Did the moon doom the Titanic?

By: Nicholas Gerbis

Sinkable? Unthinkable

A side view of the Titanic's damaged compartments
A side view of the Titanic's damaged compartments
©HowStuffWorks 2008

The sinking of the Titanic rides high in maritime history and popular legend. The trouble is, people have anchored the event to such a bewildering array of causes that we need to un-muddy the icy waters a bit before we dive into them.

First, the Titanic wasn't taken out by a long, deep gouge.


By design, a quarter of the Titanic's 16 bulkheads could flood without the ship sinking, so a wound along its length seemed the only explanation for how the flooding overtopped that critical number. Like Cheerios, the Titanic was thought unsinkable.

In actuality, the ship sank because the iceberg caused its hull to buckle -- likely because it was held together with second-rate rivets -- creating six narrow openings in the side. Water gushed in, unevenly filling five forward compartments at a rate of 7 tons per second [sources: The New York Times; Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Ultimately, the uneven strain rent the behemoth in half, and down it went.

For those who prefer their causes more esoteric, it's curious to note the mixture of good luck and bad that attended the Titanic tragedy. Fortuitously timed business affairs kept J.P. Morgan, the White Star line's owner, away from the maiden voyage of its proudest achievement (Thomas Andrews, who oversaw the ship's design, wasn't so fortunate). Equally poor timing inspired Captain E. J. Smith to choose the prestigious Southampton, England, to New York run as his final career voyage. His choice brought ill luck to his passengers as well, since it was his decision not to reduce speed despite iceberg warnings that arguably doomed the ship [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

Unluckily, the Leyland liner Californian, steaming less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) away that night, had no radio operator on duty when the Titanic's distress signals came through, but confusion or poor judgment, not ill fortune, prompted the captain to ignore Titanic's distress rockets [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. What souls survived in the icy waters 1 hour and 20 minutes later no doubt blessed their fortune when the Cunard liner Carpathia -- which had received their distress call as a result of a fluke -- arrived to fish them out of the cold, dark water [source: Cottam].

Speaking of luck, the Titanic nearly began its maiden voyage with another collision -- this time, with the docked ship New York, which the giant liner's suction pulled into its path while setting out [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Would the collision have saved lives? And did the resulting delay cause the Titanic to occupy a different position than was scheduled, just when an iceberg lurked there as well?

As with any attempt to ascribe events to fate, we find ourselves foundering in ever-multiplying currents of causality. Before we abandon our present course, however, let's look at one last portent of ill fortune -- one with the power to exert tangible force: a bad moon rising.