Three Watches Lowe Vindicated

Inger Sheil

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Among the swag of new material posted by Sen to ET was a very interesting piece on improved pay and conditions for WSL officers (The Times, 3 April 1913).

Lowe's comments along the lines of 'when we sleep we die' are understandable in the context of the watch on/watch off system then in place for the junior officers. When pressed on the point, he gave his opinion in favour of the three-watch system (the obvious drawbacks to four on/four off are a recurrent theme in literature and correspondence of the era - Moody mentions in one of his early letters how exhausting it was):
quote:

15971. You are one of the Junior Officers to whom the two-watch system applies? - Yes.

15972. Does that mean that you never have more than a period of four hours on a stretch off watch? - Yes.

15973. Do you consider that is satisfactory, or do you think that the three-watch system should be applied to the Junior Officers as well as to the Senior Officers? - Of course, three watches would be far better.
Ismay, however, thought that four hours on / four hours off was quite sufficient for a junior officer:
quote:

18878. We have been told that amongst the Junior Officers of this ship the two-watch system was in force? - It was.

18879. That is to say, they never have longer than four hours off before they have to go on watch again? - That is right.

18880. Do you consider that that is conducive to their being able satisfactorily to perform their duties on that ship? - I think a Junior Officer can quite well. He has no watch to keep.

18881. Four hours from the time he leaves his watch till he goes back again? - Yes.

18882. Have you had any complaints from your Officers about that? - An Officer spoke to me coming home on the "Adriatic" about it.

18883. Have your Directors generally had any petition or memorial from your Officers in this or other ships? - A requisition came from the Officers of the American Line, who, in the olden times, kept four hours on and eight hours off. We changed that to two on and four off.

18884. You still consider that four hours is quite sufficient for them to come off watch and have their sleep and go on watch again? - For a Junior Officer, yes.
As a side note, I'd love to know if it was one of the Titanic's officers or an Adriatic men who tackled him on this subject.

In the article, among other interesting points, we find the following:
quote:

Considerable improvements are to be inaugurated as regards watch-keeping, and as soon as the company can arrange it, all officers throughout the company will be put on three watches, and in a large number of ships an additional officer will be carried in order that this may be done. This eventually will lead to the entire abolition of the two-watch system in the White Star Line.
The changes were evident from the WSL material extant, but it was very interesting to see the media coverage of the proposed reform.​
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Lowe's comments along the lines of 'when we sleep we die' are understandable in the context of the watch on/watch off system then in place for the junior officers.<<

I can empathize with that, and not even from the point of view of a watch officer. Watchstanding is demanding under even the best circumstances. You pray for a dull watch for the simple reason that people have a nasty habit of getting dead when things get exciting. The end of the watch doesn't mean the end of duty either as officers have specific responsibilities they have to tend to when they're not on the bridge. Responsibilities which they have to tend to in their "free time" only to have to go back on watch again without ever getting a wink of sleep.

>>18880. Do you consider that that is conducive to their being able satisfactorily to perform their duties on that ship? - I think a Junior Officer can quite well. He has no watch to keep.<<

<snort> Yeah...right! I'll bet Ismay would have been in for a rude shock if he had actually studied the problem. They have a lot to attend to when they're on the deck. Questions of navigation, keeping to the course, tending to the log...the list goes on...and they have to be alert for possible trouble which can spring on them with little or no warning. This is far from easy, and running to the ragged edge of exhaustion doesn't help.

>>18882. Have you had any complaints from your Officers about that? - An Officer spoke to me coming home on the "Adriatic" about it.<<

You'll notice that he actually avoided the question rather then answer it.
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>>18883. Have your Directors generally had any petition or memorial from your Officers in this or other ships? - A requisition came from the Officers of the American Line, who, in the olden times, kept four hours on and eight hours off. We changed that to two on and four off. <<

HINT: Follow the money on this one. In order to shift to a three watch system, they can either cut the numbers in the section...not always a good idea as the more eyes looking out the better, or hire additional people which can be pretty expensive.

Of course, running a ship on the rocks because somebody was too dazed to do the job can be expensive too, and it has happened. I saw an article in Ships Monthly a couple of months ago about one such accident that happened because the Chief officer was so worn out that he litterally fell asleep at the switch!

