30
Dec
11

CR3 #98: Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler by Bradford Matsen

This is the most recently written book I’ve read about Titanic, and it frankly blows up all previous theories of how and why the great ship sank.

In the mid-2000s, Richie Kohler and John Chatterton–known for their previous wreck diving work and their television show exploring underwater wrecks–were contacted by a man who had been on a recent journey to the Titanic‘s wreckage. He claimed that he had seen some interesting debris–“ribbons of steel” on the sea floor that might provide new information about how the ocean liner sank the way it did. The divers arranged for an expedition out to the remains with a Russian group of submersibles. What they found revolutionized the way that they thought about the way the sinking occurred.

Basically, they found large intact pieces from the bottom of the ship. When closely examined, the way these pieces were broken suggest that instead of the ship breaking in two because it was tilted 45 degrees up out of the water, it may have only had to be tilted 11 degrees before it snapped in the middle and sank. This theory explains some of the mystery that has persisted for years about the sinking itself. The fact that the ship was not tilted far up in the air, but rather only slightly up may explain why so many passengers either didn’t believe there was any danger (and thus refused to get in the lifeboats) or never even left their cabins before the ship went down. It also explains why the ship sank so quickly–other large ships that had experienced major accidents at sea had managed to stay afloat for hours or even days.

Another revelation is proved by a gentleman who worked for many years at the shipyard where Titanic was first built. He worked in the archives, and had access to many of the internal documents and memos regarding the construction of not only Titanic, but of her older sister ship, Olympic and her younger sister, Brittanic. What he discovered was that the company–and the designer, Thomas Andrews–knew that there were flaws with the ships’ designs. The Olympic had serious issues with her hull during her first voyages that required emergency repairs, and these flaws led to changes in the Titanic‘s design. Unfortunately, not enough changes were made. The engineers at Harland & Wolff calculated after the sinking that the ship had broken up on the surface, not as it went down. They never shared this information, however, in order to save the business.

The book follows Kohler and Chatterton’s expedition to Titanic, then takes several chapters to discuss the men who financed and built the great ship. It provides a very different view of White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay, who has been portrayed as the villain of the tragedy for many years. Those chapters are written in more of a historical fiction style (though the author has provided copious notes at the end of the book to explain where he has gotten his facts). It’s an odd tonal shift, but I did enjoy finding out more about the process of shipbuilding at the time, and the financial maneuverings that led to production of the giant ships.

The book finishes out with Kohler and Chatterton diving the wreckage of the Britannic (which sank after hitting a mine during WWI), trying to prove their theories. All three ships were made from the same original plan, but Andrews tried to fix flaws that showed themselves on Olympic when putting together the Titanic. The divers figured that the engineers at Harland & Wolff probably made changes to the design of Brittanic to fix the flaws that had brought down the Titanic, so they wanted to look at Brittanic‘s wreckage and compare the areas they suspected had caused the problems with the Titanic. What they found seems to confirm their ideas that Harland & Wolff had quietly discovered Titanic‘s fatal errors, and attempted to correct them on Brittanic.

The book is fascinating, and despite the minor issues I had with structure, it is an amazing read for someone who is as interested in the Titanic disaster as I am. The author did a great job showing where he found his information and digging up useful facts. In general, it was a really interesting book that gave me a whole new perspective on the sinking.

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