The Unlearned Lesson of the Titanic

"Little more than a year has elapsed since the greatest disaster in maritime history upset all our accepted theories of the unsinkability of modern liners... Since that fateful night of April, 1912, what have we done in the way of reform that will go toward averting another such disaster?"

By Atlanticus (An officer on an Atlantic passenger steamer)

LITTLE more than a year has elapsed since the greatest disaster in maritime history upset all our accepted theories of the unsinkability of modern liners. The wild paths of imagination along which we were willingly led by naval architects, launched us into a disaster such as the world hopes never again to witness. Some very practical test of the unsinkability of liners will have to be vouchsafed the public before its old confidence in the safety of ocean travel can be restored. But to restore public confidence is not a task for naval architects alone; they have merely the mechanical problems to master, and these, in this mechanical age, we believe are not insurmountable. The public, the legislator, the shipowner and the practical sailor must work harmoniously alongside the naval architect if, out of the labyrinth of theories and contentions, we are to evolve a type of vessel that will not sink.

Also see:

The Man on the Bridge (May 1910)
Two years before the sinking of the Titanic, a steamship officer warned of the dangers of overworked, overwhelmed, and sometimes irresponsible crew.

Since that fateful night of April, 1912, what have we done in the way of reform that will go toward averting another such disaster? Remember, the day of the unsinkable ship is not yet; but the majority of passenger vessels now in service on the Atlantic carry as many passengers as did the Titanic. Thus we cannot afford to allow the legislators on both sides of the Atlantic to thrust upon us hysterical reforms which are not only spurious in themselves, but which will defeat their object by becoming a source of danger to the public when called into active service. Time spent now in cool and calm deliberation will be well spent. It will add to the safety of the traveling public, will lessen confusion in emergencies, and will obviate unnecessary expense to the shipowner. The criminal waste of money at present forced upon all the big transatlantic liner companies is proof positive that some foolish Jackin-office has been given a loose rein. The efficiency gained by much of the expenditure amounts to nil. In fact, I believe that in certain directions we are worse off than we were a year or more ago.


After the loss of the Titanic the natural cry of the clamorous public and the nautically ignorant legislators on both sides of the ocean, was for more boats, boats at any cost, boats for all, no matter what their construction or the means available to launch them in an emergency. Besides more boats, pseudo-nautical experts submitted all kinds of crazy theories that were swallowed like hot cakes by the public. The fit of hysteria which the English and American people indulged in while the loss of the Titanic was a nine days' wonder, was about on a par with the miserable pathos that found its way into the press about the heroism of the crew, and their following out the supposed traditions of the sea by saving the women and children first. Saving women and children first is not a virtue monopolized by seamen. Wherever white men are found, this rule of life holds good, and the public guilty of indulging in such figures of speech, with such prodigality, has little right to a hearing when advocating all kinds of nonsensical reforms and the wasting of good money.

Immediately after the disaster, the shipowner and sailor were forced into a tight corner by an angry and unreasonable public. It seemed as if they were to be ridden over, without being allowed to explain, by the first idiot who cuddled a new theory. Yet, thank God, in the sequel most of these theories fell on stony ground! The fact that the public rained and stormed and showered abuse on men who, for the time being, were under a cloud, detracts nothing from the services which those men have rendered to the state. Such a spectacle merely affords one a glance at what an undisciplined people is capable of doing and saying when worked into a frenzy.

Was the shipowner, or the traveling public, or were the legal authorities, to blame for the shortage of boats aboard the Titanic? Without hesitation I exonerate the shipowner, and place the responsibility on the legal authorities and the traveling public. It is obvious that the two latter are dealt with fairly, for what the law demands the shipowner must supply or go to prison. What the traveling public requires he must also supply, or go out of business. If the law calls for a certain number of boats of certain capacities, the shipowner invariably goes beyond what is required of him. The public demands luxurious suites of rooms, Venetian cafes, lounges, buffets, reading, writing, and music rooms, swimming baths, gymnasiums, and so forth, and the shipowner meets the demand. Like managers of theatres, after satisfying the law, they cater to their public. To satisfy the law is quite a simple matter, but to meet the standard of luxury demanded by passengers to-day is not easy. Shipo-wner and sailor both know that luxury and efficiency make bad shipmates.

