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This is one of the most famous and tragic tourism disasters and, though it happened almost 100 years ago, it still provides salutary lessons for tourism security, compliance and risk management today.

The White Star Line was a leading shipping service operator in the trans Atlantic route between Southampton and New York. Carrying a combination of tourists, immigrants and cargo the trade had grown enormously and competition was fierce with the rival Cunard line which had faster ships capable of a speed of 26 knots. To better compete with Cunard, the White Star Line embarked on a plan to establish a weekly service with three enormous ships the Titanic, Titanic and Gigantic to be built using state of the art design and technology. While slower at 21 knots these ships would be capable of carrying more cargo and passengers and would offset a speed disadvantage by providing all passengers with more comfortable accommodations and facilities and first class passengers with voluminous accommodations and breathtaking luxury the like of which was only found at a few of the best 5 star hotels in the world.

The second in the fleet, the Titanic, was then the largest passenger ship ever built at 46,239 gross registered tons, 852.5 feet long, 92.5 feet wide, 26 storeys high and capable of carrying 3,547 passengers and crew. In fact she was the largest moving thing on earth. On 14 April 1912, four days into her maiden voyage, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank taking with her 1517 passengers and crew. It was also eventually the end for the White Star Line. No other disaster has so captured and held the public’s imagination which is rekindled periodically by events such as the discovery of the wreck in 1985 and the release of the movie Titanic in 1997. There is a vast literature on the subject – popular, technical, judicial and academic description and analysis.

The Titanic illustrates a number of the key issues and principles involved in tourism security, risk management and compliance.

  • Risk. Although it was well known that icebergs broke off in summer and sometimes drifted into the shipping lanes it was presumed that they could be spotted by lookouts and avoided. Passenger shipping was regarded as the safest means of transport as there had only been four lives lost in the previous 40 years of Atlantic crossings. Was the risk natural or man-made? In the light of all the circumstances it was clearly more of the latter.

  • Compliance. From the outset there were insufficient lifeboats to save all those on board and this became the pivotal point and most horrific aspect of the disaster. The Board of Trade prescribed the minimum number and size of lifeboats legally required for different sizes and classes of vessels under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. As an “emigrant steamship” of “10,000 tons and upwards” the Titanic was required to have a minimum of 16 lifeboats under davits which would be sufficient to carry 962 persons compared with her approved capacity of 3,547 persons. When the regulations were set the largest vessels of that class were the rival Cunard Line’s Campania and Lucania which were each 12,952 tons. Despite a question in parliament shortly before the launch of her sister ship the Olympic on the adequacy of these minimum requirements, no changes had been made. In legal vernacular this was a loophole. The Titanic was originally designed with two rows of lifeboats providing space for all but the inner row was removed as it became clear it would not be required by law and would provide more space on deck. She was certified safe by the Board of Trade and went to sea with 16 lifeboats plus four other boats providing space for 1178 persons. Unfortunately, given the chaos, misunderstanding and mismanagement in the final hours, only 711 passengers and crew made it into a lifeboat. Was the lifeboat capacity a public sector or private sector responsibility? Clearly it was a combination of both.

  • Risk management. The literature reveals a litany of mistakes and missed opportunities which all contributed to the disaster.

    o Pre collision. The Captain had ordered the vessel increase speed to 22 knots through the night despite the fact that it was iceberg season – and there had been warnings. He had diverted course slightly further south to reduce the risk. He had also instructed the lookouts in the crows nest to watch out for icebergs which indicates an awareness of the risk but not an effective appreciation of his responsibilities. Then he had gone to bed. Unfortunately the lookouts were without binoculars which had been left ashore by mistake. And the sea was very calm so there would be no tell tale wave action around icebergs to make them easier to see. The ship had the latest radio communication technology but it was not integrated into ship’s systems – the two operators were not even crew or within the chain of command and there were no procedures for delivering or dealing with radio communications. They received six separate iceberg warnings but only one was passed on to the bridge. The most telling warning at 11.00pm from the nearby Californian that it was stopped surrounded by icebergs was not passed on – in fact the Titanic operator told the Californian to keep off the air as he was trying to send passenger telegrams. At 11.40pm the crows nest reported to the bridge that an iceberg lay dead ahead. The helmsman ordered full speed astern and tried to turn away but the Titanic scraped past opening up the first six compartments below the waterline. Unfortunately, the Titanic was designed to withstand damage to only four. And the bulkheads, designed to divide the ship into 16 separate so called “watertight” compartments extended up only a few feet above the waterline so that if the vessel was not horizontal, water from a damaged compartment would overflow into the next and so on.
    o Post collision. The Captain awakened and he ordered that the watertight compartments be closed and that the ship was stopped. The engineers assessed the damage and advised that because of the damage and the design the vessel would sink within one to two hours. The Captain ordered that the lifeboats be uncovered and provisioned knowing there was space for only half those on board. The radio operators were instructed to send the CQD (Come Quickly, Distress) message but at the Californian, the only vessel within rescue distance, the radio operator had gone to bed after being told by the Titanic operator at 11.00pm to stay off the air. But the Captain did not fully inform and instruct his senior officers on the facts. For the first hour the majority of people on the Titanic including senior crew, were not aware there was insufficient lifeboat capacity or even that the ship would sink. They clung to the myth of that the Titanic was invincible and unsinkable. So most passengers remained inside out of the cold and lifeboats were lowered half empty. Only when the bow began to submerge and the stern began to rise did the enormity of the disaster begin to hit home. Neither the crew nor the passengers had any training or drilling in handling the situation. Some behaved valiantly, many behaved badly. “Women and children first” became “every man for himself” and the records showing the relative survival rates of the different groups on board speak a great deal for themselves (1st class 61%, 2nd class 41%, 3rd class 25%, crew 32%). Tragically, 467 (40%) of lifeboat spaces went unfilled. The Captain did the honorable thing at the end and chose to stay with the others 1,516 who went down with the ship.

  • Recovery. The Titanic carried some of the wealthiest and most prestigious people of the times on its maiden and only voyage. It also carried the family, friends, hopes and dreams of thousands from all classes and continents to an untimely doom. In the extensive litigation which followed under the outdated and inadequate compensation law, the shipowners successfully limited their liability to US$91,805.54, the value of the salvaged lifeboats plus outstanding fares whereas death claims alone were US$22 million.

The only redeeming legacies of the disaster have been the changes wrought in policy, law and practice on risk management at sea. These include:

  • Upgrade of lifeboat requirements
  • Upgrade of ships safety design, standards and procedures
  • Implementation of ice patrol
  • Mandatory 24 hour radio communication regulations and procedures
  • Mandatory duty on ships in area to assist and rescue
  • Regular review and upgrade or standards, regulations and procedures
  • Review of compensation limits under relevant conventions
  • Eventual formation of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the adoption of a comprehensive regulatory framework under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Fortunately there has been nothing of the like at sea since and no doubt these changes have contributed to this result. However the system was put to the test when the Russian cruise liner the Mikhail Lermontov struck rocks and sank off New Zealand in 1986 with 740 passengers and crew on board. All were rescued except for one Russian engineer who is believed to have drowned in the accident. Personal injuries were not extensive and most compensation claims were for loss of enjoyment. The courts found attempted contractual limitations and exclusions of liability unenforceable. The vessel was sailing under a New Zealand pilot (the local harbourmaster) when the vessel struck the rocks and a subsequent enquiry heard evidence of serious failures in safety equipment and procedures after the accident. It seems more a case of good luck rather than good management that this crisis did not turn into a disaster.

C Trevor Atherton 2008

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