Rockets' use as signals of disaster


Dave Moran

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Apr 23, 2002
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Greetings all,

I have been off the boards for some time, and I hope you are all keeping well.

I have a question that may only require a short answer - or a lengthy one.

And it is this - prior to the night of April 14th-15th 1912 were there any recorded instances of a ship in difficulty signalling to another - or to shore - with rockets, in order to indicate distress ?

I realise that the rockets fitted to Titanic were for that purpose, but I wonder how familiar the average seaman - and I think Stone and Gibson were very average seamen indeed - would be with the concept.

I would appreciate any insight anyone can give. As I say - this might be a short answer.

Warmest regards

dave
 

Dave Gittins

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Sam correctly points out that officers learned the theory of distress signals.

What many seem to have lacked is actual experience of them. Boxhall mentions that he had never seen a distress signal fired until he fired one himself. Groves had never even seen an unused signal. He knew Californian had some stowed away. They thus had less practical experience of distress signals than many a member of a modern boating club.
 

Senan Molony

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ROCKETS AS DISTRESS SIGNALS

Lieutenant J. O. Williams, RN, hon. secretary of the Aldeburgh branch of the
National Lifeboat Institution, writes, with reference to the use of star rockets
at sea as signals of distress, that the practice of sending up rockets has
become, roughly speaking, not uncommon when the condition of matters hardly
warrants this extreme course. The result is that they are sometimes not regarded with the gravity attaching to them.

Lieutenant Williams thinks that the proper penalty attaching to the improper use of rockets at sea ought to be increased, so that in the discretion of the court the irresponsible firing of rockets should be made a criminal offence.

It is not an unknown event, Lieutenant Williams says, for lifeboats to go out
in response to a rocket signal, to cruise about for hours, and to find nothing.
This means worry, trouble and expense, which the Lifeboat Institution can ill
afford.

(The Times, June 27, 1912. p.4)

Of course if you associate lights you can see with a nearby and "perfectly all right" tramp steamer, and the lights only go halfway to the masthead light (not halfway up the mast, note, but perhaps one-third of the way), then you are not likely to be concerned about them.

Stone was also capable of believing that the rockets came from some ship over the far distant horizon, as indeed they did, but at no stage did he associate the rockets with critical distress. His behaviour bears out that simple fact.

It is a fact, as Carrie Brown points out, that sealers fired rockets in the vicinity of the Grand Banks in order to recall dories.

There are many other aspects of the widespread use of rockets in 1912 for identification, illumination and other purposes that are forgotten or unknown about today. I could post at least a dozen examples.

They should have made it clear cut, shouldn't they?
 

Dave Gittins

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Today the rules are clear cut, but false distress signals, whether by rockets, flares or radio are a dime a dozen. Ask any rescue service.

On the other hand, some don't know how to use signals when they have them on hand. Some years ago, some local boaties spent a cold night on a sandbar, not far offshore. They suffered nothing worse than a bit of a fright and a freezing. When the Water Police found them, they were seen to have supply of red flares, as required by local rules. The police asked why they were not fired. The frozen mariners replied that they had no matches! Those who know the sharp end from the blunt will get the point.
 
Jun 11, 2000
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"Those who know the sharp end from the blunt will get the point"
I say, Dave, even I - who have never clapped eyes on a flare at close quarters - could have worked out that the suppliers did not expect probably wet people to have usable matches on them, and that I therefore had to look for a firing mechanism. Mind you, I might have killed myself in the process .. but at least I'd have died with some powers of deduction intact.
 

Dave Moran

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Apr 23, 2002
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Of course, they may have been influenced by all those movies in which people do something fiddly to a flare and " Bammmmfff " - it lights up. Films like " The Thing " and " Ice Station Zebra " and the like - clearly it's the equivalent of all those movies where someone fiddles about with the wires under the steering column of a car - and the engine comes to life.
 

Dave Moran

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Senan Molony wrote a few weeks ago now,

" There are many other aspects of the widespread use of rockets in 1912 for identification, illumination and other purposes that are forgotten or unknown about today. I could post at least a dozen examples."

If you could - provided it were not too onerous - or if you could provide a link to such information, I would be very interested.

Thanks in advance

warmest regards

Dave
 

Paul Slish

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Jan 18, 2006
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According to the British Inquiry the "Titanic" carried "Distress signals - These were supplied of a number and pattern approved by the Board of Trade - ie, 36 socket signals in lieu of guns, 12 ordinary rockets, 2 Manwell Holmes deck flares, 12 blue lights, and 6 lifebuoy lights."

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the socket signals (distress). Does anyone have any reference as to how the socket signals differed from the 12 ordinary rockets? What was the intended purpose of the 12 ordinary rockets?

Thank you
 

Dave Gittins

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The ordinary rockets were just like those you may have bought for home use, only bigger. They threw out two green stars because White Star's night identification signal when off the Irish coast was two green flares, a rocket throwing green stars and two more green flares. This signified a White Star ship was approaching Queenstown/Cobh and needed a pilot.

