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Protection of Ocean Liners

1914


The loss of the _Empress of Ireland_ awakens feelings somewhat different
from those the sinking of the _Titanic_ had called up on two continents.
The grief for the lost and the sympathy for the survivors and the
bereaved are the same; but there is not, and there cannot be, the same
undercurrent of indignation. The good ship that is gone (I remember
reading of her launch something like eight years ago) had not been
ushered in with beat of drum as the chief wonder of the world of waters.
The company who owned her had no agents, authorised or unauthorised,
giving boastful interviews about her unsinkability to newspaper reporters
ready to swallow any sort of trade statement if only sensational enough
for their readers--readers as ignorant as themselves of the nature of all
things outside the commonest experience of the man in the street.

No; there was nothing of that in her case. The company was content to
have as fine, staunch, seaworthy a ship as the technical knowledge of
that time could make her. In fact, she was as safe a ship as nine
hundred and ninety-nine ships out of any thousand now afloat upon the
sea. No; whatever sorrow one can feel, one does not feel indignation.
This was not an accident of a very boastful marine transportation; this
was a real casualty of the sea. The indignation of the New South Wales
Premier flashed telegraphically to Canada is perfectly uncalled-for. That
statesman, whose sympathy for poor mates and seamen is so suspect to me
that I wouldn't take it at fifty per cent. discount, does not seem to
know that a British Court of Marine Inquiry, ordinary or extraordinary,
is not a contrivance for catching scapegoats. I, who have been seaman,
mate and master for twenty years, holding my certificate under the Board
of Trade, may safely say that none of us ever felt in danger of unfair
treatment from a Court of Inquiry. It is a perfectly impartial tribunal
which has never punished seamen for the faults of shipowners--as, indeed,
it could not do even if it wanted to. And there is another thing the
angry Premier of New South Wales does not know. It is this: that for a
ship to float for fifteen minutes after receiving such a blow by a bare
stem on her bare side is not so bad.

She took a tremendous list which made the minutes of grace vouchsafed her
of not much use for the saving of lives. But for that neither her owners
nor her officers are responsible. It would have been wonderful if she
had not listed with such a hole in her side. Even the _Aquitania_ with
such an opening in her outer hull would be bound to take a list. I don't
say this with the intention of disparaging this latest "triumph of marine
architecture"--to use the consecrated phrase. The _Aquitania_ is a
magnificent ship. I believe she would bear her people unscathed through
ninety-nine per cent. of all possible accidents of the sea. But suppose
a collision out on the ocean involving damage as extensive as this one
was, and suppose then a gale of wind coming on. Even the _Aquitania_
would not be quite seaworthy, for she would not be manageable.

We have been accustoming ourselves to put our trust in material,
technical skill, invention, and scientific contrivances to such an extent
that we have come at last to believe that with these things we can
overcome the immortal gods themselves. Hence when a disaster like this
happens, there arises, besides the shock to our humane sentiments, a
feeling of irritation, such as the hon. gentleman at the head of the New
South Wales Government has discharged in a telegraphic flash upon the
world.

But it is no use being angry and trying to hang a threat of penal
servitude over the heads of the directors of shipping companies. You
can't get the better of the immortal gods by the mere power of material
contrivances. There will be neither scapegoats in this matter nor yet
penal servitude for anyone. The Directors of the Canadian Pacific
Railway Company did not sell "safety at sea" to the people on board the
_Empress of Ireland_. They never in the slightest degree pretended to do
so. What they did was to sell them a sea-passage, giving very good value
for the money. Nothing more. As long as men will travel on the water,
the sea-gods will take their toll. They will catch good seamen napping,
or confuse their judgment by arts well known to those who go to sea, or
overcome them by the sheer brutality of elemental forces. It seems to me
that the resentful sea-gods never do sleep, and are never weary; wherein
the seamen who are mere mortals condemned to unending vigilance are no
match for them.