Cheaper can be damned expensive! Unfortunately, the bean counters have no real concept of that, and guess who gets screwed when it all goes wrong? (It ain't the accountants!)
 

Inger Sheil

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quote:

You pray for a dull watch for the simple reason that people have a nasty habit of getting dead when things get exciting.
Absolutely! And not just in the maritime world either, of course. I have a friend who used to manage the busiest terminal at one of the worlds biggest airports. Ever aware to the possibility of a major mishap, she told me bluntly that their prayer before going on duty was 'not on my shift!'
quote:

The end of the watch doesn't mean the end of duty either as officers have specific responsibilities they have to tend to when they're not on the bridge. Responsibilities which they have to tend to in their "free time" only to have to go back on watch again without ever getting a wink of sleep.
Very true. We've spoken often of the senior officers and their rounds, but the literature and letters of the time (and not that much has changed, I gather) refer to the duties of the junior. Accompanying crewmen down to retrieve the supposedly 'not wanted' on the crossing luggage, for example. James Moody wrote of the exhaustion and fragmented sleep the officers were experiencing in Belfast and Southampton, getting her ready to sail.

I've read a few recent cases like the one you cite in Ships Monthly - that's in spite of the fact that IIRC, the current international Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW) 95 requires a minimum of six consecutive hours of sleep in a 24 hour period for crew.

No wonder this profession took such a heavy toll on men's health and their lives.​
 

Inger Sheil

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Bartlett, at any rate, tried to dismiss the issue when it was raised by L S Holmes of the representative of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, who was representing the deck officers:
quote:

21749. Have you at any time had any complaints from your Junior Officers as to the existence of the two-watch system? - No, I have not.

21750. Do you not consider that the three-watch system for Junior Officers would keep the men fitter to perform their duties? - No, I think it is not necessary that Junior Officers of ships should have more than what we are doing at the present time - that is, the watch and watch system.

21751. You think four hours is sufficient from the time they go off watch till the time they go on watch again? - For a Junior Officer, yes.

21752. I suppose a Junior Officer will have calculations to make perhaps while on watch? - Some, yes.

21753. Some complicated calculations? - Yes.

21754. He may be required by the Officer of the watch to find out the position? - He may, yes.

21755. Does not that require as clear a head as you can possibly have? - It does.

21756. Do you think a man is best fitted for that kind of work when he has only had four hours' sleep? - Yes, he would be checked by others, remember.

21757. Do you think he would be better fitted for it if he had eight hours off and four on? - I do not think it is at all necessary.

21758. Do you think he would be better fitted for it? - No.
Holmes tried to press his point during the final submissions:
quote:

I next want to direct your Lordship's attention to Question 4: "Was the 'Titanic' sufficiently and efficiently Officered and manned? Were the watches of the Officers and crew usual and proper?" I am afraid that the watches of the Officers were usual, but I am going to suggest to your Lordship that they were not proper. You will remember what the system was: The Chief Officer, the First Officer and Second Officer - those first three Officers - were on the three-watch system; that is to say, four hours on watch and eight hours off duty; the other five Officers were on the two-watch system - four hours on and four hours off continuously. That does not mean that they got four hours' sleep. It is four hours from the time that they are first entitled to leave the bridge to the time at which they have to be back ready to take up their duties on watch; and it is not fair either to the Officers or to the travelling public that they should be expected to perform the duties they have to perform with such short stretches of sleep. It was admitted in examination, I think by Captain Bartlett, that those Officers might be called upon at any time to make abstruse calculations, they may have to take bearings and do other things which require the very clearest mind possible, at the bidding of the Officer in charge of the watch. I do, therefore, suggest that your Lordship should answer this question as far as regards the propriety of the watches of the Junior Officers, in the negative. Captain Bartlett, of course, is the Marine Superintendent of the White Star Line, and perhaps he has reached such a height in his profession that he has forgotten the days when he was a Junior Officer.

The Commissioner: Any way, he survived them.

