By Mark Chirnside

It is not always appreciated just how many changes were incorporated into the Titanic’s design based on the Olympic’s service in 1911 and early 1912. While the improvements to the passenger areas are perhaps the most well known, there were a host of other changes that have either been overlooked, or unknown until recently.

Among these are several changes that were recorded by the Board of Trade’s Principle Ship Surveyor, F. Carruthers, in a letter dated February 13th 1912. These were based on observations onboard the Olympic ‘during a recent heavy passage across the Atlantic.’ Olympic was described as having a ‘big list of passengers’ when she departed for New York on January 10th 1912, the voyage which Carruthers probably referred to.

The gale that she ran into was horrendous, and during the early afternoon of January 14th 1912 a large ‘freak’ wave lifted the liner’s bow before breaking over the forecastle and well deck. Tons of water was deposited on the decks and to highlight the strength of the storm, the number 1 hatch cover was torn lose. Meanwhile, other deck fittings were torn from their mountings, including a steam winch and anchor windlass. On the portside, a section of the rail was ripped away. During such storms, the strains imposed on a ship’s hull are immense – from the sudden pressure of such waves impacting over the ship’s bow, to the stress experienced when part of the ship’s hull is unsupported by the sea, and the flexing of the hull girder.

When Edward Wilding spoke to Lord Mersey’s investigation he covered the issue of Atlantic storms. ‘When a ship is plunging into a big head sea there is a slight tendency on the part of the sides to go like a concertina, and that is known technically as panting.’ He said that the forward end of the hull the ship’s frames and hull plating were strengthened in order to help prevent panting.

The harsh Atlantic was unforgiving, and it was important that ships of the Olympic and Titanic’s size were able to stand up to the worst storms for a long period. Olympic’s reliable service for nearly a quarter of a century showed that she was perfectly capable of doing so, yet there is always room for improvements. Just as Titanic would incorporate improvements based on her elder sister’s experience in service, so would the third sister incorporate changes based on both Olympic and Titanic.

In order to further increase the strength of Titanic’s hull, Harland & Wolff fitted a one-inch-thick steel ‘strap’ on the port and starboard sides of the ship ‘in way of no. 6 boiler room and extending three frame spaces forward of the watertight bulkhead at the forward end of the boiler room.’ The strap extended from frame 63 to frame 81 at the landing of strakes J and K, at the ‘upper turn of the bilge.’ At this area, the hull frames were spaced thirty-six inches apart (the furthest distance between frames throughout the entire ship).

Further aft ‘in way of the turbine room and extending two frame spaces into the reciprocating [engine] room,’ another one-inch-thick ‘strap’ was fitted from frame 50 to frame 73 at the landing of strakes K and L.* In addition, ‘one extra row of holes has been drilled in the plate above the landing, making it a quadruple riveted landing.’

Strangely enough, these straps do not seem to appear on the shell plating drawing or the framing plan for the Titanic – and a number of subsequent changes did not appear to make it back to the original construction drawings.

The changes were indeed suitable remedies based on observing the Olympic in the storm. In March 1912 when the Olympic was in dry dock for the fitting of a new propeller blade, Carruthers looked at the same areas where the Titanic had been modified. On the starboard side forward, below the waterline, in the shell landing of strakes J and K, between frame 63 and frame 74 a number of rivets were found to be slack; similarly, between frame 52 and frame 69 aft a number of rivets were found to be slack. Harland & Wolff completed the necessary maintenance work, caulking and renewing the rivets, while the propeller blade was being changed. Carruthers was pleased to report that after a thorough, careful interior inspection of the areas he ‘found no further signs of stress.’ It would seem highly probable that the design changes to the Titanic were also incorporated into her elder sister when she returned to the shipyard for the 1912-13 refitting. It is a testament to Harland & Wolff’s design and craftsmanship that there were no major changes required, especially when we consider the enormous increase in size compared to the Adriatic, the White Star Line’s 1907 flagship.

When we consider all of the improvements that could be made to younger sister vessels based on the performance and observations of their elder sister vessels during actual service, it is hardly surprising that each new ship could be considered an improvement on the last. Sadly for the White Star Line, only one of their ships completed a commercial voyage.

My thanks to Bruce Beveridge and Scott Andrews for their kind assistance and proof-reading; and Steve Hall for his information and thoughts about the Olympic’s January 1912 crossing, including providing a quote from Captain Smith. Naturally if there are any errors in this article then they are my responsibility.

About the author: Mark Chirnside currently attends Leicester University in the UK and has been interested in the Titanic since 1993. He graduates in summer 2006. He has researched the history of the ‘Olympic’ class liners and written extensively on the subject. Mark has a website at: www.markchirnside.co.uk

* On both the port and starboard sides of the hull at this landing the condenser injection openings, which were large and rectangular, no doubt contributed to additional ‘working’ in this area on the Olympic. In spite of the double plating already provided, Scott Andrews pointed out to me: ‘I’m sure the presence of the large rectangular openings in what is basically the bottom two corners of the box girder formed by the hull caused these seams to “work” a bit more than those of the neighbouring strakes.’