Chris Cooper PhD

R.M.S. Titanic as a Metaphor for the Anxious

I have often wanted to put the illustration shown above in my office (perhaps a little better drawn). The illustration shows some of the numerous things that went wrong or errors which led to the disastrous sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. It seems that when an anxious person looks at such an illustration (or thinks of the Titanic as a metaphor) that person quickly concludes that life is very dangerous and that the situation described for the Titanic only proves that so many things can go wrong and such major disasters can happen! To a less anxious person, the illustration appears to demonstrate that disasters are very difficult to accomplish that few disasters ever occur because one mistake here or there on its own is not about to cause a major mishap.

There were lots of ships in the North Atlantic that night. Plenty of them had radios turned off or no radio at all. Probably all of them had too few life boats. And some, no doubt, had inexperienced or not terribly capable men on the bridge. In addition, there is the matter of the First Officer’s decision about how to handle the situation. He, first of all, went with his initial instinct to steer away from danger. But the results of the inquiry into the disaster warned that this instinct to turn away can be the worst solution, and that if the ship had hit the iceberg head-on she would not have sunk. To quote the most influential seamanship manual of the time: “… so far as other considerations of law and seamanship permit, any vessel in danger of collision…should present her stem to the danger rather than her broadside.” (1)

The evidence shown here provides support for the less-anxious position that it takes a convergence of many errors or bad circumstances to make a disaster, and that one can relax in life because such a convergence is highly unlikely.


1. The ship was rushed to its maiden voyage and underwent only brief (hours) sea trials.
2. No binoculars were put onboard for lookouts.
3. The moonless night was very dark and the sea very calm, making it harder to sight distant objects.
4. The shipping company, trying to set a trans- Atlantic record, ordered the ship go faster than weather conditions warranted (21.5 knots).
5. A warning about icebergs was not received by the Captain.
6. The Captain was asleep for the night.
7. There were too few lifeboats aboard.


8. The First Officer ordered her turned to starboard and then to port to swing her around the iceberg. There was no time for this complex maneuver. Hitting the iceberg head on would have been safer.
9. Engines were reversed (stopping the main, central propeller) allowing the momentum of the ship to carry her into the ice. Other solutions (either full ahead or reversing the port propeller only) would have used the ship’s power to turn.


10. Nearest ship had its radio turned off and could not hear distress signals.
11. When people realized the Titanic did need help, the closest ships were too far away.

(1) Knight’s Modern Seamanship (1910) quoted in W.C. Wade, The Titanic: End of a Dream. NY: Penguin, 1986.