The Titanic was the world’s largest ship and was considered unsinkable. On its maiden voyage in April 1911 it struck ice in the Atlantic Ocean and sank with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.
The world’s largest ship, Titanic, struck ice on its maiden voyage in April 1911. It was sailing in the North Atlantic heading for New York, but it was 370 miles from the Newfoundland coast when it sank.
Navigation at the time relied on ready reckoning and observation of the stars. Titanic’s distress signals allowed rescue ships to locate its rough position but the precise location was only discovered in 1985.
The shortest, and quickest, route to sail across the oceans is to use the ‘great circle’ – in effect a straight line drawn around the globe. For a transatlantic crossing between the southern tip of Ireland and New York, this route took ships into the icy northern Atlantic.
The most dangerous time for icebergs was in the spring when the Arctic ice began to break up and drift southwards. The risks were well known, and the route was known as ‘Iceberg Alley’.
Taking a more southerly route was considered a safer option but added considerably to the distance and the voyage time. This was not an option for the newest, largest, and fastest transatlantic liner.
The White Star Line, the owners of Titanic, wanted to impress people with the speed of its new liner. Although the northern route was riskier the Titanic had been described as unsinkable and so it set sail on the northern route.
The Titanic departed Queenstown at lunchtime on 11 April and set sail across the Atlantic. It had a trouble-free voyage until the night of 14 April, when it entered Iceberg Alley.
That year was one of the worst for icebergs, with more than four times as many being counted as the previous year. The Titanic’s crew were aware of the danger and lookouts were stationed to keep an eye out for them.
By the time the fateful iceberg was spotted, though, it was too late. The Titanic took evasive action but ended up scraping past it and tearing a massive gouge in the hull.
Water began pouring into the hull and the ship quickly began to sink.
Once the dire situation was realized the Titanic’s wireless operators began sending out distress calls in the hope that other ships in the area would come to their rescue. There was confusion about the ship’s actual position, though, and messages went out with different locations.
One of the first messages was: “Titanic sends C. Q. D. Requires assistance. Position 41° 44′ north, longitude 50° 24′ west. Come at once. Iceberg.” A later message read: “We have struck a berg. CQDOM (It’s a CQD old man). Position 41.46 N., 50.14 W.”
CQD was the precursor to the SOS distress signal and the difference between the two locations was about ten miles. The messages were picked up by the Cunard liner Carpathia that they decided to make for the second location.
In the end, neither position was accurate, and it was luck that Carpathia’s course took it close to the wreckage on its way to the wrong location.
Other ships in the area reported a variety of different locations where they had spotted wreckage or bodies. Reports of the accident began appearing in the newspapers and a variety of locations were given for the wreck.
The cable ship Mackay-Bennett was fitted out as a floating morgue and was sent out from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a mission to recover Titanic’s bodies. It initially headed for a location reported in the papers, but on its way met another ship which reported seeing wreckage 45 miles away from the reported position.
A number of missions were undertaken to try and locate the wreck of the Titanic in the 1970s and 1980s but the conflicting locations and the fact that the liner had continued to drift while sinking meant that an area of hundreds of miles needed to be explored.
The wreck was finally discovered by Robert Ballard in 1985. The hull had broken in two and the two pieces lay about 600m apart. The exact coordinates are now known to be 41°43′32″N 49°56′49″W, which is about 370 miles from the Newfoundland coast and about 70 miles from where the collision was first reported.