Let passengers demand fewer luxuries and the work of finding deck-space to carry boats for all will be simplified. The claim that a vessel carries boats for all does not mean safety unless the boats are allowed working room to launch them. It merely means the mechanical hoisting aboard of the required number of boats. To have boats for all is one thing, but if they are cramped, and the working space is hampered by Roman baths, etcetera, as it generally is, we are worse off than before. Superfluities always mean confusion. Add darkness to luxury and we have all that is required to turn confusion into chaos.

If wealth talks at sea in fine weather it must not wail when disaster overtakes it. There are limits to what the shipowner and naval architect can do. Running liners is a business that must return a profit, and be as void of sentiment as running trains. Ships must pay or cease to run, and, if the traveling public must have the luxuries and life-saving gear it demands, then it must pay the piper in the form of higher 'fares.

In answer to the demand for boats, boats of all sizes and descriptions found their way aboard many liners.

In positions where the official 'A' class lifeboats could be stowed, these boats were put aboard. But not many vessels had much space to spare, and in most of them we find collapsible boats and rafts of various patterns, some with artificial buoyancy and others with only the natural buoyancy of the material of which they are constructed. Rafts they are in every sense of the word, and I for one would prefer an overcrowded lifeboat of the approved pattern rather than trust myself aboard one of these decked, canvas-gunwaled contrivances. Having experienced all the inroads of the Atlantic, I should prefer to die in the first instance rather than prolong the agony on such rafts, knowing as I do that the first heavy sea which swept over them must wash all the occupants into the sea.

It is quite a simple matter to account for the appearance of such monstrosities aboard ship. I have it on the authority of a nautical surveyor of the British Board of Trade that, when the cry for more boats was at its loudest, the Board of Trade had not a staff of nautical surveyors big enough to carry on their ordinary duties in addition to surveying the construction of the rafts and collapsible boats which were to appease the public's appetite. Boats of a sort were crowded aboard ship without having passed an official test of any kind. But the shipowner had to meet the popular demand, and he did so with the only available means at his command; and, as the public has evinced no desire to have decks swept of lounges and so forth, still more of these cumbersome articles will find their way aboard until adequate space is given to lifeboats of an approved pattern, with sufficient working room to swing them out. Supposing that under the old scheme six lifeboats could be launched in half an hour, in many vessels the same number could not today be swung out in an hour, owing to the congested state of the decks.

And now we arrive at the method of swinging out boats. The system now in vogue very probably goes back to Nelson's day. Certainly it is not a whit more advanced than the method employed in sailing ships, when swinging out the captain's gig was performed by calling into service the fore-royal halliards and the maintopmast-staysail halliards. The three-fold purchase, as found in common use, though safe, is slow and cumbersome. To find men who can round up such a tackle, after launching a boat, without fouling it, or who can clear it after fouling, is almost impossible to-day; for the modern seafarer knows as much about a thoroughfoot in a tackle as he does about Greek prosody. To expect the men we have in our forecastles to round up a purchase after launching the first boat, so that the second boat can be put overside, is expecting more than we can get, especially if the work is being carried on during the dark hours. This purchase system cannot be too strongly condemned. It ought to be abolished root and branch, and in its place single-wire falls [ropes] should be used when swinging out all boats. We expected much of the Boat and Davit committee, but its findings leave us helpless. Though it recommended the use of single-wire falls in preference to the three-fold purchase, it did not condemn the latter as it should have done. The committee only wasted time and money in platitudes, and treated us to self-evident truths. All nautical men are agreed that the whole affair was a farce and an attempt to whitewash.


The demand for more boats having been met, we now have to find the men to handle them. At the American inquiry into the loss of the Titanic, Senator Smith emphasized the fact that a steward admitted that he had never handled an oar in his life. Not for a moment do I doubt the steward's word. For every such steward I could produce a so-called sailor and scores of firemen who cannot pull an oar.

