Did a Steering Error Sink the Titanic?

In Good as Gold, a new book by Louise Patten, the granddaughter of the most senior surviving officer on the Titanic, reveals a long hidden family secret. She claims that an error in steering on the bridge of the Titanic led to the collision with the iceberg.  According to Ms. Patten, the ship had plenty of time to miss the iceberg, but the helmsman turned wheel the wrong way in a moment of confusion.   She also says a subsequent order to steam slow ahead rather than stopping the ship, given by the owner Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, may have dramatically accelerated the flooding and markedly reduced the time the Titanic remained afloat.  

According to Ms. Patten, her grandfather, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, lied in the official inquiry of the sinking and did not report either the error in steering or the order by Ismay in the belief that it would drive the company out business and his friends and colleagues would lose their jobs.  She says that what really happened in the few moments before and just after the Titanic struck the iceberg has remained a family secret for the last ninety eight years.

Oddly, rather than a memoir or non-fiction account of the sinking, these claims appear in Ms. Patten’s latest novel, Good as Gold.   It is a fascinating revision of accepted history, however it is told. Nevertheless, with no disrespect intended to Ms Patten’s family’s connection to the Titanic tragedy, as part of the plot in a thriller, one wonders where the fiction begins and ends.

The truth about the sinking of the Titanic

As a teenager in the 1960s, Patten was let in on a secret by her beloved grandmother, which, if revealed, she was warned, would result in two things. The first was awful – it would destroy the good name of her dead grandfather, Charles Lightoller, awarded the DSC with Bar in the First World War, and a hero again for his part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. But the second would change history, overturning the authorised version of one of the world’s greatest disasters, the sinking of the Titanic with the loss of 1517 lives in April 1912.

‘My grandfather was the Second Officer on the Titanic,’ Patten explains. ‘He was in his cabin when it struck the iceberg. Afterwards, he refused a direct order to go in a lifeboat, but by a fluke he was saved.’

Astonishingly, he jumped into the ocean as the boat sank, was being sucked down into the depths – but was then carried back to the surface by the force of an explosion beneath the waves and was rescued by a passing lifeboat.

As the senior surviving officer, he was asked at both official inquiries into the sinking [by the US Senate and the British Board of Trade] whether he had had any conversation after the collision with the Captain or the First Officer, William Murdoch, who had been in charge at the time. In other words, did he know exactly what had happened? And both times he said no. But he was lying.’

What then did he know that he wasn’t telling? ‘After the collision,’ Patten goes on, ‘my grandfather went down with the Captain and Murdoch to Murdoch’s cabin to get the firearms in case there were riots when loading the lifeboats. That is when they told him what had happened. Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg, once it had been spotted dead ahead, the steersman, Robert Hitchins, had panicked and turned it the wrong way.’ …

‘Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’

‘Titanic had hit the iceberg at her most vulnerable point,’ explains Patten, ‘but she could probably, my grandfather estimated, have gone on floating for a long time. But Ismay went up on the bridge and didn’t want his massive investment to sit in the middle of the Atlantic either sinking slowly, or being tugged in to port. Not great publicity! So he told the Captain to go Slow Ahead. Titanic was meant to be unsinkable.’ …

‘If Titanic had stood still,’ she demonstrates, ‘she would have survived at least until the rescue ship came and no one need have died, but when they drove her ‘Slow Ahead’, the pressure of the sea coming through her damaged hull forced the water over the bulkheads and flooded sequentially one watertight compartment after another – and that was why she sank so fast.’ …

This is the sort of tale that most writers would have tackled years ago, and treated as a non-fiction, best of all a memoir. So why work it in to a novel? ‘Because I write thrillers,’ Patten replies crisply, and makes me think what an effective chairman of the board she must be. ‘I started planning a thriller about a family with secrets, about a private banking dynasty involved with shipping, and then I suddenly thought I have this massive family secret myself and it is about shipping.’

Thanks to Dave Shirlaw on the Marine History list for passing the article along.

This entry was posted in Current, History, Lore of the Sea, Newbooks, Seastories and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Did a Steering Error Sink the Titanic?

