British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry


Account of Ship's Journey across the Atlantic/Messages Received/Disaster
Route Followed

The "Titanic" left Southampton on Wednesday, 10th April, and, after calling at Cherbourg, proceeded to Queenstown, from which port she sailed on the afternoon of Thursday, 11th April, following what was at that time the accepted outward-bound route for mail steamers from the Fastnet Light, off the southwest coast of Ireland, to the Nantucket Shoat light vessel, off the coast of the United States. It is desirable here to explain that it has been, since 1899, the practice, by common agreement between the great North Atlantic steamship companies, to follow lane routes, to be used by their ships at the different seasons of the year. Speaking generally, it may be said that the selection of these routes has hitherto been based on the importance of avoiding as much as possible the areas where fog and ice are prevalent at certain seasons, without thereby unduly lengthen lengthening the passage across the Atlantic; and also with the view of keeping the tracks of "outward" and "homeward" bound mail steamers well clear of one another. A further advantage is that, in case of a breakdown, vessels are likely to receive timely assistance from other vessels following the same route. The decisions arrived at by the steamship companies referred to above have, from time to time, been communicated to the Hydrographic Office, and the routes have there been marked on the North Atlantic route chart, printed and published by the Admiralty; and they have also been embodied in the Sailing Directions.

Before the "Titanic" disaster the accepted mail steamers outward track between January 15th and August 14th followed the arc of a great circle between the Fastnet Light and a point in latitude 42° N. and 47° W. (sometimes termed the "turning point"), and from thence by Rhumb Line so as to pass just south of the Nantucket Shoal light vessel, and from this point on to New York. This track, usually called the Outward Southern Track, was that followed by the "Titanic" on her journey.

An examination of the North Atlantic route chart shows that this track passes about 25 miles south (that is outside) of the edge of the area marked "field ice between March and July," but from 100 to 300 miles to the northward (that is inside) of the dotted line on the chart marked, "Icebergs have been seen within this line in April, May and June."

That is to say, assuming the areas indicated to be based on the experience of many years, this track might be taken as passing clear of field ice under the usual conditions of that time of year, but well inside the area in which icebergs might be seen.

It is instructive here to remark that had the "turning point" been in long 45° W. and lat. 38° N., that is some 240 miles to the southeastward, the total distance of the passage would only have been increased by about 220 miles, or some 10 hours' steaming for a 22 knot ship. This is the route which was provisionally decided on by the great Transatlantic companies subsequent to the "Titanic" disaster.

It must not be supposed that the lane routes referred to had never been changed before. Owing to the presence of ice in 1903, 1904 and 1905 from about early in April to mid-June or early in July, westward-bound vessels crossed the meridian of 47° W. in lat. 41° N., that is 60 miles further south than the then accepted track.

The publications known as "Sailing Directions," compiled by the Hydrographic Office at the Admiralty, indicate the caution which it is necessary to use in regions where ice is likely to be found.

The following is an extract from one of these books, named "United States Pilot (East Coast)," part I. (second edition, 1909, page 34), referring to the ocean passages of the large Transatlantic mail and passenger steamers: -

"To these vessels, one of the chief dangers in crossing the Atlantic lies in the probability of encountering masses of ice, both in the form of bergs and of extensive fields of solid compact ice, released at the breaking up of winter in the Arctic regions, and drifted down by the Labrador Current across their direct route. Ice is more likely to be encountered to in this route between April and August, both months inclusive, than at other times, although icebergs have been seen at all seasons northward of the parallel of 43° N., but not often so far south after August.

These icebergs are sometimes over 200 ft. in height and of considerable extent. They have been seen as far south as lat. 39° N., to obtain which position they must have crossed the Gulf Stream impelled by the cold Arctic current underrunning the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. That this should happen is not to be wondered at when it is considered that the specific gravity of fresh-water ice, of which these bergs are composed, is about seven-eighths that of sea water; so that, however vast the berg may appear to the eye of the observer, he can in reality see one-eighth of its bulk, the remaining seven-eighths being submerged and subject to the deep-water currents of the ocean. The track of an iceberg is indeed directed mainly by current, so small a portion of its surface being exposed to the action of the winds that its course is but slightly retarded or deflected by moderate breezes. On the Great Bank of Newfoundland bergs are often observed to be moving south or southeast; those that drift westward of Cape Race usually pass between Green and St. Pierre Banks.

The route chart of the North Atlantic, No. 2058, shows the limits within which both field ice and icebergs may be met with, and where it should be carefully looked out for at all times, but especially during the spring and summer seasons. From this chart it would appear that whilst the southern and eastern limits of field ice are about lat. 42° N. and long. 45° W., icebergs may be met with much farther from Newfoundland; in April, May and June they have been seen as far South as lat. 39° N., and as far east as long. 38° 30' W."

And again on page 35: -

"It is, in fact, impossible to give, within the outer limits named, any distinct idea of where ice may be expected, and no rule can be laid down to ensure safe navigation, as its position and the quantity met with differs so greatly in different seasons. Everything must depend upon the vigilance, caution and skill with which a vessel is navigated when crossing the dangerous ice-bearing regions of the Atlantic Ocean."

Similar warnings as to ice are also given in the "Nova Scotia (South-East Coast) and Bay of Fundy Pilot" (sixth edition, 1911) which is also published by the Hydrographic Office.

Both the above quoted books were supplied to the Master of the "Titanic" (together with other necessary charts and books) before that ship left Southampton.

The above extracts show that it is quite incorrect to assume that icebergs had never before been encountered or field ice observed so far south, at the particular time of year when the "Titanic" disaster occurred; but it is true to say that the field ice was certainly at that time further south than it has been seen for many years.

It may be useful here to give some definitions of the various forms of ice to be met with in these latitudes, although there is frequently some confusion in their use.

An Iceberg may be defined as a detached portion of a Polar glacier carried out to sea. The ice of an iceberg formed from a glacier is of quite fresh water, only about an eighth of its mass floats above the surface of sea water.

A "Growler" is a colloquial term applied to icebergs of small mass, which therefore only show a small portion above the surface. It is not infrequently a berg which has turned over, and is therefore showing what has been termed "black ice," or more correctly, dark blue ice.

Pack Ice is the floating ice which covers wide areas of the polar seas, broken into large pieces, which are driven ("packed") together by wind and current, so as to form a practically continuous sheet. Such ice is generally frozen from seawater, and not derived from glaciers.

Field Ice is a term usually applied to frozen sea water floating in much looser form than pack ice.

An Icefloe is the term generally applied to the same ice (i.e., field ice) in a smaller quantity.

A Floe Berg is a stratified mass of floe ice (i.e., sea-water ice).