Matsen (Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss, 2005, etc.) provides an intriguing postmortem of design-safety compromises on the “Ship of Dreams.”
The author’s point of entry into the story is the diving team of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, stars of the TV series Deep Sea Detectives. They wanted to resolve why the mighty ship sank only two-and-a-half hours after hitting an iceberg on April 15, 1912. By contrast, sister ship Olympic had survived and made it to port after colliding with a Royal Navy cruiser in 1911 and sustaining damage so severe it took six weeks to repair. In 2005, Chatterton and Kohler descended to the wreck in two Russian submersibles and, with the help of a maritime forensics analyst and an imaging technician, pieced together what happened to Titanic. It had grounded on the iceberg, not just sideswiped it, thereby scraping the bottom of its hull and opening an additional fatal hole. When not discussing the dive’s planning, execution and analysis of its findings, Matsen focuses on the crucial decisions made during Titanic’s construction by three men: chief designer Thomas Andrews, who went down with his ship; White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay; and Lord William Pirrie, head of the Belfast shipbuilding firm Harland and Wolff. Heeding Ismay’s insistence that they reduce costs and space, Andrews reluctantly used the Board of Trade’s specifications for the amount of steel in the hull and the number of lifeboats required, rather than the additional quantities of each that he deemed safe for a ship of this size. A dive into the wreck of the Britannic, which sunk after striking a German mine in 1916, strongly suggested that Pirrie and Ismay, knowing Titanic’s expansion joints were weak, sought to bolster them on its companion vessel. The divers ultimately concluded that Titanic’s designer, builder and owner “had sent a ship to sea not knowing if it was strong enough to survive.”
Wholly engrossing narrative of a crowning example of catastrophic hubris.