- Edison Veiga
- From Bled (Slovenia) to BBC News Brazil
It was night and most passengers were sleeping when, exactly 110 years ago, an iceberg interrupted what would be the first voyage of the most impressive passenger ship ever built, the Titanic.
The ship was traveling at 41 kilometers per hour. Less than 3 hours later, it had already become a shipwreck, sunk in the far reaches of the Atlantic.
Its wreckage was located only in September 1985 – the vessel split into two parts, separated 800 meters away, at 3,843 meters deep, 650 kilometers from Canada.
BBC News Brasil heard experts to present some thought-provoking facts about this shipwreck that has become so famous.
“Not even God sinks the Titanic”? The reputation of “unsinkable” had its reasons. “For engineering, the Titanic became famous because it was the first ship in which there was the application of a design concept that aimed to compartmentalize the ship, dividing it into several compartments, each one being watertight, that is, if the If water were to flood one compartment, it would not be able to flood the next,” explains naval engineer Alexandre de Pinho Alho, professor at the Department of Naval and Ocean Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
The problem, explains the professor, was that such a project came up against the challenge of passing the pipes and electrical cables along the ship. “What was the solution? They calculated a reasonable expected limit [para inundação] in case of damage, they concluded that the water would not reach the ceiling, and they created more or less watertight compartments, that is, they went there and made a protection only until very close to the ceiling”, says Alho.
Needless to say, the shock of the iceberg was so great that this idea was insufficient. “The tear that was made in the hull reached half the length. Of course the water reached the roof”, he adds.
“The ship has entered a condition that we call progressive flooding, a point from which there is no longer any way to save the vessel: you can activate all the pumps, take all the measures, it is not possible to take the water at a flow greater than she enters”, he contextualizes.
“The project had already been publicized at the time as that of an ‘unsubmersible’ boat”, adds civil engineer Thierry Stump, shipbuilder and navigator.
“One of the great defenses was that there were a lot of separate basements, with semi-watertight walls between them, so even if you ripped two in a row it still wouldn’t be enough to sink them.”
“However, the iceberg caught the boat sideways and destroyed many bulkheads and transverse walls. It flooded much more than capacity”, he points out.
A professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense, transport engineer Aurélio Soares Murta points out that even the system for closing these watertight compartments ended up not working as planned. Blame the strong impact against a material inferior to the steel used today in vessels of this type.
“The crash was so strong that it caused a twist in the ship’s structure. These doors could not close. They stuck”, he says. “The metallurgy back then was different. The Titanic was made with the finest steel available, but this is unmatched by what we have today.”
Metallurgical engineer Jan Vatavuk, a professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, explains that until the 1940s, ship hulls were made with riveted metal sheets — only then did they become welded parts.
“There was a great evolution of techniques and materials. Welding is a more aggressive process in terms of microstructure change in the molten region, since it puts a molten material to join the sheets”, he contextualizes.
“And from the Second World War onwards, steel started to be manufactured with a lower percentage of carbon and a higher percentage of manganese. The degree of cleanliness of the materials also improved. Today steel is a more tenacious material, more suitable for superstructures. .”
Vatavuk defines contemporary ships as “elastic beams”, capable of withstanding the bending caused by the constant movements of the waves. “In case of big storms, they hold up well. We have to avoid material fatigue as much as possible.”
But in big accidents you always have to remember that there are human errors. For experts, in the case of the Titanic there was one factor: the intense pressure for the ship to be fast, even when it had to face adversities such as a region full of icebergs.
This is because there was an award, instituted in 1839, called the Blue Flâmula, which aimed to recognize and publicize the fastest ships on transatlantic crossings. And the Titanic was a hot candidate to win the honor.
“At the time, ships were the greatest engineering feat that humanity was capable of doing”, points out Alho. “There was a dispute between the main companies and also the main shipbuilding nations in the world. In this case, England and Germany. Each wanted to make the ship bigger and faster.”
The recognition considered official was such an award. “Countries disputed this”, comments the professor.
And the first voyage of a ship was the best way to beat those records. According to the engineer, this is because it is when the vessel “experiences the best conditions for the crossing”.
“The hull and propeller are clean, the engines are in perfect condition… The first voyage is a great time to get as fast as possible. And the Titanic tried to do that,” he says.
There are reports of survivors saying that the ship’s captain, even having received the news that there were icebergs in the vicinity, hesitated to slow down, precisely because he did not want to miss the opportunity to reach the final destination as soon as possible.
The Titanic was not an only child. At the beginning of the 20th century, the White Star Line company ordered three ocean liners from the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast. Designed by a top team, they were supposed to be the biggest, safest and most luxurious ships in the world.
“The projects were widely publicized at the time”, comments engineer Stump. The vessels were made between 1908 and 1915 and were called the Olympic Class. The first two to go into production were the Olympic, in 1908, and the Titanic in 1909. The third, originally called the Gigantic, began to be made in 1911.
Interestingly, the three were involved in accidents. Olympic entered service in June 1911 and, in the same year, collided with a cruiser. She was repaired and returned to sailing. During World War I, the vessel was called up by the British Royal Navy to transport troops — it even crashed into a German submarine in 1918.
He returned to civilian operation in 1920 and was not retired until 1935. He was called “Old Reliable”.
The maiden voyage of the Titanic began on April 10, 1912. The ship came close to colliding with another vessel just outside the port of Southampton. On the night of April 14, there was the historic shipwreck.
Gigantic didn’t have a long career either. She was eventually renamed the Britannic and, requisitioned by the British Royal Navy, was transformed into a hospital ship during World War I. She sank in November 1916.
Despite being large for the time — both the Olympic and the Titanic were the largest in the world when they were completed — they are ships of modest dimensions compared to today’s ocean liners.
“It was the mighty one at the time, the giant of the seas. But compared to one of today, it looks like a little boat”, comments Murta.
The Titanic measured 269 meters in length. Between crew and passengers, it held about 3,300 people. The largest passenger ship in the world today is the Wonder of the Seas, which is 362 meters long, accommodates 7,000 passengers and 2,300 crew.
The sinking of the Titanic, a tragedy that ended with the deaths of around 1,500 people, set a precedent for several safety improvements to be adopted. The evolution of technology, since then, has also contributed – of course.
Starting with the use of equipment such as radar. The first equipment of the type on the high seas was used only after the Second World War. “At that time [do Titanic], it was all about the visuals”, explains Alho. “A sailor would stay on top of the mast to see if he could locate an iceberg. It was a precarious way, even more so with the ship going at full speed.”
Protocol improvements were also instituted. The Titanic ended with many dead because not even lifesaving equipment was available for everyone. “As the ship ‘wasn’t going to sink at all’, they cut the number of boats in half,” says Alho.
“The Titanic accident was a watershed for safety”, comments Murta. “After that, ships had structural norms for manufacturing, safety standards and consistent evacuation plans.”
“And, of course, today radar and sonar identify icebergs long before a ship encounters them. In addition, nautical charts, mapping of the seas, everything has become much more sophisticated,” he adds.
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