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.”
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.”