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Titanic Truth Revealed: Steering Blunder Sank Ship

For nearly 100 years the legendary story of the Titanic was this: The massive ship was going too fast in the darkened North Atlantic and the crew didn't see an approaching iceberg -- until it was too late.

But now a new book says that's not quite what happened.

According to the granddaughter of an officer on the ship, there was plenty of time to avoid the iceberg after it was spotted. But a simple steering mistake caused the ship to hit it. To make matters worse, if the ship had simply stopped instead of pressing on, the Titanic wouldn't have sank as quickly -- and those who perished may have been saved.

Lady Louise Patten says her grandfather, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, covered up the truth because he was worried it would bankrupt the liner's owners and put his colleagues out of job.

Lightoller told only his wife about what really happened. After he died a war hero, she didn't want to sully his reputation by telling the truth. Only the family knew. But Patten says now that everybody is dead, it is time for the truth to come out. 

"It just makes it seem all the more tragic," she said. "They could easily have avoided the iceberg if it wasn't for the blunder."

At the time of the 1912 disaster, the boating industry was going through enormous upheaval because of the conversion from sail to steam ships. The change meant there was two different steering systems and different commands attached to them.

Some of the Titanic crew were used to the old Tiller Orders associated with sailing ships, and some used the new Rudder Orders. Crucially, the two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another. So a command to turn "hard a starboard" meant turn the wheel right under the Tiller system and left under the Rudder.

According to Patten, when the First Officer spotted the iceberg two miles away, his "hard a starboard" order was misinterpreted by the Quartermaster. He turned the ship right instead of left, and even though he was almost immediately told to correct it, it was too late and the side of the starboard bow was ripped out by the iceberg.

"The steersman panicked and the real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg, which has never come to light before, is because he turned the wheel the wrong way," said Patten.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Patten said: 'Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’

Next, Patten said a decision was then made to continue sailing for another ten minutes. This added enormously to the pressure of water flooding through the damaged hull, forcing it up and over the watertight bulkheads, sinking Titanic many hours earlier than it otherwise would have done.

"The nearest ship was four hours away. Had she remained at ‘Stop’, it’s probable that Titanic would have floated until help arrived," Patten said.

So there you have it. Does that mean James Cameron will have to remake his epic film?


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