Titanic Probabilities


Titanic Probabilities

The sinking of the RMS Titanic resulted from a most unlikely culmination of events which cascaded one upon the next, ultimately ending with the loss of 1,514 passengers (710 were saved) and crew, not to mention a newly launched ocean liner. The oversights and mistakes of Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, extended from well before the great ship was launched May 31, 1911 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to the time the ship’s band played Nearer My God to Thee, around 2:10 AM on April 15, 1912. Notwithstanding the adage of “women and children first,” only 56 of the 109 children survived.

Perhaps what sets the Titanic’s sinking apart from the thousands of others over the centuries is the astounding, indeed head-slapping mistakes that experts in their fields made, each one compounding the previous one in the critical path. Had any one of these critical mistakes (or in some cases, simply random events) not taken place, many hundreds of passengers and crew would have survived, and the Titanic as well.

Let’s consider the a priori probability of the litany of errors, oversights, and shortcuts, all of which are my own personal estimates. Use your own estimates just for curiosity.

Before he was given command of the Titanic on this, his final voyage before retirement, Captain Smith commanded the RMS Olympic, which on September 20, 1911, collided with the HMS Hawke, damaging one of Olympic’s three driveshafts. In the urgency of returning the Olympic to service, White Star Lines, its owner, scavenged one of the Titanic’s driveshafts to replace Olympic’s. The Titanic’s maiden voyage, scheduled for March 20, 1912, was thus delayed to April 10. Nobody could possibly have known that this separate collision between two other ships would be Event One in the critical path which would culminate with the sinking of the Titanic and the tragic loss of so many innocent people who were simply traveling to America…

My estimate of the probability of Captain Edward Smith causing the minor but critical collision of the RMS Olympic, one of only two ships in White Star Lines, which delays construction and the launch date of the other White Star Lines ship, the Titanic, which Smith will subsequently command, and sink through compound foolhardiness
1 in 10,000 .
(One of Titanic’s driveshafts was removed and installed in Olympic to get it promptly back into service)

Reduction of ship designer’s original bulkhead height (steel wall, sectioning off parts of the ship below decks in case of serious water leak) ordered by White Star Lines President Bruce Ismay, in order to enhance ballroom design and customer comforts, ultimately at the supreme expense of the safety of ship, passengers, and crew
1 in 20

(After considerable reflection, I think these probability estimates of bulkhead height and lifeboat number should be much smaller. They compromise the safety of the ship, which should be a far greater concern to the ship’s owner than beauty or comfort. Nevertheless, I will leave them at 1 in 20, when 1 in 100 now seems more reasonable to me.)

The reduction of the number of lifeboats from 46 originally proposed by the Rule of 19th April, 1910, to 16 lifeboats as ordered by Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of White Star Shipping, to save money and enhance passenger enjoyment had no bearing on the collision and sinking of Titanic, but it obviously had a profound effect on the number of fatalities.

Use of substandard #3 (instead of #4) cast iron rivets in curved forward section of Titanic, at a savings of mere pennies (The #3 rivets were 9% slag instead of the standard 2 - 3% slag in #4 rivets. This excess slag weakened the rivets, allowing the heads to pop off, and the plates to open up.)
1 in 10

According to documentation found in Harland & Wolf archives, plus some deep sea discoveries in both Titanic and its sister ship Britannic, it appears that J. Bruce Ismay ordered the builders of Titanic to use a thinner steel plate than originally specified. There was possibly likewise a conspiracy to cover up the fact that the Titanic broke apart at only 11 degrees rather than the 45 degree angle shown in the movie. This hastened the sinking by approximately two hours, a critical period of time that would have enabled the Carpathia to rescue hundreds of doomed passengers still on board.

Spontaneous combustion of coal in bunker six, from dust buildup, began during speed trials in Belfast ten days prior to the departure from Southampton.
1 in 500

The coal fire in Bunker #5 was not put out before Titanic left Belfast, seriously weakening the plates on the starboard side where the iceberg hit.
1 in 1000

A few days before Titanic set sail, Second Officer David Blair was replaced by Charles Lightoller, and in Blair’s haste to leave the Titanic, he forgot to hand the key to the binoculars locker to Lightoller for lookouts to use in the crow’s nest.
1 in 10

Final photograph of the Titanic afloat

Failure of Captain Smith to reduce speed from 21.5 knots (almost full speed) despite repeated warnings of icebergs (Smith was clearly eager to please his boss, Bruce Ismay, who wanted to set a record time for crossing the Atlantic)
1 in 10