If a steward, or sailor, or fireman cannot handle an oar, whose fault is it? Can six executive officers pretend to teach a crew of five or six hundred men the art of pulling and sculling, in a three weeks' voyage, when they have to navigate their ship across the ocean and attend to the duties incidental to a voyage? Is it officers' work to teach men how to pull and handle a boat? Strictly speaking, it is not. Do stewards and sailors and firemen evince a desire to learn pulling, etcetera? Do they, or not, jibe at the very idea of boatdrill and attempt by hook or crook to dodge it? Do they ever consult the boat-sheets and boat-plans hanging in their quarters, to find out the number and locality of their boats? Why the aimless wandering round of men looking for their boats when the boat-plans show exactly where they are stowed? and when boats are numbered and stowed in sequence in every ship, why such confusion ? Pure apathy is all there is to it until disaster overtakes such wastrels; then, like children, they wail. 'We were not told the number of our boats, we were not taught to pull an oar.'

I will go further yet and ask anybody holding executive rank on a liner if he is supported by the engineers and chief stewards in making a boat-drill efficient, instead of a farce. I have yet to experience such support. And yet, on the British side, we had unions representing seamen, firemen, and stewards at the Titanic inquiry, to watch over their interests and to prove, if possible, negligence on the part of the vessel's executive officers, and so make the company liable. I am sure of my ground when I say that, had these men been up to their jobs, more people could have been saved. To defend such men at any inquiry of the Titanic class is a tyranny practiced on the shipowner, the executive officer, and the public.

But such methods are quite typical of the Liberal government, which has reduced the penalties of disobedience to orders to a mere farce, in order to placate trade unions and to gain the support of the Labor members of Parliament. Vote-snatching at the expense of the public's life and limb is what it really amounts to.

And yet the cry to Heaven is for more seamen to man the boats. More imbeciles to create panic, I should term them. May Heaven and shipowners pay no heed to such a cry!

It may interest Senator Smith and the general public to know that we do not produce seamen to-day who can knot and splice, bend or unbend sail, furl or unfurl sail, handle boats or oars, and keep a ship steady on her course. When delivering his finding, Senator Smith remarked on the discipline aboard the Titanic after she struck the berg. He said, 'If this is discipline, what is disorder? ' The true wonder is, not that so many lives were lost, but that so many were saved. To rescue so many was magnificent work. Review the situation from an executive officer's point of view and then cease to wonder at the number of lives lost : a new ship, the largest in the world; a new crew, ignorant of the rudimentary principles of discipline and seamanship, and, as crews go to-day, refractory in every sense of the word, and out of sympathy with the very thought of discipline; more than two thousand passengers, or about three thousand souls including the crew; new boatgear straight from the builder's hands; add to all this the dark hours of the night and the fear of the unknown, and I assert that to save over seven hundred lives was giants' work, the carrying out of which fell on the shoulders of six or seven executive officers, who, when the weather is fine, and disaster below the horizon, fight a lone hand trying to maintain even a show of discipline.

Remember, in the merchant service we have no penalties as in the navy. What discipline is maintained, is forced out of an unwilling crew by sheer strength of character, not by fear. For my part, looking at the question from an officer's point of view, I hope and trust that the law and shipowners will resolutely stiffen their backs against the public outcry for bigger crews until such crews are no longer a source of danger to lives and property afloat.

Some two or three years ago a startling article 'The Man on the Bridge' appeared in the pages of this magazine. The writer of it Mr. C. T. Delaney evidently knew his ground. In the course of his remarks he spoke of the crews of liners joining up on sailing morning in a more or less muddled condition, caused, not by heartaches through leaving home, but by drink. Those who have seen such crews join up can testify to the truth of his statement; and these are the men who mount the crow's nests of liners to keep a lookout, and who complain when they are not supplied with binoculars. Were I a shipowner I should instantly dismiss any officer who for one moment trusted to the men on the lookout. The seamen who keep a lookout have no sense of responsibility, no certificate to lose, no interest in their work, and are not to be depended upon to keep an efficient lookout either by day or by night. As they have nothing to lose, so they have nothing to fear if negligent, their unions see to that, for they change their ship after the completion of nearly every voyage. They are birds of passage in every sense of the word. The officer who for a moment pinned his faith upon the lookout men I should deem mad, and thoroughly incompetent to take charge of any vessel's bridge. So much for the lookout man and the importance which Senator Smith and the public attached to his evidence. He is stationed in the crow's nest by the officer of the watch to meet the requirements of the law, and beyond that he is as useless as the fifth wheel of a coach.

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