Pressure to an unbearable degree

Paul Sparkes
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‘The rivets did not sink the Titanic. It was the ice!’

It would have taken a superhuman effort to do the right thing on the bridge of the Titanic that night. When one of the two young men up in the crow’s nest suddenly spied an iceberg dead ahead and rang the bell to alert the bridge, he called, simply, “iceberg, dead ahead” into the telegraph.

First Officer William Murdoch reacted quickly, ordering the engines stopped, then reversed, and the wheel to be thrown hard-a-starboard. The ship’s response would have seemed agonizingly slow in the circumstances. But it did turn to port.  

Had Titanic, facing the inevitable, stayed the course and slammed its nose into the ice, it would not have sunk.

Ian Jordaan says this without equivocation.

“You think she would not have sunk?” I asked the C-CORE scientist, expecting perhaps some qualification. But Jordaan was firm: “she would not have sunk.”

But what kind of person could see his ship closing in on a wall of ice and not try to avert a collision?

Jordaan agrees, saying “We were not there; how would we react in the circumstances?”

The choice was between slamming nose-on or veering away. The latter is human reaction, even if Murdoch knew something of icebergs and would know that veering away would expose Titanic’s long underbelly to the bigger base of the berg. He may have quickly realized that a direction change might compromise the ship’s watertight compartments.

Nose-on, the bow might have wrinkled, a single compartment may have been punctured, but surely not all of the watertight compartments running back the length of the hull.

Robert Ballard has written of the bow sitting upright on the seabed. It had plowed into the earth but by no means had it fully lost its integrity.


Start with the Titanic story

Ian Jordaan came to Canada from the United Kingdom in 1969, first to Calgary and then to St. John’s in 1986.

In Newfoundland and Labrador at the time, we were becoming serious about our offshore resource. Our production vessels would generally be FPSOs (floating production, storage and offloading vessels), with semi-submersibles in support operations. One thing we needed was ice expertise.

For the period 1986-1996, Jordaan was industrial research professor of ocean engineering at Memorial University. He has been involved in developing methodology for engineering design criteria, and in theory and risk analysis applied to engineering problems. He has acted as a consultant in studies which included design loads for the Confederation Bridge and studies for the Terra Nova design, the West Bonne Bay prospect, the White Rose project and the Hebron prospect.

Jordaan became a principal consultant to C-CORE in 2005, the same year he was elected a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. He is professor emeritus and university research professor at MUN.

Recently, he served on a panel advising the minister of Natural Resources Canada on science issues related to oil and gas activities offshore British Columbia. In 2011 he was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

“I  thought when I arrived here that if we are going to fully understand ice, we should start with the Titanic story,” he said, pointing out on his computer monitor the relative proximity of the Hebron site to the point where Titanic slipped to its doom.

He observed that with all the words written about the Titanic — the folly of racing across the Atlantic to establish a record for a new vessel, the alleged poor quality of Titanic’s steel — “after 100 years, they still don’t talk about the ice!”

This opened the door to conversation about the ship’s much-maligned rivets.

Fairly recently, another expert focused on the rivets used to hold Titanic’s steel together and decided they were the culprit.

Jordaan referred to the pride among riveters of the day when the ship was built. It was a trade critical to many construction projects. And he recalled that descendants of the riveters who had worked on Titanic were rightfully angered when  blame turned away from Capt. Edward Smith, or Bruce Ismay (the White Star Line CEO who was obsessed with making a quick and flawless crossing) and focused upon the rivets. To blame a rivet is to blame a riveter, for no well-trained, experienced riveter would use faulty materials any more than a finish carpenter would use warped wood.

“The rivets did not sink the Titanic,” Jordaan asserted. “It was the ice!”

He adds he’s not saying the popular analysis of the rivets is not correct, he is saying they are not to blame.

“She was not built to be an icebreaker,” he said.

The implication is that many observers have shown that they expect exactly those capabilities of the ship. After 100 years, they still don’t talk about the ice.


Ignorance or recklessness?

I asked Jordaan if old accounts of seafarers and explorers trying to anchor to icebergs and trying to board them and scale their peaks indicated an ignorance of the properties of ice or a reckless attitude. He leaned toward recklessness, suggesting that how ice acts should have been known to men familiar with sailing northern seas.

There was clearly a recklessness on Titanic’s bridge that fateful night. Science has made tremendous strides in the study of water and ice over the ensuing century, but what ice can do to a ship has been known only too well for centuries.

Most of us know that when we see an iceberg, we are looking at about a tenth of its mass. First Officer Murdoch may well have known that he was not just contending with what he could see ahead of the Titanic on that clear night. He may have known that what was not visible was infinitely more dangerous.


A fearsome phenomenon

Jordaan’s explanation of the global loading and the local loading properties of floating ice was intriguing. Yes, it is physics and the whole analysis is necessarily quantified and defined by mathematics, but even to the untrained mind, the picture comes together.

If you spread both arms and put your palms against the corners of a  table, you can push it away with little effort. We have created what might be referred to as an expanded area of force toward the object — global loading.

If you hold both thumbs together and apply them to one central point on the end of the table it takes a much greater effort to move the table away. The table seems to offer far more resistance and demands far more from you. That is local loading.

The hundreds of people aboard the Titanic did not feel a huge collision. There was, many would recall, a tremor. But as Jordaan says, “there was intense local loading at a point on the ship.”

His video used in public presentations (skilfully illustrated by artist Grant Boland) shows the facing portion of the ice which would have come in contact with the ship. Some ice would have been broken away immediately from the area of contact, but that area of contact is, when you get right down to it, a fearsome phenomenon.

“The pressure that was exerted here is way beyond what rivets could withstand,” says Jordaan. “The result was likely a series of slits over 12 square feet — the 300-foot gash cited at the inquiry held in London late in 1912 was almost certainly incorrect.”

“If we want to design rigs, these are some of the things we must know,” Jordaan said.


Weight of the iceberg

The swerving of the ship brought on “a sideswipe,” Jordaan said. And as harmless as that may sound to people accustomed to driving cars, it was a sideswipe with localized pressure that laughed at riveted steel.

Jordaan is unequivocal: “Capt. Edward Smith and Bruce Ismay (who was on board and who survived) “must take large shares of the blame.”

Look at it this way — the whole weight of that iceberg focused on a relatively small point of contact  between ice and steel.

As big and sophisticated as it was, Titanic raced into an environment where it became a poor player.

Titanic strutted and fretted its hour upon the stage … but the ship’s tale, full of sound and fury, is still being told.

Organizations: Canadian Academy of Engineering, MUN, Natural Resources Canada Royal Society of Canada

Geographic location: Hebron, Canada, United Kingdom Calgary Newfoundland and Labrador Terra Nova West Bonne Bay White Rose British Columbia Atlantic London

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