The Browser Review Daily Letter 158
Titanic Disaster: Passengers To Blame
IF PUBLIC WANTED LIFEBOATS, SHIPS WOULD HAVE THEM
From The Atlantic Monthly, August 1913
BOSTON, MASS — After the loss of the Titanic the natural cry of the clamorous public and the nautically ignorant legislators on both sides of the ocean was for more boats, boats at any cost, boats for all, no matter what their construction or the means available to launch them in an emergency.
Was the shipowner, or the traveling public, or were the legal authorities, to blame for the shortage of boats aboard the Titanic? Without hesitation I exonerate the shipowner, and place the responsibility on the legal authorities and the traveling public.
It is obvious that the two latter are dealt with fairly, for what the law demands the shipowner must supply or go to prison.
What the traveling public requires he must also supply, or go out of business.
If the law calls for a certain number of boats of certain capacities, the shipowner invariably goes beyond what is required of him.
The public demands luxurious suites of rooms, Venetian cafes, lounges, buffets, reading, writing, and music rooms, swimming baths, gymnasiums, and so forth, and the shipowner meets the demand.
To satisfy the law is quite a simple matter, but to meet the standard of luxury demanded by passengers to-day is not easy. Shipowner and sailor both know that luxury and efficiency make bad shipmates. Let passengers demand fewer luxuries and the work of finding deck-space to carry boats for all will be simplified.
The claim that a vessel carries boats for all does not mean safety unless the boats are allowed working room to launch them. It merely means the mechanical hoisting aboard of the required number of boats.
To have boats for all is one thing, but if they are cramped, and the working space is hampered by Roman baths, etcetera, as it generally is, we are worse off than before. Superfluities always mean confusion. Add darkness to luxury and we have all that is required to turn confusion into chaos.
If wealth talks at sea in fine weather it must not wail when disaster overtakes it. There are limits to what the shipowner and naval architect can do. Running liners is a business that must return a profit, and be as void of sentiment as running trains. Ships must pay or cease to run, and, if the traveling public must have the luxuries and life-saving gear it demands, then it must pay the piper in the form of higher fares.
In answer to the demand for boats, boats of all sizes and descriptions found their way aboard many liners. In positions where the official ‘A’ class lifeboats could be stowed, these boats were put aboard. But not many vessels had much space to spare, and in most of them we find collapsible boats and rafts of various patterns, some with artificial buoyancy and others with only the natural buoyancy of the material of which they are constructed.
Rafts they are in every sense of the word, and I for one would prefer an overcrowded lifeboat of the approved pattern rather than trust myself aboard one of these decked, canvas-gunwaled contrivances.
Having experienced all the inroads of the Atlantic, I should prefer to die in the first instance rather than prolong the agony on such rafts, knowing as I do that the first heavy sea which swept over them must wash all the occupants into the sea.
Boats of a sort were crowded aboard ship without having passed an official test of any kind. But the shipowner had to meet the popular demand, and he did so with the only available means at his command; and, as the public has evinced no desire to have decks swept of lounges and so forth, still more of these cumbersome articles will find their way aboard until adequate space is given to lifeboats of an approved pattern, with sufficient working room to swing them out.
The demand for more boats having been met, we now have to find the men to handle them.
Is it officers’ work to teach men how to pull and handle a boat? Strictly speaking, it is not. Do stewards and sailors and firemen evince a desire to learn pulling, etcetera? Do they, or not, jibe at the very idea of boat drill and attempt by hook or crook to dodge it? Do they ever consult the boat-sheets and boat-plans hanging in their quarters, to find out the number and locality of their boats? Why the aimless wandering round of men looking for their boats when the boat-plans show exactly where they are stowed? And when boats are numbered and stowed in sequence in every ship, why such confusion?
Pure apathy is all there is to it until disaster overtakes such wastrels; then, like children, they wail, ‘We were not told the number of our boats, we were not taught to pull an oar.’
The true wonder is, not that so many lives were lost, but that so many were saved. To rescue so many was magnificent work.
Review the situation from an executive officer’s point of view and then cease to wonder at the number of lives lost: a new ship, the largest in the world; a new crew, ignorant of the rudimentary principles of discipline and seamanship, and, as crews go to-day, refractory in every sense of the word, and out of sympathy with the very thought of discipline; more than two thousand passengers, or about three thousand souls including the crew; new boat gear straight from the builder’s hands; add to all this the dark hours of the night and the fear of the unknown, and I assert that to save over seven hundred lives was giants’ work, the carrying out of which fell on the shoulders of six or seven executive officers, who, when the weather is fine, and disaster below the horizon, fight a lone hand trying to maintain even a show of discipline.