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In the Wikipedia page of the chief baker of the RMS Titanic, Charles Joughin, it is claimed

According to his own testimony, he kept paddling and treading water for about two hours. He also admitted to hardly feeling the cold, most likely thanks to the alcohol he had imbibed. (Large quantities of alcohol generally increase the risk of hypothermia.) [...] He was rescued from the sea with only swollen feet.

The testimony is readable at Titanic Inquiry, where he explicitly says

  1. Then you were in the water for a long, long time?
    • I should say over two, hours, Sir.

Wikipedia article on hypothermia upon water immersion claims

A water temperature of 10 °C (50 °F) can lead to death in as little as one hour, and water temperatures near freezing can cause death in as little as 15 minutes.[40] A notable example of this occurred during the sinking of the Titanic, when most people who entered the −2 °C (28 °F) water died in 15–30 minutes.[41]

It seems impossible for the baker to be alive after two hours of ice-cold water immersion. How is it possible he was alive after this? Was his testimony incorrect?

EDIT: According to Encyclopedia Titanic forum post from 2001, Mr. Joughin was 155 lbs (70 kg) at the time of the sinking, so he certainly was not obese.

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    How are we supposed to debunk or support this? – TheWanderer Aug 6 at 7:53
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    He was inebriated in a life-threatening situation and surely didn't have a (working) watch or other means to measure time with him. Any estimate of time, even the most sincerest, is completely useless in such a situation. If there are no records of when exactly he entered the water and when exactly he was pulled from it, there simply is no way to confirm or refute his testimony. – Elmy Aug 6 at 10:38
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    @Elmy: It's not too difficult to estimate the time he'll have been in the water if the main points of his testimony are correct. The stern of the Titanic sank at about 2:20am, and he reached a lifeboat "when daylight broke", which would be at some time after 4:30am. Unless his testimony is a fabrication, there is little reason to doubt that he spent two hours or more in the water. – Schmuddi Aug 6 at 12:22
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    @Schmuddi The fact that it might be near biologically impossible could be a pretty good reason to doubt. – JMac Aug 6 at 13:17
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    @JMac: Well, as far as I know, Joughin was the only one to survive among several hundreds who died to hypothermia. Surviving more than two hours seems to be rather unlikely, but apparently not impossible. – Schmuddi Aug 6 at 13:55
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There is little doubt that the cold water was deadly to many of the victims in the Titanic desaster. The figure given in the Wikipedia article, that "most people who entered the −2°C (28°F) water died in 15–30 minutes" is certainly plausible. However, note the word "most": the quote doesn't state how many lived longer than 30 minutes, but there must have been at least a few.

There is also the "rule of 50s" that has occasionally been evoked to demonstrate that there was little chance of survival for the passengers who went overboard. One popular version of this states that at a water temperature of 50°F, there is a 50 percent chance to survive for 50 minutes. While this rule appears to be something made up out of thin air in the fist place, it also doesn't say anything about the upper margin of survival. Thus, while it's certain that most passengers were dead within less than an hour after the Titanic finally sank, this doesn't mean that there might not have been a few individuals who have survived longer than that.

Indeed, there are reports of people who have survived even longer than two hours in cold water. Chances of survival seem to depend on the constitution of the individual and on their equipment. Molnar (1946) mentions a relatively spectacular case:

A corpulent man of 29, clad in indoor rig and overcoat, remained swimming for nine to fourteen hours in the sea at 30 F., while two companions died after two and one half hours of immersion. One may doubt this last case; it does not seem possible that a man, even a corpulent one, can swim for nine hours at 30 F.

Note that the author questions the more extreme part of this case, but appears to be willing to accept that the two companions survived for more than two hours. Yet, in the same article, there is another reported case where the victims were clearly less lucky:

Critchley recorded that of 10 men from a torpedoed vessel only 1 survived half an hour of immersion in sea water of 29 F. (there was a large amount of field ice about).

What becomes clear is that we have to distinguish two time estimates: the estimated time to death and the estimated survival time. Both times depend on the water temperature as well as the equipment. It is only the upper estimate – the the estimated survival time – that is of relevance here. We know that the water was cold enough to kill a person by hypothermia within much less than an hour, and no-one disputes that this happened to many of the passengers. This is what the Wikipedia quote in the question refers to, but it doesn't say anything about the much more important figure: the estimated survival time. So, what do we know about that figure?

A report by Brooks (2001) for the Canadian department of transportation summarizes findings by the Canadian Red Cross according to which the chance of survival is only slim at temperatures less than 0°C (32°F) and after an immersion duration longer than an hour:

Cold water survival curves

I have found two mathematical models that have been proposed to estimate survival times, one by Hayward et al. (1975) and, more recently, Xu & Giesbrecht (2018). Hayward et al. report a series of exposure experiments to simulate accidental situations, with immersions

conducted in the sea, using persons of average build, who wore standardized, light clothing and a kapok lifejacket.