Failure of Captain Smith to order crew to use tools and break into locker containing binoculars requested by ship’s lookouts, to enhance safer navigation of the ship at night
1 in 50

Insufficient moonlight to disclose iceberg dead ahead, struck at 11:40 PM, April 14
1 in 10

Calm seas reduced wave action around the base of the iceberg, making it much more difficult to see until it was too late
1 in 5

Titanic radioman Jack Phillips failed to forward last and most critical iceberg warning to ship’s bridge, as Californian had stopped dead in the water to avoid colliding with icebergs
1 in 50

Titanic radioman ordered Californian’s communications room to “Shut up, shut up” as they attempted to warn of dangerous icebergs nearby, just ten minutes before Titanic hit the iceberg
1 in 20

The Californian’s radio operator, Cyril Evans, shut his radio off at 11:30 PM after being told to “Shut up!” Therefore he could not receive the subsequent SOS calls nearby.
(Captain Stanley Lord, commanding the SS Californian, ordered the ship to a full stop for the night to avoid collision with an iceberg.)
1 in 20

Spotting of iceberg by lookouts in the crow’s nest was too late to avoid a collision, but early enough (37 seconds) to commence evasive maneuver which compounded damage beyond survivability - a 230 foot long tear in the Titanic’s hull, flooding six separate compartments (Four flooded would not have sunk her.) Had the lookouts been posted on the bow, forty feet lower, they may have seen the outline of the iceberg against the faint horizon sooner. The ship’s searchlight should have been lit to illuminate the path ahead, even though it was not standard procedure. It was, after all, a moonless night with no waves washing against ice floes.
1 in 10

Watch officer throwing all engines in reverse while ordering the helm hard a-port, robbing the rudder of the authority it had while running. (If instead he had reversed only the port engine, leaving the center and starboard engines in forward, or if he had reversed all engines while maintaining the original track, the Titanic might not have sustained fatal damage. A direct hit surely would not have flooded all six compartments.)
1 in 20

Inexcusable failure of Captain Edwards or any officers to oversee filling all 20 lifeboats, 4 of which were collapsible, to rated capacity, much less to some arbitrary but reasonable number over theoretical capacity (say ten more people) in view of the exceptionally calm seas
1 in 50

Failure of Captain Lord, of the SS Californian, twenty miles north, and in sight, to react immediately to distress flares reported to him by his crew (He didn’t even bother to summon his radioman to call the Titanic, and inquire if there was an emergency.)
1 in 50

The compound probability of all successive events multiplied together is one chance in 2.5 x 10 to the 25th power, or about one chance in 25 trillion trillion.

I did not set out with a goal of some particular probability of the Titanic sinking. I simply made my own reasonable estimate of each successive dependent factor. Make different estimates of your own if you wish. Using your own estimates will give you a better idea of how unlikely the entire series of events was.

Each of the above factors is arguably on the critical path to the sinking and incredible loss of life. The Titanic might well have survived the collision if not missed the iceberg entirely, or alternatively, all 1,514 passengers lost might have been saved through the elimination of just one of the foregoing events, each of which contributed to the catastrophe. It is noteworthy that there was, on average, 20 empty seats in each of the 20 lifeboats launched. Moreover, an average of 12 crewmen occupied each lifeboat, when only 2 were needed to operate it. Therefore the crewmen put their own lives and safety ahead of their passengers, for whom they were responsible.

[Note on the nature of estimating probabilities: I have had many discussions on the topic of estimating probabilities on the subject of the marvelous, profoundly improbable nature of life and the universe around us, and the obvious, pervasive hand of our Creator. Almost unfailingly, atheists make the absurd contention that if something happened, then the probability that it would happen was 1. (Because it happened.) The chance of you drawing the three of clubs randomly from a shuffled deck of cards is 1 in 52 before the event. Whether or not you actually did draw the three of clubs, the chances of drawing it were still 1 in 52. Estimating probability is how we measure uncertainty, or likelihood, for an event or an event series.]

I think there was a movie about this.

The movie was purely for entertainment and did not analyze the many errors and omissions of captain and crew. It did not propose reasonable methods of saving hundreds of innocent lives lost through utter negligence. Read the entire discussion on the website.

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Domino effect.

If you dig deep enough, the probability of every incident approaches zero. Yet, bad stuff happens.

I wonder when we’ll “get over” something that happened more than a century ago and start over-analyzing more modern accidents that have more relevance in today’s world.


No, the probability of every incident does NOT “approach zero.”
Not remotely.