And yet it is right that the responsibility should be fixed. It is the
fate of men that even in their contests with the immortal gods they must
render an account of their conduct. Life at sea is the life in which,
simple as it is, you can't afford to make mistakes.

With whom the mistake lies here, is not for me to say. I see that Sir
Thomas Shaughnessy has expressed his opinion of Captain Kendall's
absolute innocence. This statement, premature as it is, does him honour,
for I don't suppose for a moment that the thought of the material issue
involved in the verdict of the Court of Inquiry influenced him in the
least. I don't suppose that he is more impressed by the writ of two
million dollars nailed (or more likely pasted) to the foremast of the
Norwegian than I am, who don't believe that the _Storstad_ is worth two
million shillings. This is merely a move of commercial law, and even the
whole majesty of the British Empire (so finely invoked by the Sheriff)
cannot squeeze more than a very moderate quantity of blood out of a
stone. Sir Thomas, in his confident pronouncement, stands loyally by a
loyal and distinguished servant of his company.

This thing has to be investigated yet, and it is not proper for me to
express my opinion, though I have one, in this place and at this time.
But I need not conceal my sympathy with the vehement protestations of
Captain Andersen. A charge of neglect and indifference in the matter of
saving lives is the cruellest blow that can be aimed at the character of
a seaman worthy of the name. On the face of the facts as known up to now
the charge does not seem to be true. If upwards of three hundred people
have been, as stated in the last reports, saved by the _Storstad_, then
that ship must have been at hand and rendering all the assistance in her
power.

As to the point which must come up for the decision of the Court of
Inquiry, it is as fine as a hair. The two ships saw each other plainly
enough before the fog closed on them. No one can question Captain
Kendall's prudence. He has been as prudent as ever he could be. There
is not a shadow of doubt as to that.

But there is this question: Accepting the position of the two ships when
they saw each other as correctly described in the very latest newspaper
reports, it seems clear that it was the _Empress of Ireland's_ duty to
keep clear of the collier, and what the Court will have to decide is
whether the stopping of the liner was, under the circumstances, the best
way of keeping her clear of the other ship, which had the right to
proceed cautiously on an unchanged course.

This, reduced to its simplest expression, is the question which the Court
will have to decide.

And now, apart from all problems of manoeuvring, of rules of the road, of
the judgment of the men in command, away from their possible errors and
from the points the Court will have to decide, if we ask ourselves what
it was that was needed to avert this disaster costing so many lives,
spreading so much sorrow, and to a certain point shocking the public
conscience--if we ask that question, what is the answer to be?

I hardly dare set it down. Yes; what was it that was needed, what
ingenious combinations of ship-building, what transverse bulkheads, what
skill, what genius--how much expense in money and trained thinking, what
learned contriving, to avert that disaster?

To save that ship, all these lives, so much anguish for the dying, and so
much grief for the bereaved, all that was needed in this particular case
in the way of science, money, ingenuity, and seamanship was a man, and a
cork-fender.

Yes; a man, a quartermaster, an able seaman that would know how to jump
to an order and was not an excitable fool. In my time at sea there was
no lack of men in British ships who could jump to an order and were not
excitable fools. As to the so-called cork-fender, it is a sort of soft
balloon made from a net of thick rope rather more than a foot in
diameter. It is such a long time since I have indented for cork-fenders
that I don't remember how much these things cost apiece. One of them,
hung judiciously over the side at the end of its lanyard by a man who
knew what he was about, might perhaps have saved from destruction the
ship and upwards of a thousand lives.

