Safety regulations are usually the result of sad experience. Regulations for the safety of life at sea are no exception. The current body of international regulations for the construction and equipment of seagoing vessels is largely the result of experience gained in marine casualties over the past seventy-five years and more. The cumulative effort of gaining this experience has been painful indeed, and the process of codifying it has to date been fraught with uncertainty and delay. For instance, it was eighteen months after the Titanic went down before the First Conference on Safety of Life at Sea convened to amend the regulations to preclude another such tragedy. It was thirteen years after the Morro Castle burned that the Third Conference on Safety of Life at Sea wrote the lessons of that casualty into the international regulations governing the construction of sea-going vessels. There should exist some readier and more effective means of incorporating in these international regulations any new lessons learned which will improve the safety of life at sea. In the United Nations Organization there is now an agency which may prove to be the desired means for expediting advancement in this field. That agency is the International Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO).
The safety of the life at sea, or rather the lack of it, first received international attention in 1889 when the United States invited all maritime nations to a conference in Washington, D. C., to discuss ways and means for reducing the loss of life and property at sea. The United States had already taken important and far sighted action to improve the situation along its own coasts. Since 1831 the Revenue Cutters had been patrolling off their harbors during the winter months to render aid to ships in distress and to give navigational information. The U. S. Life Saving Service had been inaugurated in 1871 as an adjunct of the Revenue Cutter Service and by 1878 had been established as an independent bureau. Life saving stations had been installed along the entire coast, on the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf, and the Great Lakes. Now, looking beyond its immediate shores the United States noted the heavy loss of life and property occurring year after year on the high seas. When issuing its invitation to the maritime powers to attend the conference our State Department enumerated the losses sustained in a typical year. In 1881 5,400 lives were lost with 2,193 vessels. Of the vessels lost 101 were missing, 205 sunk by collision, 229 burned, 1,108 stranded, 550 waterlogged, capsized etc.
Unfortunately, this was an era of great commercial rivalry at sea; rivalry not only of shipping companies but of governments which were backing those companies with huge subsidies. Because of this rivalry the intentions of the United States were suspect. Great Britain, for instance, agreed to attend only if there would be no attempt to regulate trade and commerce.
In spite of the wary approach of the rival maritime powers to the International Marine Conference of 1889, common cause was made in the interest of the rules of the road and the first uniform International Rules of the Road were formulated. In the areas of ship construction and life saving equipment no firm policies were agreed upon. The conference, however, finally “recommended” that passenger vessels be divided by transverse bulkheads in such a manner as to permit the vessel to remain “seaworthy” with any two compartments flooded (a so-called two compartment ship). The number, size, and construction of life boats was left to the discretion of the individual governments. It soon became customary for ships to carry life boats for about one-third of the passengers and none for the crew.
Unsuspected contribution to the improvement in the safety of life at sea came with the introduction of wireless on ship board in 1899. However, the wireless was not at first recognized for the boon it might be to the safety of life. This apparatus was first installed by the ship owners to make it possible for ships to report their expected time of arrival and other information of commercial value. It was purely by chance that the role of the wireless in rescue at sea was established.
When the S.S. Republic of the White Star Line was rammed by the S.S. Florida of the Lloyd-Italiano Line in dense fog off Nantucket on the night of January 23, 1909, she used her wireless to call for assistance. The drama of the radio waves piercing the fog to bring aid to the distressed vessel made such an impression on the American public that Congress in 1910 saw fit to enact legislation requiring all seagoing vessels carrying fifty or more persons to be equipped with wireless of 100 miles radius and to carry one skilled operator. The large maritime nations followed suit.
The end of the first decade of the twentieth century thus found the largest seagoing passenger vessels built as “two-compartment” ships in accord with the standard recommended in 1889, carrying a wireless and one operator, and equipped with whatever life saving apparatus the country of registry required. It remained for the greatest peacetime disaster in the history of the world, before or since, to demonstrate the utter inadequacy of these specifications for the safety of life at sea.
On Sunday, April 14,1912, at 11:40 p.m. the S.S. Titanic of the White Star Line, carrying 2,223 passengers and crew on her maiden voyage from Cherbourg to New York, struck an iceberg in lat. 41°-46' N., long. 50°-14' W. At 1:20 a.m. the ship sank with a loss of 1,502 lives. The sea was calm and the ship remained practically on an even keel until a few minutes before going down. The ship’s officers remained in full control of the situation throughout and there was no panic. Then why was there such an appalling loss of life? The ship had struck the underwater edge of an iceberg with a glancing blow which sliced a hole three hundred feet long in the hull, flooding more than the two compartments with which the ship could have remained seaworthy. But the great loss of life was attributable primarily to the lack of adequate life boat capacity. The ship carried life boats for only 1,178 persons. Furthermore, passengers had not been assigned particular life boat stations, and, as a result, many boats got away only partially loaded.