The socket signals were effectively small mortars. A charge of gunpowder was placed in a strong metal tube, angled a bit off the vertical to prevent debris landing on the ship. A container of pyrotechnics was placed above the gunpowder. A fuse was also fitted to the charge. When all was ready, a lanyard attached to the fuse fired it by a friction match. The powder went bang, the container went up 600-800 feet and exploded, sending out stars. Very similar things are used for entertainment today, but they are fired electically.
 

Paul Slish

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Thank you Dave,

The following were all listed under "Life Saving Appliances" in the report of the British Inquiry.

"Distress signals. - These were supplied of number and pattern approved by Board of Trade - i.e., 36 socket signals in lieu of guns, 12 ordinary rockets, 2 Manwell Holmes deck flares, 12 blue lights, and 6 lifebuoy lights"

All of the above seem to be encompassed under "Distress Signals."

You described the company signal of the White Star Line, "Green pyro. light, followed by rocket throwing two green stars, rocket being followed by another green pyro. light." (From Appendix K, "The Ship That Stood Still").

Are you saying the rockets for the company signals were included under the category "Distress signals"? There is no mention of green pyro. lights (flares) in the above description. It seems unlikely to me that the items for the company signals would be included in the items listed as "Distress signals" in the overall category of "Life Saving Appliances."

Only "2 Manwell Holmes deck flares" were listed. I can't see how that could be the green pyro. lights as you could only give one company signal and then the supply would be exhausted.

In all the reading I have done on the "Titanic", I have yet to see an explanation of how the "2 Manwell Holmes deck flares, 12 blue lights, and 6 lifebuoy lights" were to be used to indicate distress?

Do you know of any references to this in any books?

I'm not convinced that those "12 ordinary rockets" had anything to do with company signals. If they did why would they list only the rockets and not the green pyro. lights? And why would they list them under the category of "Distress signals"?

I appreciate very much your answering, and I would be glad to hear of any other information you may have.

Thanks, Paul
 

Dave Gittins

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At a pinch, the ordinary rockets could be used as distress signals, as no colour was specified for distress. As you say, the other pyrotechnics could not be used as distress signals. Rockets or socket signals were required.
 

Dave Gittins

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The rockets were primarily for company signals off the Irish coast. As the rules at the time allowed "Rockets or shells, throwing stars of any color or description, fired one at a time in short intervals" they could have been used if needed, though not as bright and spectacular as the socket signals.
 

Paul Slish

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Thank you for the information Dave. From looking at your web site, I see you are an experienced yachtsman.

So to sum it up, the socket signals were the primary distress signals, but the ordinary rockets could also be used for distress if fired at short intervals. Also off the Irish coast the ordinary rockets were used with the green pyro. lights for the company signal.

Were the manwell deck flares to be used to light the deck in an emergency if the electric lights failed? I am just guessing. Were the lifebuoy lights to go in lifeboats? What were the 12 blue lights for? Were they more backup distress signals? I've been curious for years about all these other lights besides the socket signals. Until I found this web site, I never knew anyone I could ask. Any further insights on your part are appreciated.

It is interesting the Officer Boxhall had a box of the green pyro. lights (flares) put in the emergency boat he was in. Those company signals turned out to be quite useful in guiding the "Carpathia." Thanks again, Paul
 

Paul Slish

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"Article 31, Distress Signals, At Night: First... Second: Flames on the vessel as from a burning tar barrel, oil barrel, and so forth."
(Titanic Sinking the Myths, p. 143, D.E. Bristow)
"Pyrotechnic displays approved in Titanic's time by the Board of Trade for use as distress signals on board British passenger ships included Holmes' danger signals and McKurdy's danger signals, both of which produced a simulation of 'flames on the vessel' and were regarded as equivalent to the Class 2 night distress signal of Article 31, International Rules of the Road." (Titanic Sinking the Myths, p 144).

The two Manwell Holmes deck flares carried by Titanic as part of her complement of "Distress Signals" were to be used to simulate "Flames on the Vessel" to fulfill the second class of night distress signals.

A picture with a "dying 'Holmes light'" is also present in the picture section of "Titanic and the Mystery Ship" by Senan Molony.

I hope to eventually research how the "12 blue lights, and 6 lifebuoy lights" also carried by the Titanic as distress signals were in fact used to indicate distress.

Paul Slish
 

Bruce Harwood

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Sep 2, 2008
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I would like to approach this problem from a slightly different angle. Can any of the nautical types here tell us just what sequence of rockets would get their attention?

Say, for instance that you are a deck officer on a ship that is stopped by ice in 1912; you see another ship approach, stop, and then start sending up rockets. What would move you to ask the wireless operator to find out what was going on?

On the other side, on Titanic it is my understanding that Captain Smith only ordered Mr Boxhall to send up rockets without specifying number or sequence. What if he were more specific, saying for instance to send up twelve rockets in quick succession, followed ten minutes later by another twelve? Would that do the trick?
 

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