Attitudes to safety of life at sea 1912


Rob Lawes

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It doesn't matter if we are talking about 1912 or 2016, no body intentionally sets out on an ocean voyage with the intention of losing life however, I have been thinking about how attitudes to the safety of life at sea have changed over the years.

I look back at this through the prism of a career at sea myself and I appreciate things have changed significantly but it is interesting to understand the mindset that existed in 1912 and how that played its part in the disaster.

Reading the crew testimonies at both boards of inquiry it is striking how little the crew know about the lay out of their own ship. One crew member (Dillon if I recall correctly) talks about only signing on the day before sailing and being in the engine room for the first time, on the night of the disaster, as he was sent down to assist with the cleaning of machinery due to his allocated boiler room not being in use. On a modern warship the crew is expected to get around the various areas they will be working (not just the specific part of ship) and complete a safety booklet showing they understand the escape routes, where to find items of safety equipment and how to raise the alarm etc, all within 48 hours of joining. The thought of a stoker, even one who was allocated to a specific part of ship, not having visited the various spaces related to the ships machinery even after 5 days of being on board is unusual to modern ears.

What was the routine for those working in the engine and boiler spaces? When not actually on watch were they required to do additional work such as supporting the cleaning, maintenance and repair of services and systems in their areas or, for example, was a stoker employed to feed the furnaces and monitor the boilers for the duty of his watch and then in his off watch his time was his own? The same applies to the deck department, did they only carry out tasks while on watch (other than those with specific duties such as lookouts and quartermasters)?

One of the areas that comes up quite often in the BOI's is the allocation and provision of crew for the lifeboats. As we know, the manning lists for these did not get posted in the fireman's quarters until Sunday the 14th and most of those listed did not bother checking their allocation. One crew member in his testimony talks about joining another liner and receiving a token that told him right away which boat he was supposed to stand by in the event of an emergency.

This begs the question, was the Titanic particularly lax in the attitude to safety of life at sea, was it a wider White Star issue, common to all of the ships of that line or something that was common to all ocean going operators of that era? Was the token system the exception rather than the norm?

Are there any published or even anecdotal examples of steam ship companies that had a strict policy of safety of life at sea standards who went above and beyond the expectations of the era?

We all know through the board of trade regulations what was expected of ships of the time and we know that t his was enforced in a haphazard manor and those same regulations were desperately out of date.

It would be really interesting to understand what expectations were placed on a normal crew member regarding ships safety at the time of the disaster and if the Titanic could be seen as a victim of the attitudes of the time.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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I think what you're going to find to be the most striking was that there was nothing even remotely unusual about how the Titanic was operated in relation to most other lines. One of the problems is that crews tended to have a much higher turnover or at least the potential for same.

In the military, you get assigned to a specific vessel and you're there for the duration of a specific term of enlistment or the duration of the ship's commission depending on the way a given nation operates it's navy. This makes for more stability of the crew and that makes it easier to train them as a cohesive team. That's just not the way it worked with a merchant crew which signed on for a specific voyage. The guy you see at muster with you now wasn't there the day before and he won't be there the next time out.
 
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The White Star Line had a rule book as well the one by the IMM (to be more correct it is the "Ship’s Rules and Uniform Regulations") mentioned that the boat list had to be prepared and posted in the crew areas after leaving port. In the different Departments such a list was posted the following day (April 11th). The black gang was an exception. From what I have found out so far a reason was that every Department had someone who did the list, in the case of the black gang it was the duty of the Chief Engineer. I don't think there can be stated that it was put up too late, as under an emergency the black gang would be under the command of the engineers who would told them what to do. As with most other compartments who had the list already up many crew members did not bother to look. (I had gone a little into detail about the drills and such list on an research article which was in the Voyage 94 issue of the Titanic International Society.)

Different lines had different rules, in some cases the boat station (and fire station) was mentioned when the crew signed on (as was the case on Olympic directly after the sinking of the Titanic) while others were told at sea. Some had drills during the voyage while others did that when the ship was in port. This was mainly the decision of the Captain.

The different Trimmers, Fireman and greasers had their own duty and going around though the different boiler rooms and into the engine rooms would be not efficient and they would disturb the others. Also they signed on only for one voyage which means they could be on another ship on the next voyage.
 

Rob Lawes

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Some really interesting points so far. As I was thinking about this further, it's interesting to consider that their have been some quite high profile accidents at sea in the last 20 or 30 years where it can be shown that crew attitudes to safety of life can still be considered less than appropriate. You only have to look at the actions of the Captain of the Costa Concordia for example. An even bigger example of poor crew behaviour and attitudes was on the MTS Oceanos which sank in 1991.

It has to be said that the deck department of the Titanic appear to have carried out a professional job in launching the lifeboats in an orderly manor.
 

Jim Currie

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By 1912, it ws the practice in almost every British Merchant ship, including Titanic to create a Lifeboat Muster List. This was compiled from the final copy of the ship's Artricles of Agreement. These were normally kept in the master's safe or in the safe of the Chief Purser.
The list would show all crew members. Each boat list would be headed by a senior member of the Deck Crew starting with the Master. Here is an example from "Ship Master's Business".
Muster List.JPG




For an interesting read, I suggest: Passenger ship evacuation seminar | SAFEGUARD research project.

Jim C.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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All things considered, the Titanic's deck department did a remarkable job in getting those boats away, and without serious incident. A couple of close calls, yes, but they got 'er done.

Those collapsibles were the real fly in the ointment but it's not as if they expected to need them/
 

Jim Currie

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Hello Michael! Glad to see you back in the fold. Your input has been sorely missed.

I agree with you 100%. These lads did a great job given the circumstances.

You will recall that in previous posts, people have questioned the wisdom of partly loading the boats at the beginning. The big point missed was that these boats were lowered using natural fibre ropes and the ropes in question were separately and manually slackened-off from each end. Keeping an even lowering rate without a jerk must have been a nightmare.


The collapsibles and their locations were an enigma to say the least and to be kind to the designers. You will note that nowadays, the favoured opinion regarding lieboats has reverted to the original idea that the ship herself is probably the best 'lifeboat'.

Jim C.
 

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