You are welcome to “over-analyze” the modern accident of your heart’s desire. Nobody is stopping you. The several points I made were that arguably the world’s “best” passenger ship captain made one error after another after another, costing hundreds of lives.
Where has that been duplicated “in today’s world”?
And HOW, “in today’s world,” could that tragedy have been quite easily averted, as I proposed?

  1. Loading lifeboats to capacity plus 10 extra women and children
  2. Leave life jackets on ship to provide buoyancy underneath wooden rafts being constructed by hundreds of able bodied men, including tradesmen and crew
  3. Explore possibility of debarking some passengers to iceberg if possible, using tools and ropes. (Beats the heck out of going down with the ship.)

I agree. Roll back even some more, what are the probability that Capt White was made the captain? Or the chances that Capt White was even born? Chances of his parents meeting etc.

Old Salt Blog posted about this recently.

“The Titanic had a great many famous people on it,” she said. “This was just a family picnic.”*

Obviously you two do not understand statistics.
What is the probability that when we play cards, I will deal out five cards to every player? Why “it approaches zero if you dig deep enough.” No it doesn’t. If all probabilities approach zero, you two had best stay in bed all day.

This is looking at the issue with the eye of an aficionado, and not a professional mariner. I’m not denigrating your expertise or enthusiasm, but you haven’t been exposed to the rigidly codified world of 21st century commercial shipping. There are more than enough lifeboats aboard a modern passenger vessel. If you want to propose additional survival craft, then the only way to go are inflatable liferafts, which are to ad hoc constructed rafts as the space shuttle is to Wright flyer. Professional mariners go through a lot of survival training that was unheard of a 100 years ago, and that training too is codified.

RE; Debarking passengers to icebergs. To train mariners for a one in ten million possibility is a waste of time. If you have additional training time, you train to use the lifeboats at hand, which, again, are sufficient.

A key thing about the the Titanic disaster, which often gets missed when looking back through the telescope of a hundred years, is mindset. Nowadays a person’s life is reckoned in millions. In 1913, it was often in bus fare, and planning and preparation for emergencies was based accordingly. Life was cheap. While merchant marine officers back then possessed a totality of knowledge which exceeds the knowledge base of officers today, saving everyone aboard a sinking ship was not a major consideration for them.

The concept of lifeboats–boats designed and dedicated for the rapid debarkation of passengers and crew in an emergency–was a new idea, as things are measure in the hidebound maritime world. No more than a generation old. The officer training to use the boats, the decision making process, hadn’t caught up to the boats themselves. In the 10,000 years of sailing before that, if a ship sank, you made do with the launches and jolly-boats you had, and if people drowned, that was that. Pay your money, take your chances.

This is why the skipper went fast in the fog, and there weren’t enough boats. These decisions are unfathomable today, but back then a magnitude more risk was acceptable.


The probability of any single passenger ship sinking could be roughly calculated using the number of voyages and the number of sinkings.

Here is a list from Wikipedia.

is probably the most famous shipwreck, but not the but not the biggest in terms of lives lost. The wartime sinking of the German Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 in World War II by a Soviet Navy submarine, with an estimated loss of about 9,400 people, remains the deadliest maritime disaster ever. The 1987 loss of the Philippine ferry Doña Paz , with an estimated 4,386 dead, is the largest peacetime loss recorded. The Torrey Canyon oil spill The oil spill incident on 18th march 1967 on the coast of Cornwall’s seven stones Shoals is one of the greatest maritime disasters of all time.

Freighterman1, you miss point after point after point.

  1. You mention 20th Century standards. Titanic preceded these current standards, which were dramatically improved AS A RESULT of Titanic’s follies.
  2. Nobody said to train seamen on how to put passengers onto an iceberg. It was purely an act of let them go down with the ship or maybe save some lives by letting them stay out of the water until help arrives.
  3. One Japanese passenger jumped overboard with a wooden door. He was saved. Eureka. The Titanic went down with tons and tons of wooden doors, chairs, and tables.
  4. Another nearby ship I cited was at full stop, out of an abundance of caution. Who was stupider, all things considered, him or Captain Smith? I know the answer.

Why are you asking such an arcane question?

A detailed postmortem of the causes of the Titanic disaster bears as much relevancy to today’s merchant marine as the Hindenburg disaster does to recent Boeing crashes. Yes, you can draw important, broad parallels between the two mishaps, but the more granular you get with your questions, the more divorced from modern reality you become.