Mr. Holmes: He survived them. But he refused to admit even that they would be better equipped in any way for their duties if they had longer stretches of sleep. I do not make this request to your Lordship, as your Lordship has rather suggested when other similar suggestions have been made throughout the Enquiry, in order that a few more members of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild may obtain berths on ships. If I may say so, the Imperial Merchant Service Guild have no difficulty in obtaining berths for all their members whenever they want them.
I suspect - given that the system was changed the following year - there was more agitation for the three watch system than Bartlett suggests. Wonder if Holmes had discussed it with Lowe as well.​
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>No wonder this profession took such a heavy toll on men's health and their lives.<<

In many respects, it still does. I've got questionable knees and a bad back as a consequence of going to sea for 20 years, and when I retired, when I wasn't job hunting, I was in my bed just "catching up" in a manner of speaking. Crew rest has always been a touchy issue, and I suppose it always will be...at least until the shipping owners finally figure out that the Run Them Into The Ground mentality is a recipe for disaster.

I have to wonder how many "Bermuda Triangle Mysteries" are simply a consequence of people on watch being so wiped out that they failed to notice a problem until it was too late.

>>James Moody wrote of the exhaustion and fragmented sleep the officers were experiencing in Belfast and Southampton, getting her ready to sail.<<

I'm not surprised. (Did anyone think I would be?)

In port doesn't always equal slack time, even when in dock for a refit. When you're expected to keep to a schedule and get underway, there are thousands of details that have to be attended to in regards repairs, painting, housekeeping, loading on stores, victuals, baggage, making sure the charts were up to date, and fueling. The latter was an absolutely brutal exersize when the fuel taken on was coal in 300 pound bags, and somebody had to keep an eye on things.

Can't forget administrative chores either.
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David Haisman

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Hi All,
An interesting topic here regarding watch keeping.
For what it's worth, watch keeping for coastal vessels, and this may include ''run jobs'', was normally with the 4 on 4 off watch system.
There are many good reasons for this but I certainly wont go into that here which would also include ''working by'' practices.
Junior officers, until they achieve Mates, Masters and Extra Masters certificates, are just that.
Junior officers without these certificates would still have to ''rough it''along with apprentices with many shipping company's.
This would also apply to a Junior Officer that held the above certificates but held a junior position in the pecking order.
The busiest officer on any merchantmen is the Second Officer with a greater workload than his counterparts.
Once promoted from this position, he would know all there is to know about running a ship.
I've no doubt that much of this work procedure was passed on from Titanic's day.
(For information only)....... Hopefully!

All the best,

David H
 
Jan 28, 2003
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Frankly, if they'd wanted people who could sleep for only four hours, and then get out there functioning on watch, they'd have done better to employ middle-aged people, rather than the young in my experience. As many on this forum can attest, it is the young who need sleep and the older ones who need less. Of course, whether the older eyes could pick up the detail is less certain... maybe Ismay was then a four-hour sleep man, at his age, and made the mistake of forgetting his youth when he used to 'die', like Lowe said.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Michael is basically correct that cost was likely the deciding factor in having the junior officers keep "watch on watch" with the crew. Going to a three-watch system for the junior officers would have broken an age-old tradition that the officer in charge of the "watch" (meaning the crew on duty) worked the same hours.

Changing to a three-watch system for the crew, if the same number of hands were to be on deck at all times, would have required hiring one-third more seamen. Titanic had fewer than 50 true seamen in the crew, which became a factor in the safe loading, launching, and manning of the lifeboats. It might be conjectured that a three-watch system would have increased the number of people saved by providing more trained hands for the lifeboat work.

However, back to the watch system in effect at 11:40 p.m., April 14 in Titanic. The IMM/White Star rulebook in a paragraph titled "Oppoisite Art. 17 -- Watches" said:

"...The three Seniors are the Bridge Officers, and divide the time into three watches of four hours' duration, each will have four hours on the bridge in charge of the ship, followed by eight hours below. The Junior Officers, where five or more officers are borne, will keep watch and watch with the seamen, the Third Officer having charge of the port watch, and the Fourth Officer the starboard Watch, under the direction of the Senior Officer on watch. They are also to go the rounds every hour during watch on deck, reporting having carried this out the the Senior Officer of the watch."