Based on the results, they estimates the survival times as

t = 15 + 7.2 / (0.0785 - 0.0034 * T),

where t is the survival time in minutes and T is the water temperature in °C (<= 23°C). For a temperature of -2°C, the estimated survival time 99.4 minutes, i.e. more than one and a half hour.

Xu & Giesbrecht (2018) use 122 cases reported in the UK National Immersion Incident Survey as the data for their study. Based on these cases, they propose an estimated surivival time of

ST = 0.0547 * T² + 0.5048 * T + 1.3604,

where ST is the survival time in hours and T is the water temperature in °C. For -2°C, their model proposes a much more pessimistic maximum survival time of 0.57 hours (~35 minutes). Yet, there is only a handful of immersions at very low temperatures (below 2.5°C), so their model may not be very accurate for the Titanic conditions.

So, given all this – is it plausible that Charles Joughin could survive being immersed in the freezing North Atlantic for a long period of time? In the official inquiry, he estimates that he survived for more than two hours:

  1. How long do you think you were in the water before you got anything to hold on to?

    • I did not attempt to get anything to hold on to until I reached a collapsible [boat], but that was daylight.
  2. Daylight, was it?

    • I do not know what time it was.
  3. Then you were in the water for a long, long time?

    • I should say over two, hours, Sir.

It's usually assumed that the Titanic finally sank at 2:20 am (local time). I couldn't find a source that stated when day broke on April 15, 1912, but using available online tools, a conservative estimate would suggest that the first daylight might have become visible at 4:20 am. This means that Joughin's estimation of the time he spent in the water is plausible. Unless he lied when he said that he was in the water for the whole time span between when he went overboard and when he reached the lifeboat, he was immersed for at least two hours.

This duration is shorter than the extreme durations reported in Molnar (1946). It's somewhat longer than the expected survival time estimated using Hayward et al. (1975), and much longer than the corresponding estimate based on Xu & Giesbrecht (2018). According to the data presented by Brooks (2001), Joughin's chances of survival were only slim.

Yet, there are a few things that may have increased Joughin's slim chances of survival. Apparently, he was never fully submerged (and hence, not fully drenched), and he was a good swimmer:

  1. Did you feel that you were dragged under or did you keep on the top of the water?

    • I do not believe my head went under the water at all. It may have been wetted, but no more.
  2. Are you a good swimmer?

    • Yes.

He appears to have used a fairly energy-conserving way of movement:

  1. Were you trying to make progress in the water, to swim, or just keeping where you were?
    • I was just paddling and treading water.

And, perhaps crucially, he wore a lifebelt that helped keeping him afloat and only partially exposed to the cold water:

  1. You had been wearing a lifebelt?

    • Yes, all the time.
  2. So that your feet would be in the water?

    • Yes, and my legs.
  3. And you supported yourself by your lifebelt. I do not want to be harrowing about it, but was the water very cold?

    • I felt colder in the lifeboat - after I got in the lifeboat.

So, to summarize: There is no doubt that Charles Joughin survived the Titanic incident, as he could appear in the official inquiry. If we believe the events in his testimony, he must have been in the water for two hours or more. This agrees with his own estimation. According to the publications on the topic, it is very unlikely to survive for this long when immersed in water that is as cold as -2°C, and there is no doubt that hypothermia caused the death of many of the 1500 victims on board of the Titanic (in addition to death by drowning and by physical impact).

This leaves us with two possible conclusions:

  1. Joughin was a lucky survivor. If 1500 people perished in the water and one survived, we're at a survival rate of less than 0.001 – in other words, the water was really deadly, but one lucky person made it through it.

  2. Joughin lied in the testimony. He was not thrown into the water at 2:20 am, and managed to get on board a lifeboat at daybreak. It is known in which lifeboat he ended up eventually (lifeboat B), but the only report of how he got there is his own testimony.

I'll apply Occam's razor and prefer the first conclusion over the second.

  • It should also be noted that Collapsible B was washed off the deck upside-down and was semi-submerged. The people on it were up to their knees in water for most of the night. Several swimmers who survived long enough to make it to Collapsible B subsequently died of exposure anyway. Joughin was a very lucky man that night. – GordonM Oct 24 at 14:58
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People vary a lot and there is some evidence that the human ability to withstand cold varies with the behaviour of said people.

A famous example is Wim Hof who discovered that a cycle of hyperventilation and holding your breath greatly improves the human resistance to hypothermia. he has held many records for cold resistance over the years.

The current world record for full-body contact with ice is close to two hours. although ice is a better insulator than sea water.

Winter swimming is a popular activity(warning, people in swimsuits, might be NSFW) in many Eastern European countries and although actual swimming times are hard to find 15 minutes seems a low guess.

So: is it possible that a person survived for two hours in icy conditions: yes it has been done before.

Is it possible that a unprepared, inebriated baker did this: it seems highly unlikely but not impossible.

My best guess: Mr Joughin was extremely lucky, possibly genetically predisposed to cold resistance and while riding the sinking titanic might have lucked his way into Wim Hof's hyperventilation techniques. Moreover we have only his best guess for how long he sent in the water so it might have been considerably less than the two hours he said.

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