Why Did the Titanic Have so Few Lifeboats?

(Last Updated On: February 9, 2023)

Whether or not you learned about it in school or from the movie that made a lot of money, you probably know the story of the Titanic. You know, the largest passenger ship at the time of its voyage that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. You probably also know that the Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats for its passengers and crew, which was really problematic when things went south very quickly. It just adds that extra touch of human hubris, doesn’t it? But that seems like a pretty titanic oversight, so why did the Titanic have so few lifeboats?

How Many Lifeboats Did the Titanic Actually Have?

When it was sent out on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912 the RMS Titanic was equipped with only 20 lifeboats. The ship was however equipped with 16 lifeboat davits. Davits are those things on the side of the boat that lower the lifeboats into the water, and each davit was capable of lowering three lifeboats into the water. This means the Titanic could have supported 48 lifeboats easily, and the ship was actually capable of supporting up to 64 lifeboats

If you do some math, you probably picked up quite quickly that this seems like what is known as “a bad idea.” The Titanic had a maximum capacity of about 3,500 people; this number accounts for both passengers and crew. The Titanic had around 2,240 passengers on it, while the 20 equipped lifeboats could only accommodate some 1,170 people if they were filled. You probably know this by now, but most lifeboats carried only half the amount of people they could have. Also, only 18 lifeboats were deployed. 

But like… how…?

You might be wondering how this was even legal, because this doesn’t sound up to… any kind of code. You’d be right, this wouldn’t fly in the 21st century, but mostly because the sinking of the Titanic is actually the reason these regulations changed. Anyway, the Titanic’s seemingly abysmal lifeboat count was up to code for the 1910s. The requirements for lifeboats stopped at ships weighing over 10,000 tons; ships at that tonnage or above were required to have 16 lifeboats at a minimum 990 capacity. The Titanic was 45,000 tons, which is more than four times that. Same requirements, though. Following the sinking of the Titanic, investigations from the UK and the US found that the provisions for lifeboats and lifeboat capacity should be based on how many people a ship was intended to carry, rather than size alone

Seems like something they should have figured out early on, but okay. 

It was also after the Titanic sank that ships would also be mandated to have lifeboat drills and inspections

Also, Hubris

You probably figured this out from our brief discussion of the requirements for lifeboats back in the day, but yeah, the hubris of man got involved here. 

Anyway, the Titanic was split into 16 sections. Any two could be flooded completely and the Titanic would remain buoyant. Allegedly, the Titanic could handle up to four flooded bulkheads before sinking. When the ship sank in on April 14, 1912, five ended up flooding too fast, and the ship split in two. 

This is where a fundamental difference in the understanding of lifeboats comes into play. When the Titanic was designed, the purpose of lifeboats was not to serve as a substitute for everyone on the ship. Since the Titanic could, in theory, take a long time before sinking, the lifeboats would be able to ferry people to a rescue ship before the Titanic was claimed by the waves. The sinking of the RMS Republic in 1909 reinforced this, as using lifeboats as ferries is exactly how casualties were reduced then. In case you were wondering, the RMS Republic was also being operated by the White Star Line, the ones who also lost the Titanic. 

Anyway, this is why the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) now requires lifeboat capacity to be 125% of a given ship’s capacity

See if you know other random things about the Titanic here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.