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Titan - The Right to Kill Oneself Redux

By Rik van Hemmen, President, Martin & Ottaway

St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada- OceanGate-June 2023: Polar Prince towing OceanGate Expeditions submersible vessels on a barge as it leaves for the Titanic wreck site to tour below the ocean.

Copyright Dolores Harvey/AdobeStock
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In November 2020 I wrote a column in MREN that discussed the right of people to engage in crazy marine ventures. The example I used in that column was an attempt to row from South America to Antarctica.

In it I also made note of the inherent unseaworthiness of single-handed ocean racing and noted that such foolishness often resulted in the public spending lots of money providing rescue services.

The Ocean Gate Expedition Titan venture has now managed to set an entirely new standard of inappropriate risk taking and consequent pointless public expenditures.

When my company is asked to evaluate a maritime failure, we often build a Failure Chain, which is the sequence of events that led to the failure. (Please note that a Failure Chain is not a Root Cause Analysis, which is an inherently flawed concept that I will discuss at another time.)

While I have not conducted an exhaustive analysis and undoubtedly further information will be added to the picture, at this time the failure chain in Figure 1 becomes apparent (and I will willingly retract,or alter information in subsequent columns if it turns out to be incorrect).

Figure 1: Titan Loss Failure Chain

  • The Titanic sank with massive loss of life.

  • The cause of the loss of the Titanic was generally known. (It hit an iceberg that resulted in negative buoyancy)

  • Over 70 years later the Titanic wreck was found in 12,000 feet of water.

  • Somehow it was decided that the Titanic site was not a gravesite, but rather a valid salvage site.

  • Various Titanic salvage expeditions took place and artifacts were recovered.

  • Various Titanic exhibits and public displays were produced.

  • The Titanic site was exhaustively photographed and catalogued. (There is an incredibly detailed scan of the entire wreck on the internet)

  • There were endless and mostly pointless “forensic” analyses of the Titanic sinking after the discovery of the wreck. Mostly pointless, because any findings that could be produced would not advance the state of the art of anything. They would simply paint a finer picture of a morbid event for glorification of researchers who could have engaged in advancing the state of the art, rather than mulching outdated technology.

  • Various commercial efforts enhance the public’s appetite for things Titanic.

  • It is decided that possibly taking paying passengers to view the wreck on the ocean bottom may be a viable commercial venture.

  • There is no actual benefit to viewing the wreck in amanned submersible except for the ability to brag that one has been on the ocean bottom next to the Titanic. The actual event consists of sitting in a cold tube for a number of hours and looking through a small window for a bit.

  • This is marketed as an “adventure” as part of an “expedition”, but fails to mention what this expedition will actually discover that can advance humanity.

  • A commercial venture decides to build a submersible to perform these dives.

  • The world has quite a number of submersibles rated for this depth, and there is very substantial experience with the design, construction, and operation of submersibles with excellent safety records, but to do it right makes it commercially unattractive.

  • The commercial venture decides to take a different approach and builds a submersible outside the standard submersible community.

  • The commercial venture decides to forego classification of the submersible.

  • The commercial venture decides to build a pressure hull of an extremely novel and unconventional design.

  • The commercial venture decides to build the pressure hull with an untested material as far as deep submergence vehicles is concerned.

  • The commercial venture decides to perform only limited testing of the pressure hull.,

  • The commercial venture decides to rely on, and promote, a hull monitoring system that based on simple logic and physics is pointless.

  • One of the commercial venture employees protests this approach and is silenced through litigation.

  • The Marine Technology Society, the leading technical society for submersibles, is concerned about the commercial venture and through one of its leaders issues a letter of concern to the venture.

  • The commercial venture starts operations and promotes commercial expedition participation to the public.

  • The loss of the submersible due to pressure hull failure occurs with the loss of five lives.

  • The world is obsessed with this loss and millions of public dollars are expended looking for survivors in a situation where the chance of survival of the submersible crew is miniscule.

Even a small amount of rational analysis by those who were part of this failure chain could have interrupted any of the above 25 links, and, in one step, saved untold millions of dollars for the public.

Should this type of recreation be illegal? As far as I am concerned, and as explained in my earlier column, this commercial venture with proper disclosure of the crazy risks they are taking should be free to do as they please.

However, the public should not be burdened with picking up the tab for saving those who choose to engage in this type of pointless and suicidal entertainment.

Instead, that money would be much better spent in saving people who are in desperate circumstances not of their own making.

Instead of looking for five people who decide to kill themselves for bragging rights at their cocktail parties, why not deploy those resources in the Mediterranean to prevent an overloaded boat from killing dozens of men women and children during the same news cycle?

Remarkably, something good did come out of the loss of the Titan, and maybe we should thank the commercial venture for that. When I drove to work during the first days after the loss, I was listening to my local NPR station and a leader in the Marine Technology Society discussed his concerns about the Titan design and then went on to provide an excellent explanation of submersible classification. It is literally the first time I have ever heard classification discussed in public, and knowing that classification has saved thousands and thousands of lives since the 1800’s it certainly deserved its moment in the sun.

Ironically, the classification story would have still made the news even if millions of dollars of public resources had not been expended on a futile search for people that for very dubious reasons chose to do more than one stupid thing at a time.

For each column I write, MREN has agreed to make a small donation to an organization of my choice. For this column I nominate Safe Passage A small UK non-profit that helps and protects refugees that could have made much better use of the money wasted in Titan Search and Rescue.

About the Author

Rik van Hemmen is the President of Martin & Ottaway, a marine consulting firm that specializes in the resolution of technical, operational and financial issues in maritime. By training he is an Aerospace and Ocean engineer and has spent the majority of his career in engineering design and forensic engineering.

July 2023