107 #22: Captain Smith should have slowed down for ice

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captain smith titanic

TRUE. But in clear weather, and only if he had actually seen ice in his path and determined that it was large enough to cause damage. Prior to the Titanic disaster, in clear weather, no transatlantic passenger liner captain ever slowed down for ice until they actually saw it. At the inquiry, captain after captain testified to the fact that they would not, in Smith’s position, have slowed down before they saw an iceberg.

Captain Richard Jones, master of the SS Canada, Captain Edwin Cannons, master with the Atlantic Transport Company with 25 years’ experience in the North Atlantic, Captain John Ranson of White Star Line’s Baltic, on the Liverpool-New York run, John Pritchard, former captain of Cunard’s record-breaking Mauretania, and several other captains with long experience of passenger liners and of the Atlantic, all said that it was normal practice to maintain speed even when ice had been reported.

For example, Frederick Passow, who had been a captain on the North Atlantic for 28 years and who had crossed about 700 times, testified:

21891: ‘No. If there was any haze the haze would be seen?’

‘Immediately. As soon as there is the slightest beard on the green light and we are in the ice region we slow down, because you cannot say how far you can see, but when it is absolutely clear we do not slow down for ice.’

However, Ernest Shackleton, the famous polar explorer, said that he would have slowed down for ice; even in a vessel doing only six knots he would slow down. His was the only dissenting voice, however. His experience with ice was undoubtedly much greater than the liner captains’, who all said that it was fairly unusual to find ice so far south in the Atlantic at that time of year. It should also be remembered that in these times before airplanes, competition to achieve fast crossings in all conditions was fierce between the steamship companies, whose passengers demanded speed and consistency. As a liner captain, travelling on the longer, southern route and in seemingly perfect conditions, Smith’s decision was a reasonable one, especially given the extraordinary safety record enjoyed by transatlantic passenger liners prior to the Titanic disaster, and no other liner captain would have acted differently. It was Smith’s misfortune to demonstrate that this common practice was ultimately a flawed one. In his report following the British Inquiry, the Wreck Commissioner, Lord Mersey, concluded:

‘It was shown that for many years past, indeed, for a quarter of a century or more, the practice of liners using this track when in the vicinity of ice at night had been in clear weather to keep the course, to maintain the speed and to trust to a sharp look-out to enable them to avoid the danger. This practice, it was said, had been justified by experience, no casualties having resulted from it. I accept the evidence as to the practice and as to the immunity from casualties which is said to have accompanied it. But the event has proved the practice to be bad. Its root is probably to be found in competition and in the desire of the public for quick passages rather than in the judgment of navigators. But unfortunately experience appeared to justify it. In these circumstances I am not able to blame Captain Smith. He had not the experience which his own misfortune has afforded to those whom he has left behind, and he was doing only that which other skilled men would have done in the same position… He made a mistake, a very grievous mistake, but one in which, in face of the practice and of past experience, negligence cannot be said to have had any part; and in the absence of negligence it is, in my opinion, impossible to fix Captain Smith with blame. It is, however, to be hoped that the last has been heard of the practice and that for the future it will be abandoned for what we now know to be more prudent and wiser measures. What was a mistake in the case of the Titanic would without doubt be negligence in any similar case in the future.’

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