Even with this shortage of life boats all might have been saved had rescue ships arrived in time. A ship ten miles away did not receive the appeal of assistance because she had secured her wireless fifteen minutes before. One operator could not man the wireless continuously. The Carpathia, which picked up the survivors at daybreak, had received the CQD by merest chance. Her wireless operator had been undressing for bed but kept his earphones on while doing so. Another nearby ship saw the Titanic distress rockets but ignored them.
Although the Titanic was a British vessel, many of the passengers who were lost were prominent U. S. citizens. The U. S. public and press decried the lack of safety measures for protecting the lives of passengers on the largest and finest ships. Congress and the Department of Commerce moved rapidly to ensure that U. S. merchant vessels should benefit from the lesson of the Titanic. Congress enacted laws requiring continuous radio watch on board ocean going steamers of 5,000 tons or more and set up a penalty of fine and imprisonment for ship’s masters who failed to heed calls for assistance. The Department of Commerce changed its regulations to require ships to carry life boats sufficient for all persons on board. By agreement with Great Britain, shortly after the catastrophe, the International Ice Patrol was established to track and report movements of ice floes and icebergs. But it was not until eighteen months after the loss of the Titanic had proclaimed to the world the inadequacy of international safety regulations that the maritime nations met to consider regulatory measures to improve the situation.
At the invitation of Great Britain the maritime nations met in London from November, 1913, to February, 1914, in the First International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea. This conference approved regulations requiring continuous radio watch on vessels over 5,000 tons, a number of life boats determined by the length of the ship (sufficient for all persons on board in all but 7% of sailings); longitudinal bulkhead inside outer skin of ship or coal bunkers against outer skin of ship (on ships laid down after July 1, 1915), a “safety certificate” to certify ship met all safety requirements of country of registry, shipmasters to respond to calls for assistance, maintenance of Ice Patrol by the United States, cost prorated.
The ink was barely dry on the 1914 Convention when an accident occurred which showed that the proposed new regulations for life saving apparatus were not sufficiently exacting. The Empress of Ireland, carrying 1,479 passengers and crew, passing down the St. Lawrence River at 2:30 a.m. on May 29, 1914, was rammed in a dense fog by the collier Storstadt. Only two compartments were damaged in the collision, but twenty- four watertight doors in the transverse bulkheads were open with the result that all compartments flooded. The ship listed rapidly so that, although the life boat capacity was adequate, it was impossible to launch more than a few boats. The ship sank quickly with the loss of 1,027 lives. Many life rafts were so secured that they went down with the ship. The board investigating this casualty recommended that watertight doors be kept closed at night or in fog and that rafts be so secured that they would float free if the ship sank. But there was no international machinery for incorporating these new lessons in the body of the proposed regulations. The 1914 Convention was already making the rounds for ratification. Action to correct these manifest deficiencies in the regulations had to wait for another international conference which, in fact, was not convoked until fifteen years later. World War I put an end to the process of ratifying the 1914 Convention and left the matter of international regulations for safety of life at sea just where it was before the Titanic.
By the end of World War I the memory of the Titanic had been overshadowed by such maritime casualties as the torpedoing of the Lusitania. Shipping rapidly resumed its normal course, but the “Safety Certificate” (instituted as a result of the 1914 Conference), without the authority of a ratified international convention to prescribe the limits of its use, began to take on the aspects of a means of escape from the more rigid inspection procedures of the more advanced maritime nations. This, in turn, had the effect of demoralizing the inspection forces so that inspections for sea worthiness became perfunctory and inadequate. The climax to this situation occurred in November, 1928, when the S.S. Vestris of British registry was cleared from New York with the blessing of the Steamboat Inspection Service only to become on November 12, the victim of rough weather off Hatteras. The ship’s cargo hatches were far from watertight. The water shipped through these hatches could not be removed because of faulty design of bilge and drainage systems. The ship gradually lost stability and finally capsized with the loss of 113 lives. It later developed that a small cargo vessel, not equipped with radio, had passed a few miles away when the Vestris was calling for assistance and could, in all probability, have prevented any loss of life had she been apprised of the situation. One of the principal factors contributing to the loss of life on the Vestris was the extreme difficulty of lowering any life boats after the ship had acquired a list.
Great Britain again issued an invitation to the maritime nations to meet in London, stating that the many changes in ship construction effected since the 1914 Conference and the technical advances in radio and its application to ships at sea made it imperative that the nations consider the influence of these factors on ocean going commerce. Thus the Second International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea convened in London on April 16, 1929.
The regulations proposed by the 1929 Conference specifically provided for watertight hatches and flexible pumping arrangements which would preclude a repetition of the Vestris disaster. The rules for life boats were expanded to require that the boats could be loaded and lowered in spite of some unfavorable list or trim. Life boat capacity was specified for all persons on board. Embarkation emergency lighting was provided for and a certain number of motor life boats were called for. A formula was devised for the transverse subdivision of ships by watertight bulkheads. The type of service and length of ship entered into the formula so that the greatest protection would result for the largest passenger vessels. Radio installation was specified for all ships except cargo vessels under 1,600 tons. All vessels would be required to guard the distress frequency by operator or auto alarm.
