Titanic’s last hours a ‘nest of confusion’

A controversial new account of why ‘Titanic’ sank has been met with scepticism by experts, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

FROM THE moment it sank beneath the north Atlantic, on April 14th, 1912, Titanic has been the object of endless conspiracy theories. There have been claims that the ship sank because the iceberg wasn’t spotted in time, or because a fire was raging in the engine room.

Now a new and controversial account has emerged. Lady Louise Patten, the granddaughter of the most senior surviving officer on the Titanic , Charles Lightoller, claims that the ship had time to miss the iceberg – but the helmsman, Quartermaster Robert Hichens, panicked and turned in the wrong direction. According to Patten, this was down to confusion about the two steering systems in operation at the time: rudder orders for steamships, and tiller orders for sailing ships. “The two systems were the complete opposite of one another. So a command to turn ‘hard a’starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other.”

Apparently Hichens was trained under rudder orders, and when First Officer William Murdoch saw the iceberg and gave the order ‘hard a’starboard’ Hichens got mixed up and turned the liner straight into the course of the berg. By the time the mistake was corrected it was too late to stop the iceberg biting into Titanic ’s hull.

Patten also claims that the ship kept on sailing, despite the catastrophic damage, because the captain, Edward Smith, was pressurised to continue by Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line.

Had Titanic remained where she was, says Patten, it’s probable she would have stayed afloat until help arrived. Patten adds that her grandfather, Charles Lightoller, concealed all this information at the inquiries into the sinking of Titanic because of a deep-rooted loyalty to the liner’s owners.

Lady Patten never knew her grandfather – he died before she was born – but she says that the family secrets were passed down to her by her grandmother, in whom he had confided. So why has she chosen to reveal them now?

The shortest, most cynical answer is that they form the basis of her new romance novel, which is to be published next week. As for whether there is any weight to her claims, Titanic experts and enthusiasts are largely sceptical.

Kent Layton, a maritime historian, says confusion about the two steering systems was unlikely. “This was not something new in 1912, nor was it non-standard. Everyone would have known exactly how to operate the wheel in order to turn the ship in a certain way.”

Layton says that when First Officer Murdoch called for hard a’starboard he meant that he wanted to turn the bow of the ship to port. “This is exactly what was accomplished by Hichens, and the damage was done to the starboard [or right] side in consequence.”

He concedes that Lightoller may not have been entirely honest at the investigations. “It is not a secret that Lightoller stretched the truth or lied at the inquiries. This has been known for many years. He was considered a good company man, and had no wish to give any evidence that might even give the appearance of mistakes on the part of his employers.”

Nonetheless, Layton urges caution. “It is very dangerous to rely on evidence – second-hand, at that – from one individual when memories can be clouded by years of mental replaying of those events.”

The Belfast-based maritime specialist and Titanic author Michael McCaughan says what exactly happened on the bridge of the Titanic that fateful night remains a “rat’s nest of confusion”. But the fact that such stories still make headlines shows that, nearly a century on, Titanic has not lost its power to fascinate. “Patten’s story contributes to the continuing discussion of the mythic Titanic and the enduring cultural ripples of her loss.”


About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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