The rulebook gives the following schedule of watches for the officers:

Chief Officer - 2 am to 6 am; 2 pm to 6 pm
Second " - 6 am to 10 am; 6 pm to 10 pm
First " - 10 am to 2 pm; 10 pm to 2 am
The First Officer relieving for Breakfast.
The Second Officer relieving for Lunch
No Dinner relief needed.

Junior Officers' Watches:-
Midnight to 4 am
4 am to 8 am
8 am to Noon
Noon to 4 pm
4 pm to 6 pm
6 pm to 8 pm
8 pm to Midnight

In addition, paragraph 206 "Evening Inspection" required the Chief Officer or Senior Officer of the Watch when relieved to make an inspection of the ship every evening at 8 p.m. This was to insure that the firefighting equipment was in good order, the emergency boats ready for launching, and that side ports open for cattle were ready for closing if necessary.

Junior Officers in paragraph 371(a) were exhorted to "...exert themselves to afford every assistance in the navigation of the ship by perfecting themselves in the practice of solar and stellar observations, both for the correction of the compass and for ascertaining the position of the ship."

The mention of "correction of the compass" raises a major work activity aboard Titanic. Paragraph 253 required the Officer of the Watch to "...steady the ship on her course by standard every half-hour, and must compare the compasses every Watch,..." Due to the location of the standard compass, this required one junior officer to trek 230 feet aft, climb on the roof of the first class lounge, and up the compass platform every 30 minutes at sea. The other junior officer was required to supervise the QM at the ship's wheel. This was done 8 times per watch.

All work of one watch had to be completed before a new watch took over, a standing requirement which effectively forced these trips to the compass to be done before the hour and half hour. This would allow the watch being relieved to turn over the bridge with the compass work having been done as required. Company regulations forbade the oncoming watch officers to take over until the officers they were relieving had completed all ongoing tasks.

One anomoly in the Titanic story is that Murdoch relieved Lightoller for dinner on the night of the accident. This was contrary to the rulebook which only allowed meal relief for breakfast and lunch.

-- David G. Brown
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>As many on this forum can attest, it is the young who need sleep and the older ones who need less.<<

I'm not so sure about that, though I may be odd man out. I like getting my 8 hours. On my days off, I frequently take midafternoon naps.

>>Of course, whether the older eyes could pick up the detail is less certain...<<

Tell me about it! I outgrew any need for glasses by the time I reached twenty or so only to start needing them again back in 1998. As for Ismay, I don't know how he dealt with issues of sleep, but I strongly doubt he ever missed a wink if he didn't really want to. I would be surprised if he even much cared what sort of price the watchkeeping exacted on those he did it for a living. It may not have been a callous indifference. More like a 'take it for granted' sort of thing where if nothing ever went wrong, as far as he was concerned, it wasn't a problem.
 
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Alicia Coors

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David said
quote:

Changing to a three-watch system for the crew, if the same number of hands were to be on deck at all times, would have required hiring one-third more seamen.
If two guys each worked half the time, three would each work one-third of the time. That's 50% more men. Am I missing something?
quote:

Titanic had fewer than 50 true seamen in the crew, which became a factor in the safe loading, launching, and manning of the lifeboats. It might be conjectured that a three-watch system would have increased the number of people saved by providing more trained hands for the lifeboat work.
If they got all the boats away with the personnel they had, how would having more men improve the outcome?​
 

Paul Rogers

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quote:

"If they got all the boats away with the personnel they had, how would having more men improve the outcome?"
But they didn't really "get all the boats away", did they? Collapsible "B" wasn't really launched; it floated away, inverted, after the ship took its famous "dive." Collapsible "A" had merely a dozen or so aboard and an equally dodgy launch. More men could, perhaps, have meant that these two boats could have been attached to the falls and lowered full.

The extra men would have helped other ships as well. Titanic had a relatively drawn-out death in excess of 2 hours. Most ships I've read about sunk a lot faster and would have needed extra hands to launch as many lifeboats as possible, especially after the disaster had the impact of increasing the number of lifeboats that had to be carried.​
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Alicia -- you are right, it would be a 50% increase. I stand corrected. What I was thinking was that one-third of the crew would be on duty at all times.

With regard to the boats: more skilled hands means a safer and smoother evolution. This is true whether soogeeing the deck or launching boats. Read Major Peuchen's U.S. testimony to get a good idea of the situation that night.