Two men with a heavy rope-fender would have been better, but even the
other one might have made all the difference between a very damaging
accident and downright disaster. By the time the cork-fender had been
squeezed between the liner's side and the bluff of the _Storstad's_ bow,
the effect of the latter's reversed propeller would have been produced,
and the ships would have come apart with no more damage than bulged and
started plates. Wasn't there lying about on that liner's bridge, fitted
with all sorts of scientific contrivances, a couple of simple and
effective cork-fenders--or on board of that Norwegian either? There must
have been, since one ship was just out of a dock or harbour and the other
just arriving. That is the time, if ever, when cork-fenders are lying
about a ship's decks. And there was plenty of time to use them, and
exactly in the conditions in which such fenders are effectively used. The
water was as smooth as in any dock; one ship was motionless, the other
just moving at what may be called dock-speed when entering, leaving, or
shifting berths; and from the moment the collision was seen to be
unavoidable till the actual contact a whole minute elapsed. A minute,--an
age under the circumstances. And no one thought of the homely expedient
of dropping a simple, unpretending rope-fender between the destructive
stern and the defenceless side!

I appeal confidently to all the seamen in the still United Kingdom, from
his Majesty the King (who has been really at sea) to the youngest
intelligent A.B. in any ship that will dock next tide in the ports of
this realm, whether there was not a chance there. I have followed the
sea for more than twenty years; I have seen collisions; I have been
involved in a collision myself; and I do believe that in the case under
consideration this little thing would have made all that enormous
difference--the difference between considerable damage and an appalling
disaster.

Many letters have been written to the Press on the subject of collisions.
I have seen some. They contain many suggestions, valuable and otherwise;
but there is only one which hits the nail on the head. It is a letter to
the _Times_ from a retired Captain of the Royal Navy. It is printed in
small type, but it deserved to be printed in letters of gold and crimson.
The writer suggests that all steamers should be obliged by law to carry
hung over their stern what we at sea call a "pudding."

This solution of the problem is as wonderful in its simplicity as the
celebrated trick of Columbus's egg, and infinitely more useful to
mankind. A "pudding" is a thing something like a bolster of stout rope-
net stuffed with old junk, but thicker in the middle than at the ends. It
can be seen on almost every tug working in our docks. It is, in fact, a
fixed rope-fender always in a position where presumably it would do most
good. Had the _Storstad_ carried such a "pudding" proportionate to her
size (say, two feet diameter in the thickest part) across her stern, and
hung above the level of her hawse-pipes, there would have been an
accident certainly, and some repair-work for the nearest ship-yard, but
there would have been no loss of life to deplore.

It seems almost too simple to be true, but I assure you that the
statement is as true as anything can be. We shall see whether the lesson
will be taken to heart. We shall see. There is a Commission of learned
men sitting to consider the subject of saving life at sea. They are
discussing bulkheads, boats, davits, manning, navigation, but I am
willing to bet that not one of them has thought of the humble "pudding."
They can make what rules they like. We shall see if, with that disaster
calling aloud to them, they will make the rule that every steamship
should carry a permanent fender across her stern, from two to four feet
in diameter in its thickest part in proportion to the size of the ship.
But perhaps they may think the thing too rough and unsightly for this
scientific and aesthetic age. It certainly won't look very pretty but I
make bold to say it will save more lives at sea than any amount of the
Marconi installations which are being forced on the shipowners on that
very ground--the safety of lives at sea.

We shall see!

-----

To the Editor of the _Daily Express_.

SIR,

As I fully expected, this morning's post brought me not a few letters on
the subject of that article of mine in the _Illustrated London News_. And
they are very much what I expected them to be.

I shall address my reply to Captain Littlehales, since obviously he can
speak with authority, and speaks in his own name, not under a pseudonym.
And also for the reason that it is no use talking to men who tell you to
shut your head for a confounded fool. They are not likely to listen to
you.

But if there be in Liverpool anybody not too angry to listen, I want to
assure him or them that my exclamatory line, "Was there no one on board
either of these ships to think of dropping a fender--etc.," was not
uttered in the spirit of blame for anyone. I would not dream of blaming
a seaman for doing or omitting to do anything a person sitting in a
perfectly safe and unsinkable study may think of. All my sympathy goes
to the two captains; much the greater share of it to Captain Kendall, who
has lost his ship and whose load of responsibility was so much heavier! I
may not know a great deal, but I know how anxious and perplexing are
those nearly end-on approaches, so infinitely more trying to the men in
charge than a frank right-angle crossing.

