clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats

An outdated safety law may have cost hundreds of lives. 

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

Ever since the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, a major suspected culprit for the high death toll has been that there weren’t enough lifeboats on board. It’s a decision that has been dramatized as hubris on the part of the White Star Line, but the ship actually surpassed safety standards for the time.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 required the largest-class ships, those weighing over 10,000 tons, to carry at least 16 lifeboats. Even though the Titanic, which launched in 1911, weighed 45,000 tons, that minimum was the same. The Titanic carried 20 lifeboats, giving it enough capacity for roughly half of the people on board the night the ship sank.

Until the Titanic disaster, lifeboats weren’t seen as a substitute for an entire ship. The giant liner itself, which featured 16 compartments separated by watertight bulkheads, was supposed to stay afloat even after taking on water. Then, using a new piece of technology — the Marconi wireless telegraph — signal for help from a nearby ship, using lifeboats to methodically ferry passengers off the sinking ship.

This scenario played out perfectly just a few years before the Titanic disaster, in 1909, when a ship accidentally rammed the RMS Republic. The Republic sank, but nearly everyone on board was safely ferried off before it did, and the prevailing thought at the time was that disasters at sea had become a thing of the past.

When the Titanic went down, that all changed. Just two years later, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) mandated all passenger ships carry lifeboats for everyone on board. Today, the SOLAS requirement is for 125 percent of a ship’s capacity.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.