To describe a voyage across the North Atlantic, its dangers, and what it means in flesh and blood to the man on the bridge, will necessitate going into details which it is impossible for the general traveling public to know about unless told by one behind the scenes.
Let us take an ordinary summer voyage, say in the month of June or July, from Liverpool or Southampton. Let the ship be one of the flyers or one of the fast intermediate boats, conditions being about the same in both. After leaving port, the vessel's course takes her close to the land and its outlying dangers, through waters crowded with shipping. The master is not required to be on the bridge after his vessel is clear of harbor, therefore she is handed over to the officer of the watch. Except when rounding headlands, approaching harbor, or during fog, the master rarely mounts the bridge at all; everything is left in charge of the officer of the watch. There is no risk in this if the officer has had a sufficient amount of sleep. But does the officer in charge always get sufficient sleep to act quickly for the benefit and safety of those whose lives are in his keeping?
I answer, emphatically, "No." At times he is no more fit to be left in charge than is a lunatic; and a moment's delay, a wrong order, or the slightest let-up in his vigilance, is often all that is required to send both the liner and its freight of between three and four thousand souls to the bottom. Take, for example, a liner leaving Liverpool for New York. Before the saloon passengers embark, the vessel must be brought from dock to the embarking-stage. The usual time for arriving at the stage is between 2.30 and 3 p. M. Now, during the periods of high water, because of the tidal docks, it is impossible for a ship to leave dock at high tide and arrive at the stage at her appointed time. Our vessel, if her appointed time coincides with high tide, must therefore leave dock on the previous morning tide, say between 2 and 3 A.M. Here is where the hardship comes in. On the day of leaving dock, officers must be aboard their ship to receive mails, baggage, and specie, and also to get her ready for sea. They will probably leave for home about 5 p. M., but they must be aboard again the same night somewhere about 11 p. M., to bring the ship from her dock through the tidal basin to her anchorage in the river. Anchor-watches will then have to be kept. At 7 o'clock the crew 'join up,' and from then until it is time to embark steerage passengers by tender, the officers will be busy attending to their various duties. About 2 p. M. the anchor will be hove up and the liner brought alongside the embarking-stage. At the stage the officers must stand at the gangways until all passengers are aboard and the gangways landed.
The sailing-hour may be 5, 6, or 7 p. M, but whatever the time, the officers must remain on stations until the ship has left the Bar Light Vessel astern. Should the ship leave at 5 p. M. it will be at least 6.30 p. M. before she is clear of the river and channel. The watches are set. The man who has the misfortune to be second officer, and the one who is his watch-mate, are in for more of it yet. The pair will barely have time to get their dinner, don night clothes, and square up their necessary writing. At 8 p. M. they must mount the bridge and take charge of a vessel valued at perhaps seven million dollars; cargo, mail, specie, and baggage worth another million at least; with about thirty-five hundred souls aboard.
The second officer, when he goes on the bridge, has been on his feet and without sleep for at least thirty-nine hours. To stand this his early training in sail has equipped him with the necessary vitality. But his case may be even worse; for should the weather be at all hazy he will have to remain on deck as stand-by officer until 2 A. M., to take soundings if required. In nothing are my statements exaggerated. I have experienced all that I have described, many times. I have been left in charge of a liner carrying a crew of five hundred, twenty-two hundred steerage passengers, three hundred second class and about three hundred first, in all about thirty-three hundred souls. These, in addition to the valuable ship and freight, have been in my charge at a time when I have been from thirty to forty hours on my feet and without sleep or rest. The safety of all has depended on my vigilance at a time when soul, mind, and body have long been worn out. To keep awake at such times is torture; one must walk walk, walk, and get through somehow and all this in waters crowded with shipping and where vessels are subjected to the whims of tides! At no other time in their lives, perhaps, are passengers in such jeopardy. Just when an officer should be at his best and have all his wits about him, he is as heavy as lead and worse than useless.
The seamen who are to make the voyage in the ship 'join up' at 7 A. M. on the day of sailing. The vessel leaves the dock, assisted by men who were once sailors afloat, but who now elect to stay ashore doing dock-work. The seamen have no responsibility. If they can join on sailing-day, why not the officers? Would any company not be better served by employing a staff of relief officers for such times as come round to all vessels during the course of a year?
Some years ago elaborate plans were drawn up for the safety of liners when clear of the land. I refer to the tracks agreed upon by the leading steamship companies. These tracks no doubt are a good thing and do minimize the risks of an ocean passage; but the gravest and most unwarrantable risks are taken in the very worst places in the world—the English channels—and under the worst possible conditions. Sailors on leaving port, often muddled through drink, are of no assistance to the officer in keeping a lookout. The officers, though not through drink, are worse than muddled. Their faculties are impaired, their eyes are almost closed, their bodies are worn out; all this through false economy, or ignorance and bad management, on somebody's part. Until some fine vessel with her precious cargo is sent to the bottom through collision, these things, I believe, will not be rectified. It is only by good luck that this has not happened already. But luck will change some day. Who will pay the piper then? Not the worn-out man on the bridge, I hope.
And who is the man on the bridge? I have often been asked by passengers, 'Who is that boy on the bridge? Where is the captain?' And I have answered with as good a grace as possible under the circumstances. One cannot expect these land-lubbers to know much concerning ships'' boys'; but being one of them, I should like to explain who the ' boys' are, what their training and responsibilities. I may as well say at the outset that often they are the executive officers of the ship. Upon their skill, knowledge, and judgment, depends the safety of the liner and all aboard.