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.
Titanic boarding pass
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.”