The United States hesitated to ratify the work of this conference because of some fear in congressional circles that ratification might imply some surrender of sovereignty. The convention and regulations thus were allowed to gather dust in State Department files until a series of U. S. ship casualties in 1934 and 1935 brought about their reconsideration and almost immediate ratification.
One of these casualties was the sinking of the Mohawk in collision with the Talisman off the New Jersey coast on January 24, 1935. The factor in this casualty which focused attention on the 1929 Convention was that the cause of the collision was confusion of orders to the helm. The ship’s telemotor system had frozen and steering control had been shifted to an after station where the indicators were still marked for the old “helm” orders (opposite to desired movement of ship’s head). The orders from the bridge were given as “rudder” orders (same as desired movement of ship’s head). In the confusion of the orders the Mohawk, which had just passed the Talisman abeam, suddenly changed course to cross her bow. The Mohawk sank in 75 feet of water with a loss of 34 lives. Attention was immediately called to the fact that the 1929 Convention required abandonment of the “helm” orders in favor of “rudder” orders, and, had Congress ratified the convention in the first place, this accident could not have occurred. Congress thereafter quickly ratified the 1929 Convention.
Another casualty suffered by our merchant marine about this time was the tragic burning of the Mono Castle off Asbury Park, New Jersey, on September 8, 1934, with the loss of 134 lives. Although the loss of life in this instance could be attributed in large part to inefficiency of personnel and poor judgment, it was also evident that much could be done in the matter of regulating construction and equipment to improve fire detection and fire protection on sea-going vessels. Neither of these factors had been covered in previous conferences on safety of life at sea.
The Mohawk and Mono Castle disasters were examined in Senate Report 184 of 1937. This report made extensive recommendations relative to fire detection and protection of ships. It also recommended a requirement for stability in the damaged condition because it appeared that the extent of damage to the Mohawk in the collision was not sufficient to have warranted her capsizing. Important as these recommendations were to safety of life at sea there was no opportunity to present them to an international conference until 1948, eleven years later.
The Third International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea was convened in London in 1948. The convention signed at the conclusion of that conference was ratified by the United States on September 10, 1952, and immediately became effective for the eighteen nations who had then ratified it. Incorporated in its regulations are the lessons of all steamship tragedies since the Titanic. The subdivision of ships is made a function of length and type of service; stability must be maintained with two compartments flooded (Mohawk); fire protection must consist of certain combinations of fire resistant bulkheads, fire-detectors, and sprinklers; adequate independent fire pumps are required and fire systems must have relief valves (Mono Castle)-, bilge pumps must be capable of pumping all compartments under any conditions of list or trim (Vestris); life boats must be adequate for all persons on board (Titanic) and must be capable of being put into the water safely and rapidly even under unfavorable conditions of list and trim (Empress of Ireland and Vestris); Ice Patrol will continue to be conducted by U. S. ships and planes, cost prorated (Titanic); all passenger ships and cargo ships over 1,600 tons must maintain constant radio watch on distress frequency either by operator or auto alarm (Titanic).
The Convention and Regulations formulated by the 1948 Conference represent the last word on safety of life at sea in the areas of construction, life-saving equipment, radio-installation, and safety of navigation. From the first steps taken at the Marine Conference in 1889 the process of development of this body of regulations to protect life at sea has been sporadic. It required the impetus of marine tragedies to provoke the convocation of the conferences of 1914 and 1929. No such impulse was required for the promotion of the conference in 1948. It simply seemed expedient to amend the 1929 regulations to incorporate new developments in the field, many the result of the accelerated experience of war operation.
It would be ridiculous to assume that even these regulations will be adequate forever. Actually, in the field of “Safety of Navigation” the U. S. delegation urged much broader use of electronic aids than was finally agreed upon. There should be an avenue by which nations may constantly press their recommendations for the improvement of safety of life at sea This cause should not have to await the accumulation of numerous shortcomings or the whim of nations for calling a conference. There should be a body in continuous session for acting on recommendations and for enjoining international compliance with adopted regulations.
Such a body is provided for in a maritime charter drawn up by the U. N. Maritime Conference in Geneva in 1948 and ratified by the maritime nations the same year. This body, designated the International Maritime Consultative Organization, is the first intergovernmental shipping organization ever constituted. Although it is only consultative, it is expected, through its council, to exert considerable influence on the development of world maritime law and practice. Its maritime safety committee is expected to bring about great development in the application of modern safety devices to shipping operations. It is also the opinion among shipping circles that the maritime safety committee will provide the chief means of forcing recalcitrant nations to submit to committee rules and policies that may be recommended by the organization.
In the past it has been, on occasion, a matter of ten or more years between a maritime tragedy and adoption of the corrective regulations. Much needed regulations often have had to be deferred until the calling of a conference. It is to be hoped that IMCO will remove these obstacles to continued improvement in the safety of life at sea.