-- David G. Brown
 

Inger Sheil

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Cheers for that input, David H - your comments along the lines that junior officers simply had to 'rough it' accurately reflects the aside about Bartlett having 'survived it'. The junior's representative, Holmes, had anticipated the argument by the shipping lines that it was simply a pretext for creating employment opportunities for officers. Lowe, it is interesting to note, was not going to concede that he could do his job better with more sleep - his angle was that they would have 'more time to themselves'!
quote:

The busiest officer on any merchantmen is the Second Officer with a greater workload than his counterparts. Once promoted from this position, he would know all there is to know about running a ship.
An interesting point - Lowe and Boxhall spent a good deal of their careers at this rank - both before they joined the WSL and on WSL ships in the inter-war era.

Agreeing with your observations on life in port, Mike - Moody wrote many of his letters during the turnaround in his pre-WSL days, and it's apparent from many of them that he is functioning on very little sleep. The first letter he wrote when the Titanic arrived in Southampton is brief, refers to the sleep over the last few days as a handful of hours, and the neat copperplate handwriting deteriorates as exhuastion gets the better of him.​
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Moody wrote many of his letters during the turnaround in his pre-WSL days, and it's apparent from many of them that he is functioning on very little sleep. The first letter he wrote when the Titanic arrived in Southampton is brief, refers to the sleep over the last few days as a handful of hours, and the neat copperplate handwriting deteriorates as exhuastion gets the better of him. <<

Been there done that, only with warships rather then passenger liners. Just as stressful though. Loadouts take all day long with all hands working parties, and depending on the size of the ship, can take up to a month to get done. You may have an opportunity for liberty, but sometimes is a toss of the coin as to whether you go out to town or hit your bunk. (Rack in Navy parlance.) In my case, I can think of a time or two when my rack won the coin toss!

For all the manual labour the deckapes such as myself did, it wasn't entirely lost on some that the officers frequently got the dirty end of the stick. When the troops are going home to freinds/wives/lovers, etc, they're still stuck on board pushing the paper to meet deadlines, going to briefings, etc.

Made me glad I wasn't one of them.
 

Inger Sheil

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Reminds me of a comment from a young engineer on one of the ships Lowe served aboard, remembering those early years on the West African run. 'The Mates in those days had plenty to do in their off watch periods as it was their responsibility to check the manifests and epitome of cargo, also to go down into the hatches to check the cargo with Kroo labour.'

On the other hand, it wasn't all exhausting grind - Moody did write of periods where his only activity was to tally cargo and occasionally tell the bosun to liven the men up.
 
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David Haisman

Guest
Hi everyone,

I mentioned in my posts several months ago, the importance and value of Able Seamen onboard merchantmen and the lack of them.
A typical example was when serving on the ''Queen'' liners, there were only 60 AB's to work that ship and man 24 lifeboats, a ratio of less than three to a boat.( 6 Lookoutmen, 6 QM's, 36 watchkeepers and 12 day workers) Unlike navy's worldwide, the commercial merchantmen will never employ one more man than absolutely necessary.
Sleep would have been of ''minor''importance to a ship owner doing a ''run job'' and coastal watch keeping may well have been the order of the day from shipyard to delivery at Southampton.
That would have entailed, all types of temporary staggered watch keeping, many day workers, shore staff and such like.
Some of my old shipmates have done these jobs as a stop-gap in their employment and rate such jobs as ''workups'' and bad payers.
Whilst in port, I would imagine the breaking of watches would be normal with a big day work personnel requirement. Others would be required for B.O.T. requirements, fire watch, storing of ship and engine room coaling etc.
( Rea's Coaling Co. was still operating in the port when I was a lad)
At sea, port and starboard watches on merchantmen were deemed as unecessary in later years and was always known as a Royal Naval shipboard routine.
The utilising of young officers and apprentices on some ships left much to be desired and at times we were glad not to be in their shoes.
However, like many industries, when afloat you have to get stuck in during the early days and except what's thrown at you in order to become a better seaman eventually. It was expected, amid much complaining, but in my experience it appeared to have worked although we got similar treatment from some of those that decided to pass it on.

(For information only)

All the best,
David H