General Safety of Ships and Shipping

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There seems to be a lot written here about whether or not White Star Line was a safe line or not. I guess my question is: weren't there horrible accidents and sea disasters on many of the smaller sailing ships used in the past which may have lifted the level of safety (real or imagined) significantly just merely by the ship size that White Star was producing?

Like the difference between flying on a cesna and flying on a 747 in turbulence. Any thoughts?
In brief, White Star compared poorly with Cunard, which to this day has never lost a passenger through shipwreck. The Germans were also good in their heighday in the 20 years or so before WW I.

Compared with sailing ships or even the smaller steamers, White Star did very well, especially after 1900. The square rigged sailing ship has been called the most dangerous vehicle ever in regular use. What with its very limited ability to go to windward and the vague navigation of its era, it's no wonder that the shores of the world are littered with their wrecks.

Compared with a sailing ship, a steamer was like a 747 as against a Wright biplane.

Philip Hind

Staff member


In brief, White Star compared poorly with Cunard, which to this day has never lost a passenger through shipwreck

Um, I think a few passengers were lost with the Lusitania ?!*?
Mmmmmm...I think Dave was referring to a peacetime disaster. Bombs, shells, mines and torpedos are a bit more beyond what anyone can control.

Unless you're the guy with your finger on the trigger.

Michael H. Standart
Thanks to all of you for the information.

I also have another question actually from a colleague of mine who knows that I have aTiatnic fetish.

He recalls that there was a ship during WWII that was sinking and that many of the men escaped the sinking to be eaten by sharks. I have no idea what he is talking about. Any body?
Also, if WSL had so many accident why did people continue to support the line by traveling with them? They seemed to have the wealthiest supporters of their day, why?

Barbara DeCrow Goldberg

This is in response to Maureen's question about the WWII shipwreck where the survivors were attacked by sharks. I believe that the ship was the USS Indianapolis. I also recall hearing that the captain, who survived, later committed suicide because he was blamed for the disaster and was court-martialled. He may have been exonerated posthumously, but I'm not sure of the details on this.

Maureen, as I mentioned, after 1900 White Star did pretty well. I'm one of those who think that the Republic incident added to the feeling of security rather than serving as a warning. Today people still fly with airlines that have had the odd crash. The old "it can't happen to me" still applies.

I have a gut feeling that the rich passengers who chose White Star were mostly Americans and that rich British aristocrats chose Cunard. The British passengers on Titanic were a pretty ordinary lot. Only Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon was born to a title. Anybody like to comment?
Hi Maureen:
If you want a good idea about WSL's shipping record, I suggest you pick up the book, ' Falling Star ' by Charles Haas and Jack Eaton. After you read it, you'll wonder why Smith kept getting promoted!
You have hit the nail on the head with your comment about American's choosing WSL and British using Cunard. I'm sure it stems from the British attitude of xenophobia which was rampant at that time.You have only to read the survivor interviews to see that we were so scathing and vitriolic of everything and anything that did not hail from these shores. My Grandmother travelled to New York frequently in the decade prior to WW1
and when I asked her which ships she travelled on her reply was always "why, we took the Lusitania of course! - it's always such a pleasure to travel on a British ship - one meets the nicest people!" The fact that WSL was crewed by British seamen did not appear to come into it! WSL was looked upon as an American owned company with branches over here. If you had the misfortune to have to travel second class, or, heaven forbid, third, then it was considered imaterial which line you used.This superior attitude was fortunately knocked out of us by the First World War following which anything American became "trendy" and has remained that way. To fully understand the British attitude, I'm afraid you have to be British. Our American friends can only chuckle at the characterisation of the streotypical British Male/Female of that era - just as we do at those of Ma & Pa Venu !
Geoff and Dave brought up some good points. I think another example would be Violet Jessop. She considered the WSL to be on her B list. I am sure Cunard was probably on her A list.
I'd have to do a bit of digging when I have the chance, but the ship mentioned where the survivors were eaten by sharks was indeed the USS Indianapolis. She was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after leaving Tinian where she had delivered the componants for the two atomic bombs which were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of this was the secrecy surrounding the movements of U.S. warships during the war. Even when she failed to arrive at her destination on time, nobody really thought to do a search for the ship. If memory serves, it wasn't until the remaining survivors were spotted by a passing seaplane that the Navy realised they were short a cruiser.

Definately not a bright spot on the U.S. Navy's history.

Michael H. Standart
Thanks to you all for answering my co-workers question. And I did not know about the story of the atomic bombs being on it prior to the torpedo. No wonder the Japanese wanted to hit that ship.

But what would have happened if they had torpedoed it prior to the delivery of the bombs...would the nuclear warhead have exploded on the water or do nuclear warheads have to be set a certain way in order to detonate?

I also would like to take the opporunity to thank Dave Gittins who always keeps me straight with the facts ...just the facts. And Geoff's supporting comments were wonderful as wait a minute...that was the one with that Ma Pop answer wasn't it...hey....that wasn't a crack on us US type people was it? No, my friend Geoff wouldn't do such a thing,...right? he he...thanks for the information.

Wow, you all have a complete library up inside your heads...I stand amazed. Maureen.
Hi Mo, actually, the Japanese had no knowladge whatever of the atomic bombs being aboard. The security surrounding these weapons was phenomonally tight. Not that this stopped Stalin from learning about The Bomb, but he had sympathetic spys in on the project. The Japanese never did.

In that the bombs were not shipped assembled, a torpedo hit would not have set them off. These days, nuclear weapons have all sorts of safety devices on them to prevent an accidental detonation, and they do require special proceedures and codes to arm these weapons.

Michael H. Standart
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