100+ years later, SOLAS still steering international maritime cooperation
When the RMS Titanic made its debut in 1912, the ship epitomized everything new and advanced about shipbuilding and construction. It was the largest ship of its day, a steel-jacketed vessel that featured cutting-edge safety measures such as 16 watertight compartments, 15 bulkheads and 11 remotely activated watertight doors. The ship had her own waterworks, an electrical power plant more powerful than the then typical city power plant, and two wireless telegraphs. It was a sight to behold and a technological marvel, cutting a course away from the wood and sails of the shipping past.
While it turned out not to be the unsinkable safely marvel it was billed to be, the Titanic, in fact, by dint of its preventable disaster, nonetheless, led the martime world onto the first leg of its journey into creating an internationally supported collection of marine safety regulations and policies.
There had been some minor attempts at agreements between some key marine states prior to the Titanic, but these were hardly global protocols. To get there took what it often does to effect safety changes - a major sea disaster, to create enough public and political pressure to force safety changes. And the foremost example is the most famous maritime incident of all time, the April 15, 1912 sinking of the Titanic after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Out of 2,214 complement on board, 1,517 lives were lost.
Enthusiastically billed as “unsinkable” (and incredibly, not the last ill-fated ship to make such a claim), the Titanic is an epic monument to human error and arrogance. For starters, the ship’s captain ignored 20 plus warnings about icebergs, and unlike the nearby SS Californian, decided to push on in the dark of night, even though it made seeing icebergs that much more difficult. Worse, the provision of lifeboats turned out to be little more than window dressing on an “unsinkable” ship.
Even more tragic is the fact that the nearest ship – the SS Californian – lay at anchor 15 miles away waiting for daylight to proceed, all the while the Titanic was sinking. It saw the Titanic’s distress rockets but thought they were just signaling their presence, as ships often did then with rockets and such. Had it understood the distress signal, there is little doubt more passengers could have been saved from the doomed ship, which sank in four hours.
Fed by headlines such as “TITANIC DISASTER GREAT LOSS OF LIFE!,” and the fact that the Titanic was the celebrity event of its day – many powerful, famous and wealthy people went down with the ship - the ensuing investigation produced recommendations for better watertight bulkheads, 24-hour wireless service on all passenger ships, sufficient lifeboats to accommodate all on board and hey, lifeboat drills! It was also decreed that that rockets at sea would be used for distress signals only. These changes were codified in the 1914 launch of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the first international maritime safety treaty of note. It ensures that ships flagged by member states comply with minimum safety standards in construction, equipment and operation, and through its many amendments over the years, remains the safety bible for the industry more than 100 years after its adoption.
The 1960 Convention, which took effect in May 1965 – provided a major update in commercial shipping regulation, making note of new technology and procedures in the industry. An even bigger overhaul of Solas took place in 1974 version, which was essentially a new convention and simplified the process for passing amendments by creating an opt-out policy for ratification. Solas has been amended numerous times since, but is referred to as SOLAS 74.
In the U.S., the disaster led to the passage of the Radio Act of 1912, which required ships to keep in contact with ships in the area, as well as coastal radio stations. It also required both 24-hour radio communications and backup power to make sure it stayed that way.
The Titanic was also the impetus for the 1913 launch of the International Ice Patrol (IIP) with international funding, to monitor shipping lanes for icebergs in the North Atlantic and to provide a regular reports. The IIP has been run by the U.S. Coast Guard since its inception. Over time, aircraft have replaced ships on the ice patrols in most circumstances.
Within the industry, the Titanic’s sinking led to ship design changes and retrofitting of existing ships, for example extending the double walls bottoms of ships further up their sides, creating double hulls. The bulkheads on some ships were extended in height as well. The Titanic’s bulkhead rose 10 feet; it wasn’t high enough to keep the compartments completely watertight.
Another early, but significant influencer of maritime safety efforts was the Sept. 8, 1934 burning and sinking of the Morro Castle cruise ship. While loss of life (137 out of 549) was small in comparison to other disasters that saw upwards of 1,000 or more perish – the incident took place in full view of the public and was a case study in incompetence. “It was pretty horrendous,” says USCG CMDR Erich Doll, “the aftermath led to the SOLA 48 adoption, a major step from the original SOLA.”
While on its way back from Cuba to New York, the ship caught fire under suspicious circumstances and burnt down to a shell, washing up on a beach in New Jersey.
“People could literally swim out and touch the hull with no difficulty; it was still smoking,” says Kings Point Prof. Josh Smith. Some passengers were able to escape but many died n their cabins, where portholes were painted shut. Others were killed ironically by their life preservers, which knocked many unconscious when passengers jumped from the stern as instructed. Only half the lifeboats were able to be launched, and they carried only a quarter their capacity – mostly crew members. Rescuers were slow in coming, if they came at all; the Coast Guard was too far away to be of much assistance. Smith attributes much of the disaster and deaths to the incompetence of the engineering and deck officers.
“It was a strange story. The captain died of natural causes or was poisoned, and that night a fire broke out on the ship. The chief mate took over and decided the best thing to do was to get to New York as fast as possible, and rang the engines to go full ahead. It was a bad decision. The wind from the bow just fanned the flames ensuring the ship would burn up completely, which it did,” said Smith.
Worse though, were the actions of the chief engineer. His response to the fire was to put on his white dress uniform and get into a life boat with the engineering crew and hightail it out of there, according to Smith. “Both officers behaved so badly, that there were demands for reforms, both in ship construction and officer training. This is the event that eventually led to the establishment of the federal merchant Marine Academy, more or less as part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. “
The officer’s behavior was so disturbing that the federal government decided to raise the bar by creating a federal program. Initially it insisted that any steamship company taking a subsidy from the government had to take on cadets from the federal program.
Those cadets also took a correspondence course. The Federal academy didn’t open until 1943, once the government realized it was going to need a lot more officers in a hurry.
The fire so haunted famed naval architect Francis Gibbs that he became a fanatic about fire safety and designed the S.S. United States in 1952 virtually without wood or flammable materials.
The fire also led the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to adopt standards requiring automatic fire suppression and protection equipment on board ships. There were training requirements for crews and fire drills for passengers. Solas48 included fire protection regulations such as the subdivision of the ship into main vertical zones separated by fire-resistant divisions and fire-retardant materials.
“It had a dramatic impact on the Coast Guard and mariners as well,” says Doll, noting that disaster also led to prison time for the master and chief engineer, as well as a $5K fine for a company vice president.
“It was just total incompetence and disregard for passengers, who were left to fend for themselves.”
(As published in the June 2014 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News - http://magazines.marinelink.com/Magazines/MaritimeReporter)