Question about "Titanic" and steering a ship

Something I’ve always wondered after watching Titanic and seeing it again last night reminded me. When they spot the iceberg, the order is given “hard to starboard!” The guy steering the big wheel starts turning it to the left. Does “hard to starboard” mean go right and does turning the wheel to the left make the ship go right? Am I not getting something here? Then when they are rounding the iceberg, the guy says “hard to port” and the steering dude starts turning the wheel to the right. It’s in this scene at 00:28 (28 seconds in).

I believe that this was a carry-over from the days of ships steered with a tiller instead of a wheel. To turn a ship to port, the tiller would be moved to starboard. The introduction of the steering wheel didn’t replace the tiller – it simply allowed the steering position to be moved elsewhere in the ship – and the ropes from the wheel still controlled the movement of the tiller. The officer was ordering the helmsman to perform a particular task (moving the tiller to starboard) which would have the effect he wanted (moving the ship into a turn to port).

I sort of suspected something like that, but I was wondering if they would have used a WYSIWYG-type of system by the time of Titanic (1910s)

And let’s not forget the propellers were going in reverse, to further fubar the night. Had the port shaft been going forward, turning the ship would have happened faster.

Only the outboards, though, right? IIRC, the center screw couldn’t be reversed…

It must have changed since then. When I was on the helm (not the Titanic) it worked just like you’d expect. “Hard to port” meant turn the wheel all the way left, etc.

Right idea, wrong shaft. Had Murdoch ordered full astern on the port shaft while leaving the center and starboard shafts full ahead, it’s almost certain that the ship would have missed the iceberg (especially since the wash from the center screw would have enhanced the effect of the rudder). It is correct, however, that the center (turbine) shaft couldn’t be reversed.

Can’t give you the exact date, but IIRC helm commands were “rationalized” some time in the 1930s.

Now that you’ve brought up the issue I’ve become curious… granted a huge ship would have some momentum, but at the same time, a huge ship in water would create incredible drag. Assuming a Titanic cut the engines, how soon would the ocean bring it to a stop? Furthermore, should a Titanic not just cut engines, but reverse them, how quickly would it stop? Or would some sort of course correction really be more prudent? 20/20 hindsight, given, but, we’re now hind, so what the hell - calculate away!

I don’t know whether it’s relevant but the Titanic was travelling faster than it should have been through dangerous waters - remember the conversation between the Captain and Bruce Ismay about “making the headlines” by arriving in New York early? That has to have some impact on how quickly it could have stopped.

Titanic’s sea trials included a full-ahead to full-astern stop test, with the results calculated as approximately 850 yards (not bad, if you think about it). I don’t think there was a “coasting” stop test, but the distance would have been much greater.

Since most estimates have the iceberg something like 500 yards away when it was spotted, simply going full astern wouldn’t have been enough; although if the Titanic had run into the iceberg head-on at a slower speed, she probably would have survived since the damage would have been confined to the forward compartments, where the watertight bulkheads were higher.

Something I’d always wondered - what was the point of having the watertight bulkheads go only MOST of the way up? In hindsight it’s a terrible idea, of course, but I’m sure at the time there must have been a reason it seemed like a decent move.


The watertight bulkheads would obstruct access along the decks and prevent the creation of large open areas (e.g. saloons, ballrooms) that would be desirable on upper decks (indeed, deck D, the lowest deck without the bulkheads, was called the saloon deck).

'Zackly. Can you imagine the first class muckety-mucks having to navigate this to get from point A to point B?

(Okay, they could have and would have “prettified” it; but there’s no remotely simple way to make a watertight hatch as easy to negotiate as a standard door. If nothing else, watertight integrity pretty much mandates that there’s a substantial lip at the bottom to ensure a tight seal; and that just wouldn’t have been convenient, especially for the ladies.)

Think of ships as steered from the stern rather than the bow. Pushing a tiller to the right turns the rudder to the left, which in turn pushes the stern to the right, pointing the ship to the left. As said upthread, the movement was carried over to the wheel so that which way you turned the wheel was the way you were moving the stern.

I don’t want to speak for Merijeek, but when I saw the movie, I thought the same thing s/he did. The schematic they show has the watertight bulkheads extending as walls about 4/5 of the way up the bottommost level of the ship. When the water pours in, it is first caught behind the bulkhead and then spills over it, filling the next bulkhead before similarly spilling to the next. My thought: “Why not make the bulkhead go all the way to the ceiling (that is, the floor of the second level)?” Wouldn’t have affected the other levels or ballrooms and such, it was just open space on the top of the “walls” dividing the lowest level. On the schematic, anyhow.

A bit off topic, but about the time that the TITANIC sank, Thomas Edison was experimenting with an infrared detector, which could detect large, cold masses (i.e. icebergs) at a distance.
Such a device would have prevented the TITANIC tragedy… is there any record of Edison’s device being used, after this?


Yeah, well, i just want to say that if I’d been on the helm of the Titanic, there wouldn’t have been a movie.

Also, in the U.S. Navy, they got rid of “port” and “starboard” with respect to rudder commands some time ago. Examples of modern Navy rudder commands are “Left Full Rudder” (to bring the ship rapidly to the left), or “Right 5 Degrees Rudder” (to bring the ship gradually to the right), or “Left Hard Rudder” (to put the rudder hard over to the stops, which risked jamming the rudder).

(“Port” and “starboard” are still used for locations on the ship, like if you referred to the “port side of the ship,” just not for rudder commands.)

The Titanic was not trying to get to New York early. Nor was it trying to race anyone–the fastest it could go was 24 knots, while the fastest ship at the time was the Cunard Line’s Mauretania (which could go 27 knots). White Star Line was never about speed; their main focus was on luxury. (If they were to “race” anyone, it would had to have been the Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, which was considered an identical vessel.)

Also, there was a coal strike going on at the time, and just about all the coal available was funneled into the Titanic (voyagers on other liners ended up being canceled for this very reason–the passengers on those ships would then be transferred onto Titanic). They had just enough to get to New York in the time that was allotted, and could not afford to go full speed. If they used up all their coal too early, they’d end up stalling, which was something White Star was trying to avoid. It would, after all, be quite an embarrassment to them if their star ship ended up stranded in the middle of the Atlantic on its maiden voyage.

They were going about 18-20 knots, so, yes, they were going quite fast, but not at full speed. It’s also worth noting that they were a few hours behind schedule at that point. If anything, they were trying to catch up, not get there early.

I think the command given was “hard a starboard”, not “hard to starboard”. Hard a starboard means to turn left IIRC.