I may begin by reminding Captain Littlehales that I, as well as himself,
have had to form my opinion, or rather my vision, of the accident, from
printed statements, of which many must have been loose and inexact and
none could have been minutely circumstantial. I have read the reports of
the _Times_ and the _Daily Telegraph_, and no others. What stands in the
columns of these papers is responsible for my conclusion--or perhaps for
the state of my feelings when I wrote the _Illustrated London News_
article.

From these sober and unsensational reports, I derived the impression that
this collision was a collision of the slowest sort. I take it, of
course, that both the men in charge speak the strictest truth as to
preliminary facts. We know that the _Empress of Ireland_ was for a time
lying motionless. And if the captain of the _Storstad_ stopped his
engines directly the fog came on (as he says he did), then taking into
account the adverse current of the river, the _Storstad_, by the time the
two ships sighted each other again, must have been barely moving _over
the ground_. The "over the ground" speed is the only one that matters in
this discussion. In fact, I represented her to myself as just creeping
on ahead--no more. This, I contend, is an imaginative view (and we can
form no other) not utterly absurd for a seaman to adopt.

So much for the imaginative view of the sad occurrence which caused me to
speak of the fender, and be chided for it in unmeasured terms. Not by
Captain Littlehales, however, and I wish to reply to what he says with
all possible deference. His illustration borrowed from boxing is very
apt, and in a certain sense makes for my contention. Yes. A blow
delivered with a boxing-glove will draw blood or knock a man out; but it
would not crush in his nose flat or break his jaw for him--at least, not
always. And this is exactly my point.

Twice in my sea life I have had occasion to be impressed by the
preserving effect of a fender. Once I was myself the man who dropped it
over. Not because I was so very clever or smart, but simply because I
happened to be at hand. And I agree with Captain Littlehales that to see
a steamer's stern coming at you at the rate of only two knots is a
staggering experience. The thing seems to have power enough behind it to
cut half through the terrestrial globe.

And perhaps Captain Littlehales is right? It may be that I am mistaken
in my appreciation of circumstances and possibilities in this case--or in
any such case. Perhaps what was really wanted there was an extraordinary
man and an extraordinary fender. I care nothing if possibly my deep
feeling has betrayed me into something which some people call absurdity.

Absurd was the word applied to the proposal for carrying "enough boats
for all" on board the big liners. And my absurdity can affect no lives,
break no bones--need make no one angry. Why should I care, then, as long
as out of the discussion of my absurdity there will emerge the acceptance
of the suggestion of Captain F. Papillon, R.N., for the universal and
compulsory fitting of very heavy collision fenders on the stems of all
mechanically propelled ships?

An extraordinary man we cannot always get from heaven on order, but an
extraordinary fender that will do its work is well within the power of a
committee of old boatswains to plan out, make, and place in position. I
beg to ask, not in a provocative spirit, but simply as to a matter of
fact which he is better qualified to judge than I am--Will Captain
Littlehales affirm that if the _Storstad_ had carried, slung securely
across the stem, even nothing thicker than a single bale of wool (an
ordinary, hand-pressed, Australian wool-bale), it would have made no
difference?

If scientific men can invent an air cushion, a gas cushion, or even an
electricity cushion (with wires or without), to fit neatly round the
stems and bows of ships, then let them go to work, in God's name and
produce another "marvel of science" without loss of time. For something
like this has long been due--too long for the credit of that part of
mankind which is not absurd, and in which I include, among others, such
people as marine underwriters, for instance.

Meanwhile, turning to materials I am familiar with, I would put my trust
in canvas, lots of big rope, and in large, very large quantities of old
junk.

It sounds awfully primitive, but if it will mitigate the mischief in only
fifty per cent. of cases, is it not well worth trying? Most collisions
occur at slow speeds, and it ought to be remembered that in case of a big
liner's loss, involving many lives, she is generally sunk by a ship much
smaller than herself.

JOSEPH CONRAD.

Joseph Conrad