Who looked out for the Lookouts

Erik Wood

I will cover training for the non officers. Most of them are required to get a seamans paper and then upon arrival in the company go through a apprentice program where they are taught the real basics of being a passenger ship seaman. After that they are given jobs based on what they want to do. Then they do some on the job training which as some accompanying things to be singned off. Which has to have approval of the department head and in the instance of lookouts it would the Junior most officer. Seeing as he just came from the Academy most likely it is all fresh in his mind and incidently he needs the instruction time to make Fifth.

Officers on the other hand have a full quarter devoted to it (or at least I did) on how to scan what to look for how to identify it. What atmosphseric things there are and how the effect your ability to look out properly. Binoc scanning. The ability to plot the object without using radar and determine when it you will pass, at what distance, what time, and what degree on the compass.

I think that it is easy to acocunt for Rostrons actions since he knew that Titanic had already mate a nasty fate in the ice he did not want to repeat it so he double his lookouts or what ever the case may be. So all in all the officers have the most training and the people doing the job on the focsle don't. You will find that some Captain position there officers in place to relay information during manuvering in tight spaces or just in pulling in and out of a port.


David Haisman

Former Member
Interesting stuff there about Lookouts, unfortunately bogged down by too many technical researchers that haven't got their feet wet. I shall stand by my fellow Lookout Men knowing the conditions they would have endured across the North Atlantic. Eye sight tests, including distinguishing coloured lights with either eye were carried out every sixth voyage (12 weeks) across the pond when I was at sea in the 'fifties'. Going back to Fred Fleet's day, all the eyesight tests in the world wouldn't have helped with running eyes from the continual blast of ice cold air as the ship proceeded through the night at almost 40kmh. The total discomfort of being extremely cold after an almost two hour duty in a restricted area unable to move about with two of you up there, is bloody demoralizing. Never forget, the only protection from the elements in such a 'nest' as that of the Titanic's era is in some cases, just a canvas 'dodger' about chest high. In an open crows nest, the wind hits the foremast and sweeps down behind you as well as continually blasting your face. In extreme conditions with open crows nests it wasn't uncommon for Lookouts to ask for an 'hour about watch' in the 'nest' but the response would depend on the officer of the watch being in a good mood. Its as well to remember that on a 'black' night, the horizon and sky are as one and stars appear which are very often mistaken as ships lights. I know that for a fact having reported many 'ships' that later became airborne! As for the berg, well time was of the essence and that watery naked eye could never have picked it out to avoid a collision. So all you experts out there, you can put your calculators away. This would be something you would have to experience, not once, but many times over to know what you're talking about. The Lookout being carried out by Quartermasters on the docking bridge aft at least gave the man walking space, a situation envied by that poor soul stuck up the 'stick'.
David Haisman
Hi David, and I couldn't agree more. I've stood low visibility details on the bow of a frigate, in the North Pacific in the wintertime, in high sea and wind conditions. Fleet and Lee in their ill protected crows nest still had more protection then my mate and myself that night. All that stood between us and the ocean was the rail, and that winter suit we wore barely did the job of keeping us warm.

I've seen my share of black nights, lousy weather, optical illusions and freezing cold that penetrates through anything. I'd love to see the blokes with the sliderules deal with that reality a few times.

Michael H. Standart

David Haisman

Former Member
Thanks for that Michael and it's good to know that someone on this topic has had similar experiences. I note that several comments have been on Lookout training and I would like to address that here. When I was at sea, being a Lookout was part of your job as an Able Seaman and that would be the same as in Titanic's day. On the big 'Queen' liners, there was a crew of approx 1500 and out of that number there were 60 ABs.
Of those Able Seamen there would be the Bosun and Bosun's Mates, Storekeeper, Lamp Trimmer,12 watch keepers, 6 Quartermasters and 6 Lookouts along with several day workers such as Deckmen. When Lookouts finished their stint up in the 'nest' they would then join the watchkeepers and work on deck. These men were 'Top Rate' ABs which meant that they would hold a Lifeboat Certificate, Steering Certificate (obtained after successfully steering all kinds of vessels by compass for 10 hours or more) an EDH Certificate ( basic seamanship, safety at sea and fire fighting) and have at least three years actual sea service. Actual sea service is exactly what it means and not time served in the Merchant Navy. Reporting ships was by the use of points,(eleven and a quarter degrees to each point) there being 32 on the compass card, although our main concern was for the 16 points forward of the beam. To make it simple, if a ship appeared on the right hand side half way between the ships intended course and the beam, that report would be 4 points to starboard and so on and other positions would be worked out by the common sense factor using your compass bearing knowledge. Although I've spoken about the bitter cold in the North Atlantic, the tropics have their hazards as well with electrical storms. Having the mast struck twice by lightning during my sea career whilst on lookout I can honestly say that your hair really does stand on end!
I hope this little snippet clears up the many misconceptions about Lookouts and just finally for the landlubbers;
Imagine hopping onto a motor cycle with the air temperature below freezing, travelling at 40kmh continuously for two hours without goggles on and then have a look at your eyes in the mirror. Imagine trying to spot a huge lump of ice on a black night on a black glassy sea with those same eyes and you may then begin to know what Fleet and Lee were up against.
All the best to you,
Sincerely, David Haisman
Hi David, interesting overveiw on training here. U.S. Navy practice is rather different of course. The people who have to do qualification sections are in the deck department, with all the training being on the job, and sign offs being by already qualified personnel. I suspect you had a similar documentation protocol to deal with. However, we were trained to make reports in degrees reletive to the ship, not points. Being a Ships Serviceman,(Supply department. We run the retail stores, laundry and barbering services on the ship we rarely stood such watches. When we did, it was to augment the deck department under extremely adverse conditions. I had to do a lot of my own training/learning as nobody wanted to bother to teach us supply types the ropes.

I learned very early on to report everything and trust nothing. I also learned the hard way just how useless binoculars can be for scanning. About the only time I ever used them was to get a better look at something I had already spotted or whach had already been spotted.

Some of my experience was on low visibility watches, and the rest while serving on the USS Comstock's Snoopy Team. What the Snoopy Team does is gather information on foreign vessels, particular merchent craft and warships of hostile nations encountered at sea. Since much depended on getting the details right no matter which detail I was on, I learned to find out what worked best and when, then make use of it.

In regards hazards in the tropics, imagine punishing heat, and if you're close to land, hoards of hungry mosquitos. I learned about that in the Panama Canal Zone. I've been through there five times.

As for imagining what Fleet and Lee had to deal with, I don't have to. I've done it. Whenever the bridge sent down some coffee to us, as atrocious as it was, it was pure heaven...eh...so long as we bolted it down befor it had a chance to freeze in the damned cup.

I'm not betting on the landlubbers ever getting it right as long as they continue ignoring input from those who have done the job and actually know what they're talking about. Inger Sheil made an interesting post two months ago on this. Apparently, she became aware of people who ignored the input of people competant in this area because it conflicted with some pet theories they had. Good old arrogance and stupidity in the same package. One can't get more efficient then that!

BTW, now that I'm thinking about it: what did your Mum think about you're making a career at sea? After the Titanic, she couldn't have been jumping for joy.

Michael H. Standart

David Haisman

Former Member
To briefly answer your question Michael, she had 8 sons, 3 joined the Royal Navy serving between 12 and 20 years. Two of us joined the Merchant Navy, myself serving 30 years and two joined the Royal Air Force. Mother, God Bless her, took it all in her stride but insisted that the one who joined the Aquitania,( a four funneler similar to Titanic) made sure he knew where his lifeboat was.
David Haisman.