FALSE. Before the Titanic disaster, lifeboats for all were not required on passenger liners, in cases where these ships were efficiently sub-divided into watertight compartments.
The White Star Line had in fact provided more lifesaving equipment than the Board of Trade regulations required. For any ship with a gross register tonnage of over 10,000, only 16 lifeboats were required. Titanic complied with this requirement because she carried 14 standard lifeboats with a capacity of 65 persons each, and two emergency lifeboats with a capacity of 40 persons each, making 16 lifeboats in total. She also carried four Englehardt collapsible boats, with a capacity of 47 each. Titanic therefore carried a total of 20 boats, with a total carrying capacity of 1,178 people, or room for 216 more people than the Board of Trade rules stipulated at that time. However, she was certified to carry 3,547 passengers and crew.
Nor did large and properly subdivided passenger liners in Europe and America carry enough lifeboats for all their passengers. For example, one of the five large German ships the court considered was the passenger liner Berlin, which had a Gross Register Tonnage of 17,324 and was licensed to carry 2,690 persons; but only had 24 lifeboats, which could only accommodate 48% of her passengers.
However, the Board of Trade did require cargo steamers, which were smaller, not properly subdivided, and which carried far fewer people, to provide enough lifeboats for everyone, on both sides of the ship, because they realised that in almost all situations where lifeboats would be needed, a list to port or starboard, or the direction of the sea, would make launching the lifeboats on one side of the ship impossible. For a large passenger liner like Titanic, though, this would have meant carrying 92 lifeboats (46 on each side of the ship) which would seriously affect stability, take up most of the deck space and be practically impossible to launch in most emergency situations, not least due to the lack of trained crew required to man so many boats.
Sir Norman Hill, Chairman of the merchant ship advisory committee, said that it was practically impossible for an ‘emigrant ship’ to have boats for all, and that moreover the statistics showed that it wouldn’t make much difference:
24652: (The Commissioner) ‘Then it comes to this, does it Sir Norman, that it is practically impossible for an emigrant ship designed to carry 2,000 people, to carry lifeboats sufficient to hold those 2,000 people at one time?’
‘With lifeboats readily available for launching, it is an absolute impossibility, I believe. Now, My Lord, if that is an unsafe ship then you could prohibit her sailing the seas; but our view is (and of course we had before us the records of these boats year after year, we have had in detail the 20 years’ record) that we cannot say that that is an unsafe ship. If you compare the loss of life on that class of ship with a cargo-boat trading across the North Atlantic, with boat accommodation on each side for everybody on board, the loss of life in the emigrant ship, both amongst the crew and amongst the passengers, is a bagatelle compared with the loss of life on the other boat.’
Indeed, out of 32,000 trans-Atlantic voyages in the 20 years preceding the Titanic disaster, there had been only 25 cases in which either the ship had been lost, or lives had been lost. The total number of deaths was only 148—68 passengers and 80 crew. The vast majority of ships crossing the Atlantic in this period were passenger ships, so these figures indicate just how safe the passenger trade had been up to the point when Titanic sank, and why the lack of lifeboats was not felt to be a problem. White Star Line’s general manager, Harold Sanderson, estimated that, ‘nineteen times out of twenty’, lifeboats could not be lowered safely in an emergency situation.
Furthermore, the shipping lanes themselves had been separated between eastbound and westbound in order to avoid collisions; and it was regarded that these lanes were so busy that rescue ships would always be near to hand.
For all of these reasons, the Board of Trade concluded that the onus for large passenger vessels should be on increasing watertight subdivision to keep vessels afloat, rather than on increasing the number of lifeboats, which would be unlikely to save an increased number of passengers in most disaster situations and which were generally only regarded as useful for ferrying passengers to rescue ships standing nearby.
With the benefit of the hindsight which the Titanic disaster has afforded us, we can see that the Board of Trade was wrong in coming to these conclusions. This is perhaps not surprising when one realises that they took their lead from the Merchant Ship Advisory Committee, which was dominated by ship owners, who were alert to the cost implications of providing boats for all on their passenger fleets, and whose passengers liked spacious deck areas for recreation.
If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1