star Line chartered 4 ships to retrieve the bodies of the victims. After a few days at sea, a total of 337 bodies were recovered. The Titanic found her final resting place on the ocean floor at a depth of 3.8km and it took investigators 73 years to find her wreck (in 1985). The full investigation of Titanic answered many questions of what happened to her on that cold April night, but hearing eyewitness accounts at the Museum today, looking at the timeline of events and seeing some of the evidence recovered, it’s clear that some parts of her story remain a mystery.

 

A seriously freaky fact:

In 1898, an author called Morgan Robertson published the novel “Futility” where a fictional ocean liner called the “Titan” sinks in the North Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg. Just 14 years later, that fiction turned into reality for the Titanic. (goosebumps?)

Why the fuss?

So why was the Titanic such a big deal? Many ships have sunk before 1912 and many ships have sunk after, so why the fuss? To understand the gravity of the situation requires a bit of imagination.

In today’s world, we are used to beautiful, massive machinery, like the A380 aircraft that easily flies across the Atlantic in just a few hours. But back in the early 1900s, life was very different. There were no nuclear-powered ships like we have today, the Titanic was powered by steam engines that burnt over 800 tonnes of coal each day just to keep moving. The captain and his crew also did not have the technology we have today to detect weather patterns, communicate or help them navigate. For anyone living in the 21st century, this is completely unthinkable.

But the main reason why Titanic grabbed the world’s attention was the fact that she was the biggest moveable man-made object of her day. She was the result of engineering and design brilliance, representing our greatest achievement as human beings. She also offered the best, most luxurious way to travel and with her brand new design and built-in safety features, engineers were comfortable to label her as “unsinkable”.

Whilst many accept the events of 15 April 1912 as a tragedy, one journalist described it as “an incident where man thought he was more powerful than God himself, but was humbled very quickly by a force far more superior than he”.

The world will always remember Titanic.