Your blogspot is handsomely done and interesting to read, but you are dealing with professional licensed mariners here. Are you posting to gain knowledge, or just to be argumentative? No one here ever posts just for the sake of arguing. (That last sentence was an example of irony. If you didn’t recognize that, you won’'t have much fun here).


Handsomely done and interesting to read. That is all I sought to do was provide some food for thought - something nobody else ever thought of that I have been able to find. I have no interest in gaining marine knowledge. I’ve been at sea on fishing boats for many weeks, underwater diving and spearfishing for many thousands of hours. The operations of commercial vessels are boring and of no use to me. I will teach you a creative trick I employed on the Island Princess, during a Caribbean cruise. I sent a note to the captain, offering to work 4 hours of hard labor, anywhere on the ship, in exchange for a tour of the engine room for my wife and me and two daughters. No word for the first few days of our cruise. But then a steward came to our room and said, “The Captain would like to see you on the Bridge.” First we had a wonderful tour of the bridge, like nobody else on the cruise enjoyed. Then we went to the engine room which was clean enough to eat off the floor. All white. Five cylinders could be seen through holes in the cylinders moving at 50 RPM. It was ghetto fabulous.

It is fun to have fun but you have to know how. - The Cat in the Hat

NOW do you understand what fun is? (Irony)

Then what are you doing on a site that’s almost entirely devoted to people who operate commercial vessels? And on that site, why post in a forum specifically labeled “Professional Mariner Forum”?

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One word…PFFT

Then what are you doing on a site that’s almost entirely devoted to people who operate commercial vessels? And on that site, why post in a forum specifically labeled “Professional Mariner Forum”? - dbeierl

How unfortunate that you cannot discern the quite obvious answers.

  1. Captain Edward Smith operated commercial vessels, did he not?
    One might THINK that a quite detailed analysis of his breathtaking incompetence would be of some interest to commercial vessel operators.

  2. At least ONE operator, freighterman1, found my analysis “handsomely done and interesting to read.” That’s good enough for me. How unfortunate that you got nothing out of it. Your loss, not mine.

  3. Just as your body needs exercise to remain strong and healthy, so too does your mind. This analysis is what I call Brain Candy. You and SeaEagle (“One word… PFFT”) would seem to be unappreciative, grumpy old men.

  4. Why don’t the both of you, dbeirerl and SeaEagle, offer up something you consider to be, in the words of freighterman1, “handsomely done and interesting to read,” or is that too much to ask?

“No one here ever posts just for the sake of arguing.” - freighterman1

dbeirel and SeaEagle did just that, argue, and criticize.

“If you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” - Wonder, the movie

I found your website interesting. I find your tone here pompous and egotistical. I don’t know whether you’re just a fish out of water, or an aficionado with a stick up your ass. Either way, look back at that definition of irony and see if you missed something.

I am in the wrong forum. I thought you people were mature, courteous,decent. My mistake. A bunch of grouchy old men,stuck in your sorry ways. No wonder your union goes for Joe Biden.
It was never about me. It was about an incompetent sea captain - supposedly the best in the world at the time. Now it’s about how you and your pals can argue and put someone down who came with good intentions which were savaged by the truly arrogant.

By defending myself, you find me “pompous and egotistical.” Perhaps you wanted someone to simply lay down and thank you for your hateful bile and condemnation. Not me. I don’t suffer fools gladly.

I had much more of interest to thoughtful people. That excludes the lot of you.

Those watertight doors weigh a lot. Don’t let it hit you on the way out.

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I rather hate to post on this forum and normally just take in the information at hand for what it is. This thread however has caused my blood to boil.

To the OP. You present (some) excellent facts and food for thought. Though I don’t know why you feel the need to argue your opinions so harshly here. This forum is filled with Professional Mariners that have been studying maritime disasters for their entire careers. We have read countless NTSB reports and maritime bulletins. So please don’t tell us that our profession is boring. When it indeed makes us giddy with excitement to be aboard a vessel.

Your comments on Captain Smith are unwanted here. The man didn’t reach the level of Captain at White Star Line because he was incompetent. Don’t try and make judgements about a professional if you don’t even know what it means to command a vessel. I’m sure there’s plenty of captains here that have had to deal with company orders they did not like and regretted following later on; using them as lessons learned. It’s unfortunate that white star pushed their captains for the deadline so harshly. They are in the business of making money.

Lastly your climb on the iceberg idea may be one the dumbest things I have ever heard regarding the titanic. If the vessel was traveling at a ballpark speed of 20kts when she hit it, how long do you think it took for the vessel to come to stop? Likely that iceberg was miles away in the dark.

Way to ruin a good thread by showing your true colors.