  1. ALLEN HOADLEY says:

    Sylvia was my fathers first cousin, she came back to Australia a number of times and lived with us for extended periods and discussed Herberts life and experiences in great detail with our families.
    Sylvia was very close to my mother and at no time did she hint that there may be any secrets re The Titanic sinking.
    She discussed the book Herbert had written but was prevented from publishing it by Marconi because he made reference to faults in the radio equipment on the Titanic.
    The revelations seem a bit far fetched but may sell a lot of books

  2. Good lord is this never going to end! First we have the desecration of an ocean grave for hundreds of people, now once again there is the steering discussion. Having written about this myself in the past one should note that helm orders were given in a different format at that time. They were changed as a result of this and other incidents of confusion. Projected book sales have caused ‘facts’ to be adjusted for the selling of them. Rather dishonourable behaviour.
    Good Watch.

  3. Rick says:

    Steering errors do happen even without “tiller” vs “rudder” orders sort of confusion. The old Farrell ship the Africa Neptune back in 1972 took out the Sidney Lanier highway bridge when the pilot ordered 20 degrees left, the helmsman repeated 20 degrees left and steered 20 right. By the time they caught the mistake, the ship had hit the bridge killing ten people.

    So, the first part of the tale could be plausible. I am less convinced about the second part. Whether or not “slow ahead” vs “stop” really would have changed the speed of the flooding significantly is not clear, at least not to me.

    The real problem is the delivery of the story in a thriller. Where does the fiction end and the facts begin?

  4. In my haste to comment, before my morning coffee, I forgot to mention that Mr. Hitchins the Quartermaster had never been trained in ‘Rudder Orders’ since they did not exist. They were not introduced until the 1930’s. When I came to sea as Cadet in 1953 there was an elderly AB named David Hodge who explained the two systems to me. He explained why the helm orders were given as ‘Tiller Orders’ prior to the 1930’s. He also taught me to keep an eye on the magnetic compass when steering by Gyro compass as it was more sensitive and I could avoid oversteering. We had no auto-pilot in our ships so all Officers knew how it steer if needed, unlike many today!! This ‘Orders’ data is easily found on the Internet and is an example of improper research in nautical books. Rather like those helicopters in the 1800’s Rick mentioned in a previous Post.
    Good Watch.

  5. Dennis R Burns says:


  6. Good lord again! Mr. Burns is really upset with an all capitals/upper case comment including even his phone number. Once again, the Quartermaster responds to the Watchofficer’s order starboard or port. Under ’tiller orders’ the OOW would have given him the order ‘hard-a-starboard’ the quartermaster would have done just that with the OOW watching him and the vessel would turn to port that is the left. Mr. Burns I did this for 50 years from 1953 to 2003 as a helmsman, OOW, and Master. The ship did indeed turn to port but too late and was sliced open along its starboard side. The bunker fire added a secondary effect to the already doomed ship. The lifeboat remark was I thought a little unkind, after all none of us was there that night – thankfully.
    Good Watch.

  7. Steven Toby says:

    In the recent (maybe 10 years back) “Marine Technology” article by Bill Garzke, the rate of flooding in the first half hour after the collision was calculated from evidence given at the contemporary inquiry. The equivalent total area of the “hole” was surprisingly small — so small that I, a hydrodynamics specialist of some 30 years’ seniority, am certain the difference between being stopped and going ahead slowly would not have mattered. In fact, had the engines been kept at “Slow Ahead” for another 30 minutes the ship might have been able to get close enough to the “Californian,” stopped 10 miles away, to have brought her to the rescue. I think the new book is a lurid and unhelpful addition to the already extensive Titanic literature. Whether Mr. Lightoller believed in this myth isn’t important — many disaster survivors develop rationales for how things could have been done better. The book is a publicity stunt.

    It was a combination of things that caused the Titanic disaster — starting with a hitch in the supply process that failed to issue any binoculars to the lookouts, defective rivets, poorly thought out design and equipment standards that allowed double riveted seams instead of triple in primary structural elements, lifeboat requirements that had no conception that ships would ever be bigger than 10,000 tons, and finally a poor reaction to the emergency when the iceberg was detected. In a triple screw ship, putting the engines astern causes a separation bubble to enshroud the rudder, making steering ineffective. Whether the helm went over the wrong way for a few seconds would have made no difference whatsoever in the outcome.

    I wasn’t aware of what year rudder orders replaced tiller orders, but the timeline cited by Capt. Boucher seems conclusive — there can have been no confusion in 1912 because rudder orders weren’t yet in use.

    And contrary to what Mr. Burns said, Titanic had a top speed on trials of something short of 24 knots — nowhere near 30. She was going 22.5 at the time the iceberg was sighted. You can find this on page 1 of “A Night to Remember”.

    I suspect Louise Patten’s research is about as good as Mr. Burns’s. I’ll pass on reading “Good as Gold.”

  8. victoria says:

    I hope this isn’t true, its heartbreaking, it doesnt make any sense that sitting there would have kept it a float any longer than moving, hell maybe they shouldve been going faster so they could have caught the “California”. And 4 mins on a boat that size, also doesnt make sense. The book will probably sell like crazy, the life boat remark was uncalled for

  9. Rick says:

    A very interesting and spirited discussion. There seems to be three points of interest here:

    1. Could the helmsman have made a mistake in which way he turned the wheel? As Captain Boucher points out the issue of Tiller vs Rudder Orders was probably not a factor. Nevertheless, helmsmen do make such mistakes as was the case with the African Neptune in 1972, when there was no question which way the wheel should have been turned.

    2. I agree with Steven Toby that the speed of flooding was probably not significantly changed by the order to steam ‘Slow Ahead.’

    3. Is Ms. Patten revealing a long held family secret or is she doing what fiction writers do – making stuff up? I tend to lean toward the latter explanation.

    For Ms. Patten’s tale to be true her grandfather, as well as Hitchens, the helmsmen, would have to have lied to the official inquiry. Her grandfather was not even on the bridge when any of this took place, so his information was at best second hand. He had been relieved by Mr. Murdoch, the First Officer, two hours before the collision. If a steering mistake was made he did not observe it. Immediately following the collision he may or may not have heard statements about a steering error, but all sorts of things can be said following a serious accident. (On 9/11 when I was standing across the river from the burning towers, I heard a construction worker holding a transistor radio claim that he had just heard that the attack was by Libyan fighter planes. Wild claims under stress are not unusual.)

    The second part of Ms. Patten’s claim that the order of “Slow Ahead” doomed the ship, seems even more doubtful. This sounds very much like the neat and pat explanation that the writer of a thriller would come up with.

  10. A final word on World Maritime Day, let us please remember all those lost at sea, be they crew, passengers, or others aboard. Mr. Toby’s explanation is most useful and I appreciate his gracious remark. Mr. Burns is also allowed to express his opinions which are no less important than ours, a view quite different from a seafarers. And ‘victoria’ your comment rather sums up things nicely. Rick thank you for your patience in allowing all of us to express our views in your outstanding nautical Blog. It is great that we live in a country that allows free expression by everyone, it serves as a reminder of the importance of keeping it that way in diffucult times.

    Good Watch.

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  12. Eric says:

    Might it have been better to turn away from the Californian and then proceed slow astern to close that 10 mile distance? While the effect of moving forward may have been neglible on the rate of flooding, moving astern would have eased the pressure. That and opening the watertight doors to allow her to flood evenly, which may have given her more time afloat.

  13. GFI says:

    i have read this and very helpfull information

  14. Pat Byrnes says:

    Somewhere, I vaguely recall a question being raised about the adequacy of Titanic’s rudder for effective steering (even in normal forward motion). Does this ring a bell with anyone?

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  16. Norman says:

    It never fails to amuse me just how much nonsense gets produced every time the loss of the Titanic gets discussed. As usual the old chestnut about trying to set a record is here. The Titanic was not designed to do so and would have been quite incapable of beating some of the faster ships already plying the Atlantic. Top speed of the Titanic was 23 knots: Mauretania had averaged 26 knots in 1909! The Titanic was about luxury, not speed.
    The comment about the rudder is correct, it had been established that the ship was hard to steer at slow speeds and her later sister ship was built with a larger rudder. The real steering issue in respect of the wreck was the use of the engines. Titanic was built after large warships like the Dreadnought class battleships were turbine driven, but turbines could not be reversed. They were however good in terms of power to weight ratio and fuel efficiency. Titanic’s steam plant consisted of two giant piston engines driving the port and starboard propellers and a turbine driven by their exhaust steam driving the centre propeller (and actually developing more shaft horsepower than either of the piston engines). When the iceberg was sighted the ship was steered to port, the port engine was put astern, but crucially the turbine, which could not be reversed, was stopped. Had it been kept running the rudder might have been much more effective at turning the ship away from the iceberg. We must however temper the suggestion that it would have prevented the tragedy with the recent example of the Costa Concordia, where a full rudder applicatiopn and power appear to have combined to force the sern towards the rocks, as evidenced by the gash in the hull aft and the fact that the forward stabiliser was not hit.

  17. Alan Hill says:

    So, was the interface between TITANIC’s helm and rudder old ’tiller” sailing vessel oriented or more modern steering. If the movie is correct turning the helm to port after a command “hard to starboard” would have been correct if the old tiller link existed but if the helm was turned to port after the same command and the steering was modern, not “tiller” it would have been a mistake. What was the steering of TITANIC, tiller oriented or modern? In 1912 I would have imagined modern. If so that would leave open a helmsman mistake. Thoughts on the steering linkage only please. Thanks. Alan Hill 😉

  18. Rick Spilman says:

    To my understanding the steering linkage was effectively the same as on modern ships (notwithstanding that modern gear tend to be hydraulic and the Titanic’s was steam.) What was different was the command. Until around the 1930s, “Tiller Orders” were still in use. And explanation from Wikipedia:

    When large steamships appeared in the late 19th century with telemotors hydraulically connecting the wheel on the bridge to the steering gear at the stern, the practice continued.[3][4] However the helmsman was now no longer directly controlling the tiller, and the ship’s wheel was simply turned in the desired direction (turn the wheel to port and the ship will go to port). Tiller Orders remained however: although many maritime nations had abandoned the convention by the end of the 19th century, Britain retained it until 1933[5] and the U.S. merchant marine until 1935.[3] One of the reasons for this system continuing, apart from it being a long-established maritime tradition, was that it provided consistency—regardless of whether a vessel was steered directly by the tiller or remotely by a wheel every vessel had a tiller of some sort and so a tiller order remained true for any vessel. During the transition period the wording of the order was changed, to specify “Wheel to starboard” or “Wheel to port”.[6]

    A well-known and often-depicted example occurred on the RMS Titanic in 1912 just before she collided with an iceberg. When the iceberg appeared directly in front of the ship, her officer-of-the-watch, First Officer William Murdoch, decided to attempt to clear the berg by swinging the ship to its port side. He ordered ‘Hard-a-Starboard’, which was a Tiller Order directing the helmsman to turn the wheel to port (anti-clockwise) as far as it would go. The Titanic’s steering gear then pushed the tiller toward the starboard side of the ship, swinging the rudder over to port and causing the vessel to turn to port. These actions are faithfully portrayed in the 1997 film of the disaster. Although frequently described as an error, it is correct.[7][8]

    Although this system seems confusing and contradictory today, to generations of sailors trained on sailing vessels with tiller steering it seemed perfectly logical and was understood by all seafarers. Only when new generations of sailors trained on ships with wheel-and-tiller steering came into the industry was the system replaced.

  19. Paul Winder says:

    Im sorry but too many elements dont add up in this alleged Murdoch/Lightoller confession. While its possible that an inital incorrect hand movement on Hitchins part could have happened surely he would never had got to be hard over without intervention from another officer and, less likely, even lf he had managed to get to steer hard over in the wrong direction, do you not think (albeit reluctantly) Murdoch or anyone else would have remained committed to this accidental course, rather than lose time turning the wheel back again? Worse still, if the incorrect direction was still in effect for the collision, the actual order given must have been “Hard to Port” – surely somewhere along the line this little fact would have slipped out accidentally ? Im sorry but at worst I could imagine Murdoch grumbling to Lightoller that Hitchins had started to turn the wrong way but I dont think it would have changed the outcome much.

  20. Palmer says:

    The writer’s logic, on the face of this account of it, is unsalvageable. She is said to claim that the iceberg was dead ahead. If this were true, what difference would it make which way the ship tried to turn?

    Actually, the author may have put a more sophisticated case, that the helm was altered to swing the heading to port, while the engines were given the opposite settings. This would be likely to yaw the vessel gently but result in minimal cross-track or lateral displacement. The worst possible presentation to the berg, in terms of the maximum damage to the highest number of compartments.

    Not having read the book – and not being likely to – I hope this is the basis of her claim, in which case it’s a plausible scenario.

    It is perhaps a shame the attempt was made to turn at all. If the ship’s reciprocating engines had both been reversed, the turbine shut down, and she had hit bows-on, it seems entirely possible that, despite little diminution of her forward speed, damage might have been limited to a single compartment, which would not greatly have affected the trim. This might well have allowed the ship to proceed unaided towards land. At least one other ship had already survived such an encounter at speed and performed a self-salvage.

  21. Chris Wolcott says:

    I saw a show on Discovery not so long ago (June 2012?) that said the Titanic was a well built ship, and actually survived longer after the collision than the builder had estimated. According to the show, the reason the iceberg was not sighted sooner was due to the air temperature gradient between where the Titanic was (warmer water) and where the iceberg was (Labrador Current – Freezing) which created a mirage effect that effectively hid the iceberg until the ship had gotten too close to avoid it. The effect also explains why the Californian did not recognize the Titanic, as its image would have been distorted. It is even possible the Californian was farther away from Titanic than suggested, and what each ship saw was a reflection of the other, similar to the mirage that hid the iceberg from view.

  22. Peter Wright says:

    I saw a teeshirt in Belfast in the centenary year proclaiming

    “It was alright when it left here.”

    No doubt the warranty terms were purchaser to return to base.

  23. Edmond Dantes says:

    A ship if its engines are stopped and then reversed loses valuable steering way if it has to engage in a turn. Had the Titanic turned either to Port or Starboard while steaming Full Ahead she would have turned at a much faster rate and possibly avoided striking the iceberg altogether. Murdoch`s order to Stop Engines and then Full Astern doomed the Titanic.

    Of course as many observers stated she should have been making for the Other ship ( Californian ) either bow on or stern on. She should have been blowing her ship’s whistle like crazy , continuously with short blasts.
    To hell with Rockets . Rockets may not be seen or or confused as to their meaning BUT a ship’s emergency signals from its whistle CAN not be mistaken. The ship’s whistle easily carries for 5 or more nautical miles.

    I understand the ship’s whistle was not continuously blown so the orders of the officers engaged in lowering the lifeboats could be heard. What a Mistake!!!!

    All seamen worth their salt either today or in 1912 are totally attuned to hearing a Ship’s Whistle whether it be their own ship or another ship’s whistle. Emergency blasts of a ship’s whistle no matter how faint will awaken sleeping seamen immediately and the Californian did have a watch keeping officer and seamen in her wheelhouse.

    I have 35 years seagoing experience 25 years as Chief Engineer I can vouch for my above statements. Edmond Dantes

  24. Karen Buckley says:

    I have learned a lot from your excellent comments. Thank you.

  25. Scott Ramsay says:

    Chris Wolcott’s comment is correct. In that Discovery program, the shipping records and logs of the time were thoroughly researched, and experiments were conducted in those waters in the present time (where the currents meet). Whether or not there were steering errors, it seems extremely likely that the researcher’s theory pertained. That there was an inversion layer in the atmosphere that obscured or shifted upwards the bottom part of the horizon. That was combined with the fact that it was a completely clear night with a flat almost glassy sea- making it almost impossible for the lookouts to discern where the horizon started.
    As commented, the Californian saw the Titanic, but because of the inversion layer, mis-identified it, couldn’t interpret it’s morse (light) signals, and thought it was much farther away than it actually was.

    Also, I’m not sure, but I disagree with a lot of the comments, as far as it seems like steaming forward would drive more water into the hull, no matter how big the openings were. Someone needs to do a simulation or test.

  26. Did a Steering Error Sink the Titanic? nice topic .It was a combination of things that caused the Titanic disaster. Titanic had hit the iceberg at her most vulnerable point.