The Titanic Passengers’ Lifeboat Shortage

Far fewer passengers and non-passengers would have drowned during the Titanic’s sinking if the ship had carried enough lifeboats. The Titanic had the capacity to carry 48 lifeboats, which would have provided enough lifeboat seats for all her passengers. However, to cut costs and to keep the decks from being too crowded, the White Star Line decided to carry only 20 lifeboats on board.

Carrying only 20 lifeboats, which provided enough seats for 52 percent of the Titanic’s passengers, didn’t violate British Board of Trade laws regarding the number of lifeboats a ship must carry. Board laws stated that ships weighing more than 10,000 tons must carry at least 16 lifeboats with a capacity of 5,500 cubic feet. The Titanic exceeded this requirement (but, at 46,000 tons, actually needed many more lifeboats than the 16 required).

Looking at conflicting reports about Titanic lifeboats

Reports about the Titanic’s lifeboats have revealed conflicting information and have raised many questions, including the following:

  • When was each lifeboat launched?

  • Who occupied each lifeboat?

  • How many survivors were on each lifeboat?

  • When was each lifeboat picked up?

  • What happened to each lifeboat after the rescue?

The total number of people put into the lifeboats according to the British Commission of Inquiry report was 854. However, according to the White Star Line, the total was 757. What’s more, figures for the number of survivors also vary:

  • The British Commission of Inquiry reported 711 survivors.

  • The U.S. Senate Subcommittee Titanic Hearing reported 706 survivors.

  • Carpathia Captain Arthur Henry Rostron reported picking up 705 survivors from the lifeboats.

The complete truth can’t be known when it comes to the Titanic’s lifeboats. The confusion, panic, and multiple observers that night contributed to an inevitable distortion of the actual events that took place between the time when the first boat was lowered (Lifeboat 7 at 12:45 a.m.) and when the last lifeboat was loaded aboard the Carpathia (Lifeboat 2 at 8:10 a.m.).

Reviewing the Titanic lifeboats solid facts

Even though information on how the boats were used is sketchy, experts do know for sure that the Titanic carried a total of 20 lifeboats:

  • Two emergency cutters: Numbered 1 and 2, with a capacity of 40 persons each. The cutters were 25 feet long by 7 feet wide and 3 feet deep.

  • Fourteen standard wooden lifeboats: Numbered 3 through 16, with a capacity of 65 persons each. These lifeboats were 30 feet long by 9 feet wide by 4 feet deep.

  • Four Englehardt collapsible lifeboats: With a capacity of 47 persons each. These boats were 27 feet long by 8 feet wide by 3 feet deep. They had wooden bottoms and canvas sides.

This table shows the British Commission of Inquiry’s final findings regarding the lifeboats (with adjustments for later research by the Commission).

Lifeboat Findings by the British Board of Inquiry (with Revisions)
Launch Order Boat Number Time Capacity Number of Passengers
1 7 12:45 a.m. 65 27 [28]
2 5 12:55 a.m. 65 41
3 6 12:55 a.m. 65 28
4 3 1:00 a.m. 65 50 [40]
5 1 (cutter) 1:10 a.m. 40 12
6 8 1:10 a.m. 65 39 [28, 35]
7 10 1:20 a.m. 65 55
8 9 1:20 a.m. 65 56
9 12 1:25 a.m. 65 42 [43; 71 with transfers]
10 11 1:25 a.m. 65 70
11 14 1:30 a.m. 65 63 [60]
12 16 1:35 a.m. 65 56
13 13 1:35 a.m. 65 64
14 15 1:35 a.m. 65 70
15 Englehardt C 1:40 a.m. 47 71
16 2 (cutter) 1:45 a.m. 40 26 [25]
17 4 1:55 a.m. 65 40
18 Englehardt D 2:05 a.m. 47 44
19 Englehardt B 2:15 a.m. 47 20–30?
20 Englehardt A 2:15 a.m. 47 12

The lifeboats’ capacity was 1,178 people (including the collapsible boats). So, depending on the number of survivors reported, approximately 60 percent of the people who could have been saved actually survived. An additional 470 or so people died because the lifeboats weren’t